Time is a Tense Ecosystem: An Interview on Power and Time (Part II)

By Jonathon Catlin

The first part of the interview can be read here.

JC: Theorists of history such as Koselleck have explored the multiplicity of historical times captured by Ernst Bloch’s notion of the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen). Koselleck pursued this through the metaphor of temporal layers or “sediments of time.” You quote Sebastian Conrad to this effect on “layers of time that pile up and interact…scales [that] coexist, and complement each other” (26). Your notion of chronocenosis seems to go further, emphasizing the competitive relation of temporal regimes: Time matters because temporal clashes and antagonisms play an essential role for the legitimacy or downfall of regimes. While conceptions of modernity rooted in the Atlantic Revolutions emphasize rupture symbolized by the adoption of new, secular calendars, Koselleck’s conception of modernity centers on the formation of nation-states and emphasized the acceleration of time, the formation of new “collective singulars” in forward-looking concepts like progress and history itself. Modern time as rupture, then, versus as progressive continuity. But you try to scramble this dichotomy: “revolutions are far from the main occasion on which time and power collide, wrap into each other, disentangle and redesign everyday life. Indeed, often-conflictual regimes of temporality suffuse even the most stable of political states,” for “every established political regime, every sovereign, pursues continuity—often even eternity—and to do so negotiates its relationships with other established forms of time” (7). Could you elaborate on these less obvious temporal clashes?

DE: First, I’d just point out how spatial representations of time—sediments, layers, etc.—naturally translate into a sequential model of temporality. In some respects, that is a conception of historicity as periodization, and many of the categories we used to periodize history embed within them a particular historical regime (perhaps none so clearly as “the Middle Ages” as Kathleen Davis has discussed).

Revolutions can certainly contribute to this impression of history as a sequence of distinct periods. At least from the French Revolution onward, it is part and parcel of revolutionary political culture to assert a new beginning, a new regime, even a new calendar. But what the French Revolution really inaugurates is a redistribution of historical regimes. Conservative thinkers and politicians, from Burke and Maistre to Metternich and Thiers, would orient their political and historical thought around the French Revolution just as much as progressive writers. Even among those sympathetic to la grande Révolution, there are rival accounts: Lamartine defends a Girondinist history, where Buchez and Roux (editors of the Histoire parlementaire) recount a history much more favorable to the Jacobins. Already during the French Revolution, political rivalries were often expressed through feuding historical narratives. Camille Desmoulins mounted his attack on Robespierre’s policies in a short-lived journal called Le Vieux Cordelier, a celebration of the “old” Cordeliers club’s politics. Robespierre responded by tying Desmoulins’s ally Danton to a long list of revolutionary traitors, starting with Lafayette. Revolutions weaponize history; revolutionary feuds are often over clashing accounts of what happened, and of how the present moment connects to different pasts and points to different futures.

But to get to your question, it certainly isn’t only during revolutionary times that we witness this profusion of warring historical regimes. In her chapter on Supreme Court jurisprudence, Kristen Loveland shows how the justices use—and choose—precedents to conjure up a sense of authoritative neutrality. And yet, as she shows, justices routinely dissent from each other’s reading of historical precedents, and string together past cases to reach different conclusions. These conflicting versions of legal history reflect very different accounts of past decisions, inform present ones, and shape different projections of the future.

SG: Indeed we try to scramble that dichotomy of “modernity as progressive continuity” versus “modernity as rupture or as series of ruptures.” I like the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” motif as much as anyone (and even more so Blumenberg’s playful addition, the “non-synchronicity of the synchronous”) but as you indicate, since Koselleck it’s a certain geological metaphor that has gradually taken hold. Temporal clashes, like Dan just discussed around revolutions, don’t work well at all in either of those models. This is where our approach to chronocenosis comes in: temporal regimes have competing, cooperative, collateral, conflicting relationships with one another. We describe them as a tense ecosystem.

An example of a temporal clash: think back a year ago, when Covid first hit, and it was impressed upon all of us that we perhaps already had it, had caught it a few days earlier, but it wouldn’t show at first, and then a few days in (3? 5? 10? who knew? who could test?) a patient would become symptomatic and then there would be multiple stages, the inhuman course of disease taking over the body, but meanwhile the patient could or would have infected others, perhaps before symptoms appeared, who would follow entirely different temporal courses of disease. All the while, different governmental actors enforced divergent regimes, tweets punctuated time, graphs showed a linear upward curve, and so on. If someone’s family lived in a different place, you might hear them say, “they’re two weeks behind us right now,” while e.g. Italy was two weeks ahead. Different communities would be hit differently, often depending on how home and work was organized. To read the numbers of hospitalized patients, or of the dead, was to look back a couple of weeks, to a moment of infection, and to imagine probabilities and courses of infection in “the now.” New York was living in a complete chaos of temporalities, as everyone tried to figure out whether and how to retain or replace existing ones, all in the middle of a “rapid” lockdown and those awful, near-“constant” sirens. Every new message inflicted scary information, true or false. When was all this happening? What time did one inhabit? Was it the same time as that of one’s intimates? Did kids inhabit the same time as adults? Did the aged? Did pupils after the school closures experience, thanks to Zoom, a fundamentally different sort of time pressure? Who did not find the shock of the moment to be concomitant with religious language (and zombie movies)? Even climate change (the apocalypse of our time?) had not succeeded in convincing political leaders that our time was falling apart, and Covid did. So, to what extent had Covid inflicted an irregular collapse of particular established temporalities, such that the law would be affected one way, medicine in several others, work time clashed with “essential worker” status and with medical rhythms, and so many borders—national, political, corporeal—were themselves in each case differently affected? This is what I meant before by repeating the “fragile consensus” term in describing the present: now it was broken. Every email, their tempo ever more punctuated, began by bemoaning “these extraordinary times,” or its author would scramble (at least I did) for a better term than “crisis,” given that at least since 2008, the language of crisis had itself become ubiquitous.

I hope the Covid example doesn’t come off as glib; it is intended to evoke the vivid kinds of temporalities that different people, institutions, were forced to confront—temporalities and rhythms clashing from the intimacy of the body to the grinding-to-a-near-halt of global capitalism. Our point is that such temporalities existed and competed already. The body’s time is distended by overwork; the body’s time is itself not simply one; intimate spaces and moments exist in the absence or presence of disease and certainly the omnipresence of digital organization; the temporalities of law and labor, the theologies of the time that remains. There are correlations between these temporalities and power dynamics. These correlations need to be studied further, and historians are well placed to do so.

And just to take us back to the book: several essays in the book, besides those mentioned already, handle other chronocenotic situations. Jamie Martin writes of the shifts from economic theories focused on the business cycle to economics of crisis and back to cycles in the decades around 1900; these were theories designed to deal with policy, uncertainty of current events, prediction, and so on. Andrea Westermann’s essay confronts the temporality of plastic on its way to becoming a geological factor. In a philological coup, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite discusses the invention (and backdating) of the expression “Long Divided Must Unite / Long United Must Divide” in China as a seventeenth-century mechanism for handling an ongoing dynastic collapse and replacement that contributed to the “cyclical view” of Chinese history. Our introduction glances at the competing and often conflicting temporalities of 1789, while Dan’s essay considers the different kinds of economies—political and emotional—that can be discerned in Revolution, with the attendant temporalities.

NW: Yes, it’s a great prompt, Jon, and let me chime in with a different sort of example: Australia in the 1990s. As counterintuitive as that may sound, it is a good illustration of one of those unexpected temporal clashes inside relatively stable states. If my chapter in the book explores how indigenous land rights movements produced temporal chaos for settler law in this moment, the legal story is in fact only one dimension of a larger recalibration of geopolitical, colonial, environmental, and spiritual temporalities. Their volatile interaction quite fundamentally rezoned the settler state in time and space. As mining and development projects on the “resource frontier” made questions of land ownership acute, a groundswell of indigenous activism and landmark court cases challenged and ultimately transformed the “origin story” of the state, drawing attention to the fundamental criminality (land grabbing, dispossession, and genocidal violence) of its founding. But it wasn’t only that the settler state now required a new historical narrative and ethical calculus, captured so forcefully in Prime Minister Paul Keating’s landmark 1992 “Redfern Speech.” Recognition that indigenous peoples had legally owned the land prior to colonization spurred the consciousness that they had done so for at least 50,000 years. Suddenly, an epic “new” history extended back into the quasi-infinite past, a history that revolved around the intimate and spiritual relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. As Miranda Johnson and others have argued, these new images and stories landed forcefully in a white Australia existentially adrift: as late vestiges of cultural and economic proximity to Britain dissolved, the country sought new ways of understanding itself in the world, in the region, and on the land. Vampire-like, perhaps, many non-Indigenous Australians hungrily appropriated this sacred, ancient past, which seemed to hold out the promise of redemption and meaning at a moment of disillusionment with postindustrial modernity. A mythic, spiritual timescale filtered down into the prosaic everyday; like so many of my generation, for example, I grew up with storybooks of the Aboriginal dreamtime. New selves and national identities emerged (the point, according to Keating, was “to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognise that they are part of us”). Many resisted and contested these changes, of course, railing against a “black armband” view of history, inciting a vociferous cycle of history wars and blunting native title’s radical potential. The moment of reckoning with indigenous rights, then, triggered an ornate chronocenosis involving the whole spectrum of social and political life: from the legal foundations of the state, origin stories, school curricula, and popular culture, to identities, subjectivities, and spiritual experience. The co-constitution of time and power was restructured, although no formal revolution took place. These time-knots and spectacular timescales continue to feature in public debate. In advocating for constitutional recognition, First Nations’ landmark 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, for example, explains that indigenous sovereignty is a “spiritual notion”: unextinguished, it exists alongside crown sovereignty. “How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?”

JC: Building on this, in your introduction you note “moral remainders” of historical injustices whose legacies endure such that they cannot be said to belong entirely to “the past.” At the same time, climate change and other catastrophic threats have entered us into a moral contract with future generations. Campaigns for justice, recognition, reparation, and restitution all delve into the time-power nexus and push legal thinking toward “transtemporal or intergenerational justice that might graft centuries into the same legal present and tie dispersed generations into a common moral transaction” (20–21). Could you speak to some of the ways the volume addresses shifting legal temporalities and perhaps some of their contemporary deployments?

NW: Law surfaces in many guises in Power and Time. Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford explore how the attenuated geographies of empire meant that justice came refracted through attributes of pace and duration—true for “slow justice” (as paper trails and protagonists inched around the globe and court cases stretched out over decades or even lifetimes) as well as “fast justice” (with swift, summary justice in the colonies triggering anxiety about petty despotism and the “constitutional dangers of empire”). Sunil Purushotham, meanwhile, reveals Jawaharlal Nehru’s evolving framing of postcolonial Indian sovereignty as a rich time knot, involving not only the mediation of problems of tradition, modernity, technology, and progress in an atomic age, but also Nehru’s dual practice as historian and historical actor.

But, Jon, you’re right that the urgent political and ethical questions of our own day make the relationship between law, time, and morality especially explosive, as we write in the introduction. The problem of intergenerational justice—facing both forward and backward in time—makes the combustible present one epic, sprawling struggle over the relationship between power and time, from reparations and the Rhodes Must Fall movement to the existential imperatives of climate justice and planetary survival. One can ask: how should we understand the responsibility of present generations for historical injustices like slavery and empire? But that formulation leaves the past at a neat distance, when in fact the heart of the matter is the dense way these processes sedimented into structures that are very much alive and ongoing today, dissolving any easy means of cleaving past from present. Similarly, in considering our moral obligations to future people for the state of this planet, many climate activists respond: “the future is now.” If we have important recent work on global spatializations of justice—I think of Adom Getachew on a “welfare world” and Samuel Moyn on “global subsistence rights”—it is not only the geography but also the chronology of justice that is (or needs to be) expanding. The elongated temporalities of decolonization and climate change render many simple forms of historicism and futurity limp and ineffectual. In their stead, the ethical present balloons out in all temporal directions—a kind of dark sublime—inciting us to live with and in “the past” and “the future” in far thicker ways, and to devise forms of politics adequate to the challenges of that expansive present.

JC: I know Stefanos is particularly fond of neologisms, and the “index of temporal terms” at the end of the book directs us to a number of striking concepts: “antichronism” (abolition of time), “temporal crisis,” “time of disease,” “historicity” versus “presentism,” and, of course, “chronocenosis,” your term for competing and conflictual temporal regimes. How might some of the concept-work in this volume speak to our present moment of intersecting crises?

SG: Don’t blame me! The terms in the index are in circulation already, and most of them aren’t neologisms really. Most are attempts in particular fields to develop a useful approach to temporality that sometimes defends the field and its particularity, sometimes announces a specific way of handling a temporal question. As we invite our readers to work on questions of time once more, these terms declare emphatically that a common-sense or empirical approach to time just won’t suffice. So we don’t shy away from bringing these terms together—because we do think that these terms have to be engaged together, they do their work most effectively together, and they have to be related to one another and often in competition with one another. The languages of time are not snakeskins to be shed as the real thing wiggles out of them; they are the fabric of ideas and social practices.

DE: Hopefully the volume will also serve as a reminder that, to paraphrase a famous French sign about trains, one historical regime can hide another. There’s a certain laziness to popular historical thinking, which can even seep into more academic work. We tend to subsume the present under an omnipotent symbol: the jet age, the age of information, the age of climate change. Each of these symbols encapsulates a tidy little history. The jet age: from the wheel to the ship to the car to the airplane—next up, flights to Mars! Climate change: industrialization, over-industrialization, apocalypse. But these shorthand historical regimes are deployed in mutually exclusive ways. Why worry about nuclear proliferation if we’re going to drown in rising sea levels? Do we still care about traveling to Mars if we’re busy mining cryptocurrencies? I think that one of the most interesting things about our current moment is that the many competing historical visions in circulation don’t share many common reference points. If you go back to the nineteenth century, or even the Cold War, the main rivals for the domination of history were engaged in direct combat, and argued over the meaning of the same events. Today, we have fleeting historical regimes du jour (anyone remember the Population Bomb?), but seem incapable of thinking about multiple historicities that are not parallel and do not always intersect. That seems like an important challenge for future historians to take up—at least according to this account of history.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Book jacket courtesy of Jorinde Voigt.


“‘The Present’ is Merely a Fragile Consensus”: An Interview on Power and Time (Part I)

By Jonathon Catlin

The edited volume Power and Time: Temporalities in Conflict and the Making of History (2020) appeared last year from the University of Chicago Press. The work is co-edited by Dan Edelstein (William H. Bonsall Professor of French and Professor of History at Stanford University), Stefanos Geroulanos (Professor of History at New York University), and Natasha Wheatley (Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University). Power and Time’s seventeen chapters span disciplinary approaches ranging from history, to law, to anthropology, to the history of art, and each illustrates how political authority is constituted through the shaping of temporal regimes in historically-specific ways: The expansionist futurity of the Nazi “New Man” meets the apocalyptic presentism of the Manson Family “cult,” meets the “deep time” of our Age of Plastic. In their introduction, the editors propose a new theoretical model of historical temporality, chronocenosis (inspired by the biological notion of biocenosis), a term which reflects not only “the multiplicity but also the conflict of temporal regimes operating in any given moment” (4). The volume goes on to explore competing orders of time not only as they are reflected in iconic moments of rupture, such as the French Revolution, but also in “silenced clashes” stabilized by often unnoticed but decisive temporal frameworks: “An aesthetics of power and time offers a way for organizing the complexity of power, for locating [its] multiple and conflicting temporal regimes, and for understanding how these get harmonized into a seemingly sinuous, often undifferentiated temporal experience that largely eschews conflict” (37). Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed the editors about their new volume.

Jonathon Catlin: This remarkable volume spans a breadth of geographies, periods, and historical methods so vast that I fear we will only be able to get a taste of them here. Yet all the essays hang together around the common framework of investigating “the co-constitution of temporal and political orders” (3). I wanted to start simply by asking about the origins of the volume and the 2015 conference on which it was based. Why did this set of historical-theoretical concerns strike you when they did as warranting new interventions?

Dan Edelstein: If memory serves, Stefanos and I discovered on a walk around Washington Square that we were both working in this vein. Stefanos mentioned at the time that he’d recently had a very similar conversation with Natasha Wheatley. So in a sense, we all stumbled on the topic independently, which led us to believe that it might be an interesting subject for a conference. And clearly others were also thinking along these lines: Christopher Clark was at the conference and presented his last Lawrence Stone Lecture, an early version of what became the closing chapter of his book Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (Princeton, 2019).

So it is interesting to ask: why was time in the Zeitgeist, so to speak? Obviously there were a number of important works that had paved the way, though some of the most canonical had been out for quite a while: I’m thinking particularly of Reinhart Koselleck’s Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (1979, translated 2004) and François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2003, translated 2015).

I’m not sure there’s an overarching explanation for why, in 2015, many intellectual historians were thinking about political theory in relation to time, but perhaps a partial reason has to do with the fact that it’s been a while since there’s been a “methodological moment” in intellectual history. The major methodological pieces of the Cambridge School were written in the heyday of pragmatics (e.g., Skinner and speech act theory) and structural linguistics (e.g., Pocock and Saussure). Foucauldian genealogies and Begriffsgeschichte have also been around the block a few times. I’m not suggesting that it’s time to throw out the old and bring in the new! But it does seem that there’s a certain periodicity to these kinds of debates and reflections. Notably, we’re not the only ones proposing new perspectives on methodology: Benjamin Straumann recently published a fascinating article on The Energy of Concepts” (2019) that questions whether we should replace our basic Wittgensteinian understanding of concepts with one inspired by Frege.

Whatever the reason, it does seem that the prevailing methods in intellectual history do not accord much room or importance to what we might call the “x-axis” of political thought. Obviously, intellectual historians think about conceptual change over time. But what often gets missed is the role of time within political theories. There are of course exceptions to this generalization—J. G. A. Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment (1975) being no doubt the largest. This particular aspect of Pocock’s masterpiece, oddly enough, did not spark much emulation. In general, intellectual histories, especially of political thought, trace the evolution of concepts between t1and tn, but pay less attention to the embedded narratives or histories that might underpin a concept, organize a theory, or chart a range of potential interpretations.

Stefanos Geroulanos: That’s my memory too (of how we came to the subject). For my part, I was bothered by a certain static quality characteristic of histories of concepts, a kind of inertia that shadows the privileging of “big concepts,” that stabilizes them into the same well-known periodizations. I had started thinking about the figure of the “New Man” and the role it has played in revolutionary circumstances, aesthetic politics, and also scientific policy. What did it mean that people proposed to build a “new humanity,” to change human nature? —when would that humanity be? how did it relate to the revolutionary situation or, perhaps more interestingly, to periods when it was pursued as a scientific goal—which followed an entirely different temporality than the political/revolutionary invocations? What kind of futures were these images of humanity depicted, imagined, promised, painted, sculpted (into stone or metaphorically) and in what relations did they stand toward the present, and to what present(s) for that matter? While Dan was working on revolutions, I was discussing this with Natasha, who was already working on the time of law and on historical right.

I remember returning to Koselleck with a deep sense of dissatisfaction about his famous 1970s essays. His way of working was compelling, yet it simply sapped the energy out of any temporal questioning in subjects and moments that I was interested in—it even foreordained the questioning. Multiple temporalities, acceleration, a certain German-centered vision of the nineteenth century—ok, thanks for the metanarrative, but this is a fully armored theory of modernity, whereas there are so many other spaces to mess around with time. So, where to go? We all seemed to have this desire to chisel at a new chessboard. By the conference in May 2015, this sense that Koselleck et al. insisted specifically on a particular regimen of multiple temporal regimes while most people working on temporality were striking out in different directions felt more intense for me. Caroline Arni had published a spectacular essay on the French Saint-Simonian Claire Démar who committed suicide just after publishing her manifesto; Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov has a different, no less fascinating piece on the culture of birthday gifts to Stalin. Henning Schmidgen had written books—in the plural!—on conceptions of the temporality of the brain—and I love his piece on belatedness and forced synchronicity that we have in the book; Claudia Verhoeven’s essays on Russian terrorist temporality and its “wormholes” had led her to thinking about Charles Manson’s weird theories of time. These divergent approaches suggested a more competitive, conflict-ridden approach to time.

What made the canon all the worse, I think, was the limited range of alternatives: I thought Johannes Fabian’s 1983 Time and the Other (which is contemporary with Koselleck’s early essays)was useful in parsing relations of temporality and power in the anthropological encounter, but then it idealized coevalness rather than leaning on non-coevalness as the basis of all temporal interactions, including in matters of class, race, gender, work, age, and so on. Hartog’s approach to regimes of historicity, which is derivative of Koselleck, intentionally empties out the contemporary moment. So I felt that grasping at a new approach meant thinking with a number of criticisms of these figures. And I kept having that dreary experience where you engage a colleague who looks at you like an alien and a fool because you aren’t starting out with E. P. Thompson’s classic article, or with memory studies, or slams the hammer that you must begin with Heidegger or Benjamin or in fact with Koselleck and Fabian. But you’re no longer sure where to start out, there’s so much to work with, you’re not sure how to frame particular problems of interest, and the more you read the more the ground keeps giving. It is urgent to get time and its connections to power right. That was the coalescence of impulses for me.

Natasha Wheatley: One way of gathering together some of these themes, to riff on what Dan and Stefanos have already said, is that we had each stumbled into problems in which time seemed central, but not at all in its usual methodological guise of context, or anachronism, or change over time, or modern acceleration, and so on. Time wasn’t the property surrounding the object in question, but rather a constitutive feature of its internal architecture. Simplistically put: we were pursuing not so much a regime in time, but time in a regime. We were all hungering after ways of conceptualizing and approaching problems of that sort. And we wanted to do so dialogically, to think and exchange broadly with others in different fields and disciplines, and to hopefully generate new methodological oxygen and energy. I see the project as an opening, an invitation to think with us and the other contributors about the things power does with time. A volume with all the doors and windows left open.

In my own case, I’d come to such questions through an interest in law and time. A whole array of temporal operations are integral to law’s functioning and its authority, from its reliance on continuity to its formal use of analogy (which, legally speaking, collapses differences between times and places). Especially dramatic in this regard are understandings of sovereignty, which often comprise doctrines of perpetuity or immortality—something like a philosophy of history contained in sovereignty’s conceptual structure. I wanted to analyse what legal regimes presumed about and required of time—how they stretched it and collapsed it, arranged it and consumed it—in ways that were constitutive of their power and authority. I’ve found the history of science more methodologically generative and inspiring than a lot of intellectual history for problems of this sort, with its focus on what we might call the preconditions of truthiness—its attention to the internal truth structure of disciplines and fields and knowledges. I’m playing around with ways of drawing that sensibility into legal and intellectual history. Indeed, you see the influence and imprint of the history of science—and of anthropology—throughout this volume. Not least in the pieces on regimes of inquiry, whether Jamie Martin on the temporal imaginary of economic knowledge, or Joanna Radin and Emma Kowal on the time of the freezer and the “cryopolitics” of indigenous blood samples suspended between life and death, or Maria Stavrinaki on prehistory and/as posthistory and “apes and caves and bombs.” We’re all experimenting with different ways of cracking open the problem of time, reaching for a methodological expansiveness and subtlety capable of capturing the sorts of conjunctures we encountered in our research.

JC: I appreciate the way you collectively explore temporal regimes and their conflicts from the bottom-up, asking, “How is the fantasmatic unity that permeates most temporal experience made possible, and which frictions and chasms does it paper over?” (4). This question goes back to Kant, who answered in his First Critique, if not quite satisfactorily,that “time is the form of internal sense,” the synthetic apprehension upon which unified, conscious experience is based. Though time is the currency of historical analysis, historians have not always interrogated their (modern, Eurocentric, etc.) assumptions about time; hence your stated goal for the volume is “to relocate questions of temporality from the esoteric margins to the center of modern historiography” (4). “Temporal” and “global” turns in history were already proclaimed a decade ago, but you regret that “history writing on time has not really harassed the central categories of the discipline. ‘The past’ that historians supposedly study remains largely unchallenged in its meaning, ‘the present’ always too clear” (5). Instead, you write, “what we usually call ‘the present’ is merely a fragile consensus, a silenced clash,” and the same goes for naively accepted past presents (27). If this is the case, you write, the “presentism” diagnosed by François Hartog and others “is an illusion” (34). Do historians need a stable conception of “the past” they are analyzing? Is identifying one possible, or even desirable, in light of your volume?

SG: When we begin working on a particular subject, or within a certain framework, different agents and institutions fill these temporal categories of past and present with meaning in very different ways; they think in different scales, experience different kinds of temporal continuities, are perhaps differently traumatized, and so on. So: no, historians need the exact opposite of a stable conception of “the past” and the same goes for other temporal categories, “the present” included. Ethan Kleinberg has written more beautifully and effectively on this than I can. It would be unfortunate (intellectually, politically) for the discipline to pretend that the past is a single past. Or that the same moment even, examined at different scales, in different documents, or across different actors, is in fact the same moment. Why would anything different go for that awkward nexus we call “the present,” this moment we ourselves begin from? Just as you suggest, with reference to Kant, we all have some sense of the present, of time passing now; debates in the philosophy of time going back to Aristotle and Augustine have tried to deal with this problem. But as we detail in the introduction, this is indeed something of an illusion—not necessarily a bad one, just one that ignores all sorts of ways in which our temporal experience is synthesized out of very different temporal regimes. The way I would abbreviate our argument in our introduction is that the present, any present, involves the silent clash or fragile consensus you mention.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Book jacket courtesy of Jorinde Voigt.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Bruce Buchan & Silvia Sebastiani on Race in the European Enlightenment

Bruce Buchan is an intellectual historian whose work traces European political thought through the experience of empire and colonization in the era of Enlightenment. His recent publications include, An Intellectual History of Political Corruption (2014), and Sound, Space and Civility in the British World, 1700-1850 (2019), as well as special issues of Cultural Studies Review (2018), Republics of Letters (2018), and History of the Human Sciences (2019). His most recent papers appear in the Journal of the History of IdeasIntellectual History ReviewModern Intellectual History, and Cultural History. Bruce has held visiting professorships at the University of Copenhagen (2015-16), the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (2017), and most recently was a Fernand Braudel Senior Research Fellow at the European University Institute in 2021. His forthcoming books include a new edited collection, Piracy in World History (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), and a monograph with Linda Andersson Burnett entitled, Racing Humanity: Education, Empire and Ethnography in Scotland’s Global Enlightenment, c. 1770-1820 (in late 2022).

Silvia Sebastiani is associate professor at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, where she teaches research seminars on Enlightenment historiography and on race in early modern period in Europe and European empires. Her publications include The Scottish Enlightenment. Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress (2013), awarded of the “István Hont Prize” for intellectual history, and the co-editon of Negotiating Knowledge in Early Modern Empires: A Decentered View (2014), Simianization. Apes, Gender, Class, and Race (2015), L’expérience historiographique (2016), as well as the “Forum” on  “Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment” in Modern Intellectual History (2014) and the special issue on Les vitrines de l’humanité in Passés Futurs (2019). Sebastiani has spent the academic year 2017-2018  at the Institute of the Advanced Study, Princeton, as a member of the School in Historical Studies. Her new book on Race et histoire dans les sociétés occidentales (15e-18e siècle), co-authored with Jean-Frédéric Schaub, will be published in September 2021. She is now completing a monograph on the boundaries of humanity in the Enlightenment, focusing on how the great ape contributed to the shaping of human and social sciences.

Buchan and Sebastiani recently spoke with Nuala P. Caomhánach about their article “‘No distinction of Black or Fair’:The Natural History of Race in Adam Ferguson’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2) and is currently open access.

Nuala P. Caomhánach: Although predominantly known for his contribution to the civic tradition of Scotland’s Enlightenment, your essay highlights how Adam Ferguson’s pedagogical activity, as a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, was a site of ongoing reflection, reorientation, and a testing ground for his studies on the boundaries of human variation and diversity especially with regard to the category of race.  The focus on analyzing lecture notes is striking as you demonstrate how Ferguson’s thinking on race vacillates over time, is suggestive rather than conclusive, and stands in sharp relief to how he omitted this category from the Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). In thinking about the placement of Ferguson within the intellectual tradition, the focus on his lecture notes suggests a desire to decolonize his published works. First, why do you think race as a category has been dismissed as a minor thread in Ferguson’s thought? Does this reflect on the historical field itself as a whole, and/or does it highlight the kinds of archival material that are examined and are more “acceptable” within the field? In providing ample evidence of how his lecture notes reveal the tension about racial categories for Ferguson, are you suggesting that key historical actors in intellectual thought need to be re-evaluated, and if so, to what end?

Bruce Buchan & Silvia Sebastiani: It would be fair to say that race has tended to be marginalized in the history of Europe’s Enlightenment, not just in Ferguson’s own thought. Although there have been studies, since the post-World War II period and in particular since the 1970s, highlighting how racial categories are constructed at the very moment when the universal and natural rights of “man” are affirmed, it is only in recent years that the racial question has been placed at the center of research on Enlightenment. Our interpretation of Ferguson is not just a matter of decolonizing intellectual history by drawing greater attention to race in Enlightenment thought, as important as that is. For us, race was part of elaborate patterns of thought linking it with historical categories (such as civilization, savagery, and barbarism), and with natural historical frameworks for taxonomizing nature, connecting human populations with climates, geographies, and diseases. Race therefore is not just an important concept in its own right. In the eighteenth century, “man” was included in natural history, and classified as the rest of natural world, such as flora and fauna. This “naturalization” of humankind went hand in hand with its historicization. By emphasizing race, paying greater heed to its articulation in the period and to the questions it raised for intellectuals such as Ferguson, for us is crucial in the continuing quest to properly interpret Enlightenment thought in general. 

Silvia has been working on the implications of this approach for some time, and has made such a significant contribution to the intellectual history of Scottish Enlightenment thought in her The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender and the Limits of Progress (2013). Here she elaborated the connections between race and a range of other concepts, such as gender and nation, that were used to distinguish between human groups, and to make hierarchical prioritizations of some over others. This is what makes the concept of race in Ferguson’s teaching so important for us. Ferguson has previously been interpreted, as you suggest, as a distinctive contributor to a civic tradition of thought by integrating virtue and corruption with stadial historical schemes that charted universal stages of progress from savagery to civilization. Ferguson has also been read, as he was by Karl Marx, for his early formulation and criticisms of the division of labor, and thus of the “progress” of civil society. In both cases, Ferguson’s thought has been viewed through a politico-economic lens, tending to obscure the pivotal contribution of natural history in his construction of knowledge. What we want to show in our paper is that Ferguson’s approach was built on models of natural history then developing in Enlightenment Europe, and that the dialogue with Buffon’s work was central. This shift of emphasis, we believe, has important consequences in the interpretation of Ferguson’s thought.

It was Ferguson’s natural history of the species that enabled him to connect virtue and progress, savagery and race, and this was the framework that he presented so vividly in his lectures on moral philosophy. While it is true to say that race does not occupy a central place in Ferguson’s published works, its prominence in his teaching is a feature of his intellectually distinctive blending of natural history with stadial historical thinking. And we know, as we suggest in our conclusion, that this is precisely how Ferguson was read by those who made colonial voyages and sought to interpret non-European and First Nations peoples according to ideas of race drawn from natural history, and presumptions of savagery dependent on stadial history. This is unfolding research that Bruce Buchan has also been conducting with Linda Andersson Burnett (at Uppsala University), and some of that work can be accessed here.

To return to your question about methodology, our paper is a contribution to the extension of intellectual histories that seek meaning from more fragmentary sources. It would be fair to say that conventionally, intellectual history has sought to trace repertoires of meaning in sources that were made available in quite restrictive contexts. One restriction has been the overwhelming focus on published or unpublished manuscripts—complete works that can be traced to distinct authorship and identifiable readerships. It is not hard to understand why intellectual historians should prioritize such sources, because they offer concrete conceptual or argumentative formulations that allow influence and interpretation to be reconstructed. Nonetheless, this focus reinforces a spatial confinement matched by the preference for complete products of thought, typically published texts. This approach to intellectual history has been extremely fruitful, but it tends to treat its subject as an existential whole, a finished product that allows sources of influence to be traced from histories of development toward that finality. We don’t for a moment suggest this approach is misguided. We endorse and apply this technique, but we also see the potential in less conclusive and more fragmentary sources (such as Ferguson’s lecture notes) to broaden the interpretive possibilities for intellectual historians. This necessarily involves more tentative conclusions, but for us the value of such sources lies in their ability to peer behind the monumental figures of intellectual history, the great minds or influential texts, to engage with the persistent doubts and the frank speculations retailed to other audiences. In Ferguson’s case, to his students.

There is a growing literature focusing on the importance of handwritten notes in the Enlightenment era, alongside the printed text, and on the need to take into account the materiality of different ways of constructing knowledge. Compared to the printed text, the notes reveal other elements of knowledge construction. We don’t mean to say that the notes allow historians to see things better; but to see them otherwise. This is why it is useful to combine the two approaches together. The educational dimension of the notes is another crucial aspect to be stressed, as Craig Smith has masterfully demonstrated. Indeed, his book on Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil Society (2019) is a fundamental contribution to this field. We could only use the book marginally because it was published when our article was already written, but we would like to acknowledge our debt to his work and the parallels between our approaches and arguments. Historians of the Scottish Enlightenment have long emphasized the crucial contribution made by Scotland’s universities in providing an institutional framework for the intellectual dynamism of the era, but scholars are yet to fully explore the content of what was taught, how it was taught, and what former students did with the ideas they imbibed. And here we think it is important to emphasize that today as much as in the past, the widest audience that most scholars ever reach is made up of the students they teach. Ferguson was evidently proud of his achievements as a teacher, which we think is at least implied in Henry Raeburn’s portrait of the then retired Professor in the early 1790s (see above). Here Ferguson chose to be painted flanked not only by his various elegantly bound publications, but by two very thick volumes of his manuscript lecture notes on moral philosophy. For us, paying heed to teaching makes empire and colonization (and hence race) unavoidable features of the intellectual history of Enlightenment thought.

A last point should be emphasized. Until recently, historiography has focused almost exclusively on An Essay on the History of Civil Society, which indeed was a crucial contribution, but not the only one Ferguson made. He construed history in different ways and with different tools, including lectures, while addressing diverse audiences. He was more versatile than is often acknowledged. In his long life, Ferguson pursued a varied career as soldier, clergyman, librarian, and professor both of natural philosophy and moral philosophy, also joining clubs and debating societies. We believe it is important to take into account the multiplicity of contexts in which Ferguson participated. This also means that intellectual historians need to articulate how the Scottish, the British, the European, the imperial, and colonial dimensions all nourished Enlightenment debates on humankind and its history. Our own and others work on Ferguson appears to confirm that natural history shifted into raciology in the years between 1780 and 1800. By then, race had become a major concern all over Europe and throughout European empires. Yet Enlightenment thought provided no single solution to the question of race (and there has probably never been agreement on this imaginary, but terribly powerful category). The tension about racial categories that runs through Ferguson’s work can be found in other literati, more or less explicitly. Despite that uncertainty, race emerges in this period within natural histories and taxonomic classification, as much as within philosophical and universal histories of civilization, as an attempt to explain the unequal progress of human societies. These approaches are entwined and should be studied as such. It is within this complex and heterogeneous framework that we suggest the need to re-evaluate key historical actors in Enlightenment thought. Our aim is to show that there is an unresolved tension between universalism and hierarchy in Enlightenment thinking, which continues to spark controversy around the world today.

NPC: In what ways did incorporating natural history imbue a scientific authority to Ferguson’s arguments? Why was Ferguson so reluctant to articulate a theoretical framework without having all the “facts” or empirical data, as he seemed to want to stay within the descriptive and collecting stage? Was he, in essence, waiting for all the data to be gathered before leaping from speculation to empirically supported theory? I am curious in what ways Ferguson’s Christian beliefs were filtered through a natural history lens, for example, the compatibility of a Biblical insistence on monogenesis, and whether this was in part a reaction to  Rousseau’s dismissal of the authority of the biblical account of Man in Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755).

BB & SS: Some elements of this question have already been addressed in our previous answer: the relationship between natural history and stadial history is both complex and crucial. We’ll just make two observations here, but our answer could be much longer! First, the historiographical revolution during Europe’s Enlightenment is based on providing “evidence,” that is, verification borne out of the critical analysis of sources. This is an aspect of Enlightenment thought that Arnaldo Momigliano emphasized many years ago. The aim of Enlightened historians, certainly those in Scotland such as Adam Ferguson, was to write “scientific” history, which responded (as they saw it) to laws of nature and was based on “facts.” Ferguson participated here in a larger reflection in which the Bible was questioned as a historical document (despite its centrality in Scottish Calvinist society).

On the other hand, however, the defense of biblical monogenism remains crucial, as you rightly point out, but this was not done on the basis of the authority of the sacred text itself, but on scientific reasoning. This was why Ferguson placed such an emphasis in his lectures on seeking to trace on the effects of climate, diet, and terrain on human individuals and their societies. By doing so, Ferguson once again blended diverse sources, combining speculations derived from Montesquieu’s climatic theory, with the archaic Hippocratic-Galenic doctrine of temperament, and very contemporary medical suppositions about the environmental determinants of sensibility. By drawing on and coordinating such sources together Ferguson presented human beings, and human races, as subjects for natural historical inquiry—the model for which was supplied by Buffon. Identifying Buffon’s influence on Ferguson enables us to pay closer attention to the complex relationship between race and history. There is a tendency, thanks to the pernicious influence of the doctrine of scientific racism in the late nineteenth century, to regard race as immutable, as resistant to historical malleability. The relationship between race and history is more complex in the late eighteenth-century context, and especially in Ferguson’s teaching. The complexity emerges when we pay attention to Buffon’s key concept of race as a product of degeneration from an initial prototype. Degeneration and improvement are articulated together in Ferguson’s history of civil society. Understanding their connection means that we need to confront race as a key concept in Ferguson’s history, and in Enlightened historiography more generally.

That Ferguson could engage so closely with natural history might also be seen as a feature of his Presbyterianism. Long before he won fame as a Professor of moral philosophy and exponent of Enlightened history, Ferguson served almost 10 years as a chaplain to one of the most famous Highland regiments raised to keep watch on the rebellious clans. His first publication was a sermon, delivered in Gaelic to the troops, on the need for loyalty to the Hanoverian dynasty and the British state. Right at this early stage in his career, Ferguson saw no inherent conflict between Christian faith and a commitment to history, or more specifically, to the civilization he believed history had unfolded and embodied in the British state.

If there was no inherent tension between history and faith, he did not see one between history and nature either. This is where the figure of Rousseau looms into view. Ferguson’s disagreement with Rousseau, as Iain McDaniel has shown, was drawn out over a number of objections, yet for us the key point of rupture is over the question of a dichotomy between nature and history. Such a separation was affirmed by Rousseau, for whom human sociality is an artefact of the history of society rather than part of the nature of human beings. By contrast, Ferguson followed Buffon and Montesquieu in reaffirming the social dimension of humanity. It was one of Ferguson’s foundational convictions, reiterated again and again in his lectures, that “man” is born into society and is only capable of realizing “his” humanity in networks of social interactions. These relations could be either harmonious or antagonistic (indeed, his thinking mirrored Kant’s formulation of the “unsocial sociability” of humankind), but in both cases affirmed the inherently and inescapably social nature of “man.”  Ferguson followed in Buffon’s footsteps in distinguishing “man” by both physical and moral characteristics, and by a need for society, outside of which “he” would never be able to survive. It was thus useless to multiply conjectures and hypotheses, as Rousseau had done: society was neither artificial nor contractual, but grounded in nature. Human progression did not need any external or accidental circumstances to set it in motion. This is why art is “itself natural to man,” as Ferguson stated at the outset of his An Essay on the History of Civil Society. In so doing, the distinction between nature and artifice, upon which Rousseau had constructed his entire system, was annihilated: civilization did not produce anything which was not already contained in human nature (an aspect on which Silvia is doing some further work now).

Timeline of history in Ferguson’s 1780 article History (2nd edition of Britannica).

NPC: Ferguson’s time as secretary to the ill-fated Carlisle Commission highlights the role of colonial policy and sources in his thinking about the nature of humanity and race. It was striking how Ferguson confirmed that warfare was an index of historical progress. Do you think that Ferguson was justifying colonial violence in the Americas? It is clear that the peoples of America were troubling within Ferguson’s schema, and it required him to question the role of latitude, the temperate zone, and name these peoples as savage. This outlier seems to highlight his unwillingness to question the supremacy of white Europeans. How was Ferguson so certain about delimiting Europeans as superior, yet have such immense uncertainty in classifications of race? Did the debates about colonial spaces and humanity concern Ferguson about the future of the colonies, and (white) mankind?

BB & SS: Ferguson’s attitudes to empire and colonization were troubled and troubling, to say the least. On the one hand, his publications evince a healthy skepticism toward the moral claims made by empires, seeing in them engines of moral corruption, domestic tyranny, and rapacious conquest abroad. There are many passages in his works that might also suggest that he made claims against Britain’s Empire. Yet Ferguson’s career exemplified a consistent, indeed persistent, attachment to the material interests of Britain’s Empire. At least part of the reason for his prevarication, we think, is that Ferguson had a life-long attachment to war, and a deeply sentimental appraisal of the moral character of warriors, ancient and modern. This is a complicated story (on which Bruce has done some work in the past and is doing further research at the moment), but to cut a long story short, Ferguson viewed warfare as an index of civilization arguably more reliable as a guide to historical progress than mores, manners, or systems of government. If, in the course of historical progress, the brutal wars of Europe’s archaic, Homeric past had been civilized by modern laws and “lenitives” (to use Ferguson’s own phrase), warfare had also become less personal, detached from martial virtue. This was the challenge that Ferguson confronted in the “militia debate” of the 1750s and 1760s (about which John Robertson and Richard Sher have written): how to integrate the virtues of the archaic warrior in the context of modern civilized war? It was a challenge that spoke to his own experience as a Scotsman of Highland birth, a Gaelic speaker, who served in a Gaelic-speaking Highland regiment in service to the British imperial state. It was a challenge posed by European colonization in the Americas, and by conflict with First Nations warriors, who, Ferguson reflected repeatedly in his An Essay on the History of Civil Society, represented a model of “savage” martial virtue that “civilized” Europeans had lost. Ferguson did not say too much more than that about European pretensions to any rights of conquest, or about its actual conduct in the Americas or elsewhere, but it would be fair to conclude that he was aware that colonization was as much a moral as a military challenge; one in which the claims of First Nations warriors deserved to be taken seriously.

Against that backdrop, then, his late career sojourn to America with the Carlisle Commission presents another aspect of Ferguson’s thinking on war. Though the Commission deserves to be seen as a failure and a farce, Ferguson’s role in it deserves careful consideration. Whether or not he was an active participant in the Commission’s deliberations, he later explicitly affirmed its members’ decision to threaten a suspension of the laws of war in Britain’s conflict with its former American colonies. As Ferguson saw it, the colonists were “rebels” who had allied themselves with Britain’s archrival, France, and therefore had placed themselves beyond the bounds of the laws of war. Ferguson did not expand on this reasoning in his lectures, but his interpretation of the European tradition of writings on the laws of war since Grotius did make clear that “rebels” had no status among legitimate belligerents at war.  Here again Ferguson took part in a more general debate to be taken into account in Scotland, Europe, and beyond.

Ferguson had more to say about the conduct of the American war for independence much later in his career, but we think it is significant that his American sojourn left an imprint in his lectures in respect to his presentation of race. In this connection we would draw attention to two features of his thinking. First, that his manifest interest in the climatic determinants of race (though he frankly admitted uncertainties on this score) made him amenable to the already centuries-long anxiety that colonization would expose Europeans bred in more temperate climes to degenerating heat, cold, or humidity. Ferguson accepted the legitimacy of this concern, but he used his lectures in particular to emphasize the advantages presumed to accrue to the “European race” from their temperate climate, above all in supposing it bestowed greater ingenuity. It was for this reason that he argued Europeans were able to modify the worst effects of climate and thus to temper the potential for racial degeneration.

While these arguments can hardly be described as novel, we think their significance lies in their connection to a second aspect of Ferguson’s thought after he returned from America: his interest in the historic role of colonization. He was, of course, later to write on this in his celebrated History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783). In his lectures, however, he elevated the ability of humans to form “settlements,” and to colonize new terrains, as an integral feature in the natural history of humanity—an exemplification of the progress humans were fitted by nature to make in taming nature, securing themselves, and extending their conquests. This is why we see Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy as such an important source of insight into his thinking at a time of considerable conceptual change in Scottish thought generally. It was here, in his lectures, that Ferguson taught cohorts of students to approach the great moral questions of their times, about war, colonization, and the fate of empire, through dual lenses of both history and natural history. By drawing them together and presenting them to his students, Ferguson sought nothing less than to illuminate the capabilities as well as the limitations of the races of “man.” 

Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Featured Image: Portrait of Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) by Henry Raeburn, c. 1790. Courtesy of the University of Edinburgh.

In Theory: The JHI Podcast

Sebastian Veg on China’s Grassroots Intellectuals

Guest host John Raimo interviews Sebastian Veg, professor of the intellectual history of twentieth-century China at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science (EHESS) in Paris, about his book, Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals (Columbia University Press 2019, and paperback 2021).


“Creating Public Opinion, Advancing Knowledge, Engaging in Politics: The Local Public Sphere in Chengdu, 1898–1921,” The China Quarterly, vol. 246, forthcoming (June 2021).  

Resisting Enchantment, Questioning Aestheticism: Modern Chinese Literature and the Public Sphere,” Critical Inquiry, Volume 46, No. 3 (Spring 2020): 536-554.

The Rise of China’s Statist Intellectuals: Law, Sovereignty, and ‘Repoliticization’,” The China Journal, vol. 82 (July 2019), p. 23-45.

What Role Will Intellectuals Play in China’s Future?” Chinafile, 31 July 2019.

 “Debating the Memory of the Cultural Revolution in China Today”, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 8 August 2016.

John Raimo, a founding editor of the JHI Blog, is finishing a dissertation on Czech, French, German, and Italian publishing and ideas of European culture between 1945 and 1970.

What We're Reading

May Reading Recommendations

Pranav Jain 

Jack Tannous, The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society, and Simple Believers (Princeton, 2018) 

This extraordinarily erudite book asks big questions and offers even bigger answers. Its aim is nothing less than to explain the “nature and significance of non elite Christianity and the mechanics and pace of Christianization/Islamization.” (xiv) Regarding the former, Tannous’s main contention is that the late antique/early medieval Middle East was home to many “simple believers.” As he explains: 

“The great majority of Christians in the Middle East, I will suggest in Part I of this book, belonged to what church leaders referred to as ‘the simple.’ They were overwhelmingly agrarian, mostly illiterate, and likely had little understanding of the theological complexities that split apart the Christian community in the region. ‘Simple’ here does not connote ‘simple-minded,’ as it might in some varieties of English, nor should it be understood as a category restricted to the laity: there were monks, priests, and even bishops who were simple believers. The men who wrote the texts we study lived their lives among these simple believers: they fed them and ate with them, they prayed with them and for them, they taught and healed them, and they had the responsibility of pastoral care for them. A key to understanding the world that the Arabs found is the recognition that it was overwhelmingly one of simple, ordinary Christians; and that it was a world fracturing into rival groups on the basis of disagreements that most of those Christians could not fully understand.” (3) 

With relation to the origins of Islam, he suggests that putting ‘simple belivers’ at the centre of analysis leads us to ask very different questions: “…what does putting the simple at the center of our story do for our understanding of the world the Arab conquests created? For the moment, we can make a slight (and as we will see, provisional) change to the question we have been asking. The question now becomes: What happened when a politically dominant religious rival to Christianity appeared in the Middle East, one whose strongest theological criticisms of Christianity centered on doctrines—the Trinity and the Incarnation—that simple believers could not understand fully or properly?” (221) 

As a non-specialist, I am not qualified to judge the merits of Tannous’s arguments within their historiographical context. However, the range of the book’s evidence and arguments makes it worth reading for any historian of religion, regardless of what period/religion they work on. I personally found it very interesting to see how historiographically different debates about late antique Christianity/early Islam are from my own field of study (early modern Europe), even though, in a broad sense, both fields are trying to ask similar questions about the nature of religious belief and the relationship between complex doctrines and everyday practices. My only qualm is the single mindedness with which Tannous pursues his arguments. Though he certainly gets his points across, I was left with some doubts about how fair his characterization of the work of his fellow scholars was. Regardless, a very rewarding read! 

Nuala Caomhanach

Machines are like techno-shadows to humans. Like a visiting guest that overstays their welcome, we enjoy them for a wee bit, get bored of them, wish they would get lost, then freak out when we do lose them, then become nostalgic when they are gone. Machines seem to cohabit, to parasitize but are symbionts to our lives, we created them but fear they may destroy us. Machines are our companions here to stay. Uber uses machine learning for estimated time of arrivals for rides, UberEats for delivery time, planes have autopilot (as far back as 1914!) of which up to seven minutes are human powered. All aspects of our lives are infiltrated by machines and artificial intelligence. After attending In our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Humanities hosted by the National Humanities Centre I started to read more about the social and political implications of machines and artificial intelligence in our lives. **Of course the algorithms behind the online books I choose to read highlighted other similar books–thanks machine learning technology. Let’s not ask did I have free will here at all. That’s for the next reading recommendations!**

Meredith Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World (2018) along with her New York Times piece “When Algorithms Give Real Students Imaginary Grades” is a good place to start as Broussard has a knack of grounding the sociological analysis in an accessible technical account of the major computational processes involved in machine learning. This book is non-technical reader friendly. The book maps out the socially-constructed nature of technologies that are inevitably embedded with the cultural and political values of their designers, developers and programmers. Ever think about how most “robots” are female, Amelia, Siri, Alexa etc. especially those who are designed to serve us humans? Broussard’s engrossing book demonstrates how machine learning–which is a model of making predictions based off pattern recognition within reams of data –simply perpetuate structural social inequalities, such as racial discrimination. By sharing her own experience as a data journalist and programmer she explains how these biases need to be consciously designed out of the system. At the heart of her argument is the issue of the failure of self-governance within the tech community that has led to an urgent need for ethical and legal education of developers. Her work adds to the critique of not only the tech “bro” culture but also how this techno-chauvinism permeates the coding of artificial intelligence. 

Two books explore the myth of technological neutrality—the notion that technology and tech creators are neutral actors free of impolict ethical and moral dimensions and values: Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (2019) and Safiya Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018). As noted in my introduction, as technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous we hear of more and more troubling tech incidents, such as facial recognition softare claiming to know if you are gay, or Google photo labelling Black people as gorillas. Many scholars are questioning the exalted status of technology in society. Benjamin explores the ways in which modern technology creates, supports, and amplifies racism and white supremacy. She provides stacks of evidence for her argument–from robot labour and predictive policing systems to AI-judged beauty contests–hence broadening the tech term “coding” away from its narrow meaning within computer science to the way in which races, ethnicity, and names are themselves code and are coded with important information. Her central argument is that we are living in the ‘New Jim Code’ era where technologies replicate existing inequities and hide behind the modern vision that machines are more objective than humans. Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression (2018) focuses on the use of the internet and search engines, especially Google search, by applying an intersectional analysis of racial, ethinic and gender. In this fascinating book, Noble unmasks the Wizard of Oz– the human(s) behind algorithmic-driven software, artificial intelligence technologies, and computer-generated automation. She demonstrates how search engines structure knowledge, reflect racialized cultural, social, and economic values, and ultimately legitimize dominant group ideologies that oppress marginalized racial identities. All our interactions with information are heavily curated and mediated and propagate cultural stereotypes, particularly Black culture. She highlights the real issue in society is that we take for granted that information is reliable and credible because it’s just there for everyone to access. 

Taken together these books highlight, as a matter of human rights, that individuals and groups lack control over how personal information is indexed, studied, stored and who has access to it. They all suggest that the importance of human-centric design and human-machine collaboration is required to counterbalance the inherent biases within coding and the male-dominated tech world. Each author offers a provocation or solution to this issue of corporate control over public access to information. For Broussard, there may be better and more obvious low-tech solutions–for example, greater investment in public edition, or transportation. Noble and Benjamin envision an ethical algorithmic future and offer practical solutions, for example, challenging the privatization of the internet , they advocate for government regulation to break up large tech monopolies that threaten democracy in the information sector and call on public policy to foster noncommercial search engines and information portals. 

If this is an area of interest, look out for Wendy Chun, “Red Pill Toxicity, or Liberation Envy” Discriminating Data (The MIT Press, forthcoming) and have a read of Mar Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing (next on my list). 

Shuvatri Dasgupta 

Françoise Vergès, A Decolonial Feminism (Pluto Press, April 2021)

In this powerful text, the author brings out the intersections of anti-patriarchal and anti-imperialist politics through the category of ‘disposability’. Vergès illustrates how capitalism functions by oppressing women of colour more than white women. Although the labor of women of colour is crucial, capitalists keep these forms of labor invisibilized, maintaining its alliance with hierarchies of race, ethnicity, and nation. As a result, their labor becomes as disposable as the waste they clean. Using this as a point of departure, the author identifies the exploitative agenda behind the universalising rhetoric of ‘civilisational feminism’, and calls for us to evolve a decolonised pedagogy for gender history, and women’s political thought, as a means to decolonise feminism. Moreover, she makes a compelling case for what she terms as ‘multidimensional’ feminism, which goes a step forward from existing discourses on intersectional feminism. This interview and this article both provide short overviews of her larger arguments. 

In the interview she responds to the question: what does it mean to decolonise feminism?

“…(to decolonise feminism)…is to reclaim the forgotten and [hidden] history of racialised women’s fights. Women of colour are fighting not only for equal rights but also against exploitation, injustice, and oppression. Women in the Global South have always been in the front lines of feminist fights, yet their voices are never heard unless they’re instrumentalised. You have to uphold their voices, to read their material, to recenter their narratives.” 

After this extremely thought provoking read, I found myself reflecting on the existing works of intellectual history which attempt this task of decolonising women’s political thought. What immediately came to mind was Milinda Banerjee’s monograph titled ‘The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India’. This subversive intellectual history of sovereignty provides a framework for decolonising political thought on one hand, by looking at vernacular registers of the idea in South Asia. On the other hand, the author looks at women’s discourses on sovereignty, and queenship, thereby foregrounding women’s voices in his non-Eurocentric conceptual exploration. There are two other works which attempt a similar task. These include the 2015 classic titled ‘Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women’, co-edited by Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage; and secondly, the more recent volume titled ‘Women’s International Thought: A New History’ co-edited by Patricia Owens, and Katharina Reitzler. To say that Vergès’ book is inspiring and thought-provoking is utterly insufficient. It is a call to action. It is an invitation for us to formulate solidarities as we collectively seek to evolve decolonized anti-capitalist pedagogies of feminism and gender politics. On that note, next on my reading list is Sylvia Tamale’s Decolonization and Afro-Feminism, which recentres the concept of ubuntu as social justice, instead of the Eurocentric discourse on human rights, as the epistemic tool for uncovering the history of African women’s thought and activism. These works all bring to the fore voices and ideas of those women whom civilizational feminism had marginalised, and whose radicalism neoliberal capitalism had disciplined in its attempt to canonise women’s thought. 

Jonathon Catlin

Since living in Berlin for the better part of the past two years, I have followed ongoing debates about Holocaust memory and antisemitism in Germany. The latest round of debates can be said to have begun May 17, 2019, when the German parliament voted to endorse a resolution calling on cities and states to withhold public funding from institutions, organizations, and individuals affiliated with the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) toward Israel. In December, 2020, a letter jointly authored by the Weltoffenheit (world openness) GG 5.3 Initiative, which comprises the heads of many of Germany’s major cultural and academic institutions, denounced the resolution as “detrimental to the democratic public sphere” and warned of its negative impact on the free exchange of ideas. That same month, the Bundestag’s scientific service department ruled that the resolution was not legally binding, as it would violate the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, the resolution left its mark and has been widely implemented. Some have claimed the resolution has led to “an expansive culture of fear and inquisition” in Germany, while one of Germany’s leading scholars of Holocaust memory, Aleida Assmann, proclaimed, “a spectre is haunting Europe: the accusation of antisemitism.” One month after the BDS resolution was passed, Peter Schäfer, a non-Jewish scholar, was forced to step down as director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum after the museum retweeted an article about a petition critical of the resolution signed by 240 Jewish studies scholars. About a year later, in April, 2020, the Cameroonian-born postcolonial philosopher Achille Mbembe, who had been invited to give the keynote lecture at the Ruhrtrienale culture festival, was charged with harboring antisemitic views, supporting BDS, and “relativising the Holocaust.” Germany’s federal commissioner for Jewish life and combating antisemitism, Felix Klein, called for Mbembe to be disinvited, but the festival was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic; in turn, hundreds of defenders of Mbembe from both African and Jewish/Israeli backgrounds signed petitions calling for the resignation of Klein and a restructuring or abolition of the new post he holds. The ensuing “Mbembe affair” in the summer of 2020 involved many of Germany’s leading intellectuals. It has reactivated older “Anxieties in Holocaust and Genocide Studies” concerning other genocides and colonialism. It is too soon to say how the debate will resolve and how its history will be written, but it has already been indexed in an English-language forum in the Journal of Genocide Research introduced by Dirk Moses and Ulrike Capdepón and featuring responses by leading scholars of history and memory, including Aleida Assmann, Natan Sznaider, Irit Dekel and Esra Özyürek, and Susan Neiman.

The debate has been mired with hostility, accusation, and defensiveness—especially in light of the latest conflict in Israel/Palestine—but it has also produced a number of important reflections, ranging from thoughtful to provocative, that are essential reading for anyone wishing to understand contemporary Holocaust memory and debates about antisemitism in Germany: Michael Rothberg’s “The Specters of Comparison” and “‘People with a Nazi Background’: Race, Memory, and Responsibility,” Rothberg and Jürgen Zimmerer’s “Enttabuisiert den Vergleich!” (Abolish the Taboo on Comparison!), Dirk Moses’s “The German Catechism,” and Fabian Wolff’s reflection on being Jewish in Germany, “Only in Germany.” The clash between these international or marginal thinkers and the mainstream German press has revealed a deep cultural rift and highlighted the historically understandable particularity (and provincialism) of German memory. As Sznaider noted, both sides of the debate have suffered from a tendency to universalize their particular point of view. A few years on from the launch of her book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, Susan Neiman, a Jewish-American public intellectual who has worked in Germany for many years as director of the Einstein Forum (to see how much has changed since the 1980s, read her memoir, Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin), reflected that in light of the latest debates her book may have been too praiseworthy about German society’s capacity of self-criticism and accepting responsibility. Having been called antisemitic for her role in organizing the Weltoffenheit initiative, she doubts whether such German-Jewish luminaries as Hannah Arendt or Albert Einstein would be allowed to speak in Germany today, given their criticisms of Israeli policies. “Caught in the shame of being descendants of the Nazis,” she writes, “some Germans find it easier to curse universalistic Jews as antisemites than to realize how many Jewish positions there are.”

Featured Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Novel Reader. 1888. Courtesy of WikiArt.


Adorno and the Ban on Images: An Interview with Sebastian Truskolaski

By Jonathon Catlin

Dr. Sebastian Truskolaski is Lecturer in German and Comparative Literature at King’s College London and the author of Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury, 2021), which traces the trope of the biblical ban on images of God (Bilderverbot) in the work of Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) and a number of his interlocutors. Its three chapters investigate Adorno’s “imageless materialism,” “inverse theology,” and “aesthetic negativity,” which together “reorganize Adorno’s uneasily systematic ‘anti-system’ around the notion of imagelessness” (8). While Adorno adhered to the maxim that “one may not cast a picture of Utopia in a positive manner” (140), his late work suggests that “successful” works of art “negatively intimate an ‘imageless image of Utopia’” (146).

Sebastian Truskolaski, Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury 2021).

Grounded in nuanced close readings, the book also illuminates the status of theological figures in critical theory after they have “migrat[ed] into the realm of the secular, the profane” (81). In Adorno’s thought, Truskolaski ultimately finds “a restless and incessant dismantling of established philosophical dogmas that throws into relief a mode of thinking, and—by extension—living, that escapes the violence and coercion of the present” (13). Adorno’s “labour of critique,” the book suggests, holds open a “caesura” in “which a life free from domination might become conceivable” (151).

Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Truskolaski about his new book

Jonathon Catlin: Your book sets out from the biblical story of Moses breaking the tablets containing the laws he received from God on Mount Sinai. Moses then destroys the idol of the golden calf the Israelites made to worship in his absence. It has been argued by the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842–1919), among others, that the ensuing ban on material images makes Judaism a “philosophical religion” and its god an “intellectualized” one (3). In their 1944/47 Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) invoke this conception of Judaism as an antidote to the mythic, dominating, and instrumental rationality they identify with fascism: “‘The disenchanted world of Judaism’, we are told, ‘propitiates magic by negating it in the idea of God’” (4). Could you give us a brief history of this figure, and speculate a bit about why two secular, materialist philosophers might have turned to it in that dark hour?

Sebastian Truskolaski: The origins of this figure, as you rightly point out, lie in the Old Testament—specifically at the point in Exodus when Moses (upon receiving the tables with the Ten Commandments) reproaches his brother, Aaron, for encouraging the Israelites to worship an idol. On one level, the point is simply that intermediaries, such as the golden calf, are insufficient for capturing God’s transcendence. This is a foundational precept of biblical monotheism: there is one God, whose laws—including practical directives for proper worship— are absolute. God resists representation by earthly means.

There is another point here, though, which has a wider philosophical resonance. Such a view of a transcendent Absolute runs contrary to what one might call an “animated” view of the world. To put it bluntly, if the one true God demands exclusive worship and resists capture in the form of an intermediary, then: (a) This rules out the possibility of “magic,” as apparently practiced in various nature religions—at least according to Freud, whom Adorno cites on this point; and (b) It casts doubt on the truthfulness of “images” more generally. Images come to appear as partial, even deceitful attempts to enter into a relation to what might loosely be dubbed “truth.” In a sense, this recalls Plato’s famous cave parable: submitting to the “charismatic power of the idol” is akin to accepting the veracity of the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. From this viewpoint, what is philosophically at issue in the biblical commandment against idol worship is negotiating what a more emphatic concept of truth might entail. On the one hand, the banning of images asserts the power of reason by disenchanting the images’ claim to capturing the Absolute. On the other hand, it comes up against the difficulty of how to adequately construe a relation to what these images apparently miss. Versions of this problem have been taken up by a wide range of thinkers over the centuries, including—significantly for Adorno—leading figures from the German tradition. Kant, Hegel, and Cohen, for instance, all cite the image ban in connection with Judaism at prominent junctures in their writings (for instance in Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime”).

I think it’s fair to say that, for all their differences, these thinkers invoke the Bilderverbot to explore a shared question: What are the possibilities afforded by reason for entering into a relation to truth, be it in epistemological, ethical, or aesthetic terms? Adorno takes this question very seriously. However, he reads it in light of what he and Horkheimer call a dialectic of enlightenment (or of reason, if you will). For Adorno, the outlawing of images appears as an early instance of a rationalized approach to the world; but such an approach—or so the argument goes—always already contains its opposite. Reason reverts to unreason. To the extent that Adorno’s philosophical project turns on trying to immanently short-circuit this dynamic so as to arrive, prospectively, at a lived form of rationality beyond what he calls “identity thinking,” the Bilderverbot serves as a kind of case in point. Can this figure, which is implicated in the very dynamic it’s trying to overcome, serve as an occasion for the immanent critique of reason as such? On this point Adorno is close to Marx, to cite another thinker who was fond of citing the image ban: if pre-empting the shape of a world beyond suffering and domination limits the possibility of meaningful change, then the path to societal transformation must lie in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” It’s about weighing what reason promises against its inbuilt limitations. In my view, that remains a timely task.

Gustave Doré, Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law, 1866. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

JC: You write that “Adorno openly heeds the verdicts of his intellectual forerunners Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, arguing that ‘positive religion has lost its (. . .) validity’; that ‘[t]raditional theology is not restorable’” (6). Indeed, Adorno sees the waning of religious authority as an opportunity for critical thought. Yet he also derives an important insight from religion: “a refusal of the sense that that ‘which merely is’, is, in fact, everything” (6). Given Adorno’s skepticism of positive religion, what status do theological tropes or images in his thought hold? Can we call them merely metaphorical if they seem to play an indispensable role in his project?

ST: On my reading Adorno is a resolutely secular thinker, which makes the conspicuous recurrence of theological figures in his work surprising (at least at first glance). Religion and theology are, for Adorno, superseded forms of rationality—stages in the dialectic of enlightenment. However, insofar as these stages are conceived of dialectically, each of them contains a seed of truth. The yearning for transcendence is potentially emancipatory, but it too runs the danger of reverting into its opposite. The image ban might thus be read as an expression of the sense that something more may be possible, even if the particular shape of a truly liberated condition cannot be fixed in extant terms. As soon as one imagines something like a utopian land of plenty, this possibility is inscribed into the very structures it’s trying to overcome. Jürgen Habermas calls this a performative contradiction (Adorno’s thinking appears to him as suffering from a normative deficit). The point about the place of religion in Adorno’s account is to do with the broadly Weberian view that capitalism usurped the traditional place of religion in modernity, albeit with a certain modification. On this point, I follow an argument developed by Sami Khatib in his book Teleologie ohne Endzweck (2013). Khatib cites Benjamin’s fragment, “Capitalism as Religion,” arguing that Weber’s argument works in two ways. Through the usurpation of religion under capitalism, the positions of the old world-religions also shift. Accordingly, capitalism advances both the sacralization of ostensibly non-religious terrain and the profanation of a realm that was hitherto called sacred. Religion is entstellt, dislocated. This means that, in a peculiar historical twist, profaned religious terms gain a kind of afterlife in the critique of what, following Benjamin, one might call the “capitalist cult religion.” The image ban retains its propensity for gesturing towards something beyond the status quo; but it’s a beyond that must emerge from the immanent critique of the present, rather than as a divine incursion from “out there.”

JC: Following Georg Lukacs’s (1885–1971) quip that the Frankfurt School took up residence in the “grand hotel abyss,” Adorno has been derided for his supposed apolitical quietism and pessimism by critics ranging from Jürgen Habermas, to Hans-Jürgen Krahl, to Jacob Taubes, to Giorgio Agamben. Your book defends Adorno against their various charges, presenting his thought as a rigorous “effort to safeguard the minimal space within which something like a radical societal transformation might yet be thought”—namely by resisting capitulation to or apologia for the “administered world” of the society in which he wrote (6). How does re-centering Adorno’s work around the Bilderverbot bring out a less “resigned” Adorno?

ST: As you note, there’s long been a tendency to deride Adorno for his supposed quietism. For all their differences, the critics you cite share the view that it is impossible to conceive of something like societal transformation in Adorno’s terms. However, it seems to me that this misses something quite fundamental, namely that Adorno wants to completely overhaul the very terms in which we conceive of something like politics. Adorno is attempting to recast—from the inside out (ohne Leitbild)—structures of thought that he sees as co-extensive with the subjugation of difference. On the one hand, Adorno sees these structures as emerging from the material history of humankind, the speculative pre-history of subjectivity outlined in Dialectic of Enlightenment. On the other hand, it is precisely these structures of thought (what he calls “identity thinking”) that enable and sustain not only epistemic forms of violence, e.g., the subsumption of particulars under universals, but also the very real erasure of difference in, say, the Nazi death camps. Politics is what would follow from the very far-reaching effort “to think thinking differently,” as Derrida puts it with reference to Adorno; it means the prospect of difference without domination. But since the particular shape of a thinking that would undergird such structures cannot be pre-empted without being complicit in the problem it is trying to remedy, it follows that this “utopia of cognition” cannot be pictured. So how else does one arrive at such a position? For one, instances of what Adorno means flare up, albeit negatively, in modern works of art. In their own paradoxical way, works art stages what Adorno means by politics but cannot allow himself to spell out. It brings Adorno into an improbable connection with Heidegger, I think: short of a fully-fledged rethinking of thought itself (in its connection with lived reality), any talk of “politics” is bound to reproduce the injustices of the present.

JC: You’ve also co-translated, with Paula Schwebel, the forthcoming English edition of Adorno’s letters with Gershom Scholem that Asaf Angermann edited in German. These letters show Adorno reframing his negative dialectics for an eminent scholar of mysticism. You quote Adorno claiming, in a 1967 letter to Scholem, that his dialectical materialism, based on “the preponderance of the object,” defies any dogma or fixed worldview yet “warrants an affinity with metaphysics (I would almost have said theology)” (7). As Adorno similarly writes in a passage of Negative Dialectics (1966) that is central to your study, “At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology” (10). Scholem had already described Adorno’s 1951 Minima Moralia as a work of “negative theology”—a view Adorno found objectionable, but which has nevertheless spurred a stimulating discussion of resonances between these traditions. How has this exchange shaped your understanding of Adorno’s use of theological tropes?

ST: To me, the most interesting thing about the Adorno-Scholem correspondence is the way they approach each other’s projects from their particular disciplinary standpoints. It is characteristic of Adorno that since he cannot allow himself to positively articulate certain concerns, he has to circumscribe them; and, for this purpose, he often expresses similar points in a variety of different registers—philosophy, sociology, musicology, art/literary criticism, etc. He talks around the issue, casts it into relief. In the letter to Scholem that you note, he is, in effect, reframing the basic tenets of his negative dialectic in broadly theological terms. For instance, “theology” and “metaphysics,” as Adorno presents them, come to coincide because, ultimately, they are both chapters from the aforementioned dialectic of reason. They contain partial articulations of a “truth” that Adorno wants to present in terms of what he calls materialism, which is a version of the non-coercive thinking I mentioned earlier. The point about negative theology is interesting: on the one hand, it appears that Adorno’s resistance to picturing the Absolute is akin to saying, via negativa, that God is only what is not not. However, I think Adorno’s objection to this classification is understandable to the extent that negative theology, properly speaking, is still a full-blooded theology, whereas Adorno is not making a case for the existence of God—negatively or otherwise. In a 1934 letter to Benjamin, he insists, instead, that his position is better characterized as an “‘inverse’ theology,” which goes back to the point we discussed earlier concerning the dislocation of religion in the present. This is a “theology” only in a very qualified sense. I prefer to think of it as a terminological peculiarity that follows from a diagnosis of the historical currency of theology in capitalist modernity. Adorno assigns a peculiar afterlife to theological terms. The central points of reference are Kafka and Benjamin, rather than any established theological tradition. The flipside of this is that negative theology comes to play a prominent role in Jürgen Habermas’s criticism of Adorno. “God,” on this reading, is forever out of reach; and, to the extent that “God” might be substituted here with a less loaded term (say, politics), this is precisely the disqualification of Adorno that I try to argue against.

JC: Let’s dive into that critique of Adorno. Habermas figures in your book because, in a 1981 profile, he pejoratively described his mentor’s thought as a “negative theology”: His negative dialectics being without normative foundation, “Adorno is […] left with nothing but a vague longing’ for an amorphous ‘wholly other’” (73). One accomplishment of your book is, to put it polemically, to reclaim Adorno from followers of Habermas. You are not alone in worrying that “the reception of Adorno’s work has long been dominated by a slightly singular interest in questions of normative legitimacy,” an approach with a “broadly liberal” rather than revolutionary political orientation, which also sometimes diminishes Adorno’s work by seeing it as merely “a prelude to the achievements of the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation” (8). Your attention to aesthetic dimensions of Adorno’s distinctive language and style (and not only his objects of inquiry), as well as your willingness to take theological motifs seriously, rub against the grain of prevailing “analytic” interpretations. Could you situate your work in Adorno studies and speak to some promising directions the field might take in the future?

ST: It’s true that I’ve tried to steer clear of the focus on normativity that—in my view—has (somewhat unduly) come to dominate Adorno’s reception today, and that seems to me to be a particular preoccupation of figures from the orbit of the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation. In the first instance, I’ve attempted a sympathetic reconstruction of Adorno’s position on its own terms—and that includes engaging with the eccentricities of his “style.”

I believe that Adorno’s difficulty is essential to his project, rather than being a mere obstacle to understanding something he might’ve said more clearly in his lectures, or an occasional piece for a newspaper, or in a radio lecture. The point, for me, is that his main concerns are not independent of their articulation. It’s all a matter of presentation, Darstellung. The issues play out at the level of the text—that’s why they require close readings, or even a broadly deconstructive approach. I’m not convinced, for instance, that there’s much to be gained by trying to translate Adorno into terms that would be recognizable to many mainstream anglophone philosophers today. It’s partly a political point in the sense alluded to earlier: as I see it, Adorno was not principally interested in, say, legitimating democratic institutions through recourse to the power of the better argument. (That may have been true of Adorno the citizen, but it doesn’t seem to me to follow from his published works, whether that reflects his intentions or not.) As I mentioned earlier, the kind of politics that I see as following from Adorno’s writing turns on a very far-reaching effort to “think thinking differently”—and this is to do, in practice, with destabilizing established intellectual conventions, rather than assimilating Adorno to them (be they liberal, revolutionary, or whatever). One way this seems to be playing out in practice is by trying to imagine what “identity” of an altogether different stripe might look like, thinking with and beyond Adorno. That was something I took away from the workshop series on Adorno and Identity you co-organized this year: it’s important to imagine how thinking “differentiation without domination” plays out, politically, in terms of race, gender, or sexuality.

JC: I know you’ve also spent a good deal of time in the art world, along with doing your degrees in fine arts and visual culture at Goldsmiths. Your third chapter focuses on the importance of art in Adorno’s thought, showing that “for Adorno the significance of art lies precisely in the fact that it eludes theorization while, at the same time, demanding it” (134). You go on to explain how it is that “artworks speak,” seeking to express “what has become opaque to humans in the language of nature” (142). For Adorno, works of art express a “truth content” and have a “cognitive character” (135). It’s interesting to recall here that Adorno first studied to become a composer in the tradition of the modernist Second Viennese School. I was struck by the fact that Adorno still refers, in a 1963 essay, to Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron (1932) as “sacred music” (55). What is at stake for you in this category after, as Adorno writes, “a secular world can scarcely tolerate […] sacred art” (53)? Can art still provide, like Kafka’s Odradek, a “photograph of earthly life taken from the perspective of the redeemed” (56)?

ST: Adorno’s wager seems to be that “advanced” works of art are paradigmatic—if paradoxical—products of capitalist modernity, self-conscious instantiations of the commodity form. As such, he suggests, they enact—at the level of form (e.g., through the interplay of their compositional elements)—a relation that anticipates what, elsewhere, he describes as a state of “differentiation without domination.” In his more pointedly philosophical writings, this is coded in terms of the subject-object relation; in his philosophy of history, it’s thought of as the dialectic of nature and culture; but in his aesthetics, it’s to do with a particular attention that works of art require so as to discern from them something that points beyond the present condition. Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is an interesting example for Adorno, not least because the image ban is at the heart of the libretto. In a secular world, the opera cannot function as a work of sacred art, properly speaking; but the very fact that it poses questions as to the possibility of such art in the twentieth century is a testament to art’s enduring striving for something “more.”

It’s a productive kind of failure. The point about Odradek—the central figure from Kafka’s “Cares of the Family Man” (1919)—is related insofar as it serves as another occasion for Adorno to outline his “‘inverse’ theology.” The formulation you cite (“standpoint of the redeemed”) occurs several times in Adorno’s writings. It suggests a contradictory topography: how can Adorno presume to speak of a divine perspective given his self-professed abidance by the image ban? The point, I think, is to do with what we said earlier: for Adorno (via Kafka and Benjamin), theology is dislocated, entstellt. The polarity of sacred and profane is short-circuited so that the “messianic light” that he occasionally invokes does not shine from some transcendent beyond, but rather from within the cracks and deformations of the present, e.g., in certain works of art (including, significantly, those by Kafka). To put it differently, Adorno collapses the distinction between town and castle in Kafka’s Das Schloss  (1926). There is only life as it is lived in the village at the foot of the castle, if you will.

19 December, 1919 printing of Franz Kafka’s short story, “Die Sorge des Hausvaters,” featuring the mysterious figure “Odradek,” in the Prague-based newspaper Selbstwehr: Unabhängige jüdische Wochenschrift. Wikipedia.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured image: Theodor W. Adorno, courtesy of DPA, pixelated by the author.