Think Piece

Old Ships, New Harbors

By John Raimo

Transatlantic Theory Transfer: Missed Encounters?, a wonderful conference held last weekend at Columbia University’s Deutsches Haus, explored the American reception of key twentieth-century German thinkers. So capacious a theme may seem untenable at first, and so indeed it proved in the best possible way. Every paper called the conference title into question. Anna Kinder and Joe Paul Kroll began by suggesting how the extraordinarily messy processes of circulation and reception could substitute for clean conceptual ‘transfers.’ These former include an author’s reputation, initial sales figures, publishers’ stature and funds, the sale of foreign rights, government assistance schemes, copyright law, available translators, informal intellectual connections, formal academic networks and US teaching positions, citations and reviews in journals, varying audience interests, and—it may finally turn out—something inherently resistant or hard to assimilate in texts wherever foreign audiences are concerned.

Dr. Joe Paul Kroll
Dr. Joe Paul Kroll

Style and intellectual difficulty as such do not quite catch at that last possibility. To borrow from Tim Parks, could it be that cultural specificity and baggage limit theory’s range just as much as they do fiction, say? And do certain ideas and ways of thinking wholly frustrate effort translation? As per Philipp Felsch and Robert Zwarg, ‘theory’ considered as a genre here opens certain doors while closing others. How does one consider theory as an export or place it on an academic map? How does one narrow it to a disciple or a department, let alone go about teaching it in the university or using it as a means towards social change (as one exhausting debate after another from 1968 onward in such journals as Telos insist)? Moreover, just how far each author identified their writing as ‘theory’—even those within the famous publishing phenomenon of the “Suhrkamp Culture” (as George Steiner termed it)—remains an open question, even if a ready definition could be derived from the ‘theory’ shelves of college bookstores. It may even be that theoretical texts meet wholly different expectations and needs among readers, say social and political ones as Dagmar Herzog reasons happened with the psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich (an eclectic or even incoherent thinker) among the German and American New Left as well as among student movements.

‘Missed’ turns out to be misleading. So too does ‘encounters’ in the briefer or more climactic sense. Figures such as Gershom Scholem, Siegfried Kracauer, Hans Blumenberg, Reinhart Koselleck, Niklas Luhmann, Mitscherlich, Friedrich Kittler, and Alexander Kluge all indeed found interest among certain groups of readers. Yet this happened belatedly and in unexpected quarters just as these thinkers also failed to gain larger traction in America. Their great unspoken counterparts would be the figures associated with the Frankfurt School, including Walter Benjamin, and then ‘obliquely’ theoretical figures such as Max Weber. Wholly ‘missed’ receptions occurred much more rarely, though as Ernst Bloch’s publisher (the great Siegfried Unseld) conceded, they do happen.

Much more interesting and perhaps even common were overlapping, diffused, partial, and blocked receptions. Hence in Scholem’s case, as Yaacob Dweck argues, it might be that a popular reception threatened to overwhelm a strictly academic reception. As Johannes von Moltke suggests in situating Kracauer’s readers, influence can also be so variously pervasive as to become invisible. The failure of an ‘instrumental reception’ can doom a thinker to smaller historical and philosophical readers, as William Rasch believes became the case for Luhmann once American sociologists gave up on what (even admirers will admit) is pretty turgid prose. And ‘homegrown’ thinkers like David Riesman or the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of historians can present such strong affinities to German theorists like Mitscherlich and Koselleck that the latter (fairly or quite the opposite) never gain a foothold. Someone beat them to some of the punches.

Johannes von Moltke
Professor Johannes von Moltke

Similarly, only parts of different œuvres found ready audiences on political, disciplinary, and pedagogical grounds. According to Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Koselleck’s late work garnered relatively less attention than his early studies given how neatly the latter slotted into Cold War categories. Strongly-marked early, middle, and late career stages stretched Kittler between media, communication, and German studies as his commentator and translator Geoffrey Winthrop-Young finds. And for Paul Fleming, another scholar-translator, the lack of a ready “hook,” exemplary methodological statements, introductory texts, or full translations (e.g. of Latin passages, &c.) keep Blumenberg from both undergraduate and graduate syllabi.

Finally, temporality further muddies the picture as concerns de- and re-canonization (just think of used books’ circulation), waxing reputations in America and waning ones in German (and vice-versa), and the sheer speed and availability of good translations. Unsung translator heroes emerge (such as Fleming and Winthrop-Young) as do such editors as Thomas McCarthy of the MIT Press series Studies in Contemporary German Thought. And indeed, several instances of retranslated works or books translated decades after their initial appearance undercut any notion of a flash-in-the-pan trend. One here can also consider a critical interregnum, say regarding an unsettled posthumous status in Kittler’s case or—as Devin Fore, Kluge’s American editor, contends—a strange moment before canonization could or even should occur.

Neither ‘missed’ nor ‘encounters’ quite work. ‘Transatlantic’ fails as well. The incontestable prominence of French theorists drawing on Heidegger, Nietzsche, and other German thinkers makes this a triangular affair rather than a one-way crossing. Similarly, reputations made in the US cross back to Europe and—quite often—migrate south to the Latin American world and elsewhere. Any sense of a clean map or linear narrative explodes.

What then remains to say? Each figure discussed at the conference encountered unique obstacles in finding an American readership. Yet there were also common challenges, as suggested above, and these in turn imply new directions for twentieth century intellectual history. Social and political history as well as the history of publishing, of the book, and even of reading—as Marxist study groups shaded into looser book clubs, for instance—perfectly complement the history of ideas in the postwar period. As far as reception and circulation go, new figures, subjects, and periodizations will emerge in the latter field, now an increasingly and truly global history leading right to the present moment.

The author would like to thank all the participants who granted permission to take their photos (whether used here or not).

Think Piece

Making German history safe

by John Raimo

Can a museum exhibition curate itself? So far as concerns history, the answer would seem to be not quite. Here I am referring to Neil MacGregor’s work at the British Museum, namely Germany: Memories of a Nation—A 600-year history in objects (2014-2015). The show builds on the earlier project A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), a popular radio-series and an accompanying book which draw upon the museum’s holdings. Plaques tied the latter series in to the permanent collection; the former, while also furnishing broadcasts and a book (if not quite an exhibition catalog), came into being as a proper show. The wide response to these projects hint that a trend might be afoot (at least so far as one-upping one hundred objects goes). Objects drawn from a nation or wider field might furnish their own sort of accessible—that is, quite literally concrete—stories of the most open-ended sort.

‘Narrative’ does not quite fit to describe this most basic, traditional tension in museum work. We can leave aside questions of selection, omission, contextualization, and even marketing for a moment. Where does a history told via objects exactly lead us—or what does it lead us past? A linear chronological arrangement or curation would prove hard-pressed to escape a simple progressive history of technology or, perhaps, a most interesting history of global exchanges. It would not give its viewers a material history per say of a country. The most heterogeneous collection drawing from the most disparate sources, regions, and times might also lend the illusion of encompassing inclusion. Yet this too would not quite amount to a social, economic, intellectual, cultural, gender, or even political history in the stricter terms used by historians. Rather, object-driven history allows its curators a neat side-stepping of these issues on the basis of its rhetoric. Cue rather more poetic language: there is a proliferation, constellation, converging, parallelizing, overlaying, implication, and so on of narratives. Far be it from curators to conspicuously impose a historical narrative themselves. (I hope our readers can chime in on the direction of museum studies today on just this note.)

This is a particular problem with German history. MacGregor and his team can be commended for the range of items they have selected for the exhibit. (Who ever knew about Goethite before?) The attention paid to the Trümmerfrauen seemed particularly deft in gauging their iconographic importance both in West and East Germany (see MacGregor’s broadcast here). I also grant a good deal of credit to any curators willing to display several maps and to dedicate cases to numismatics within exhibitions intended to be blockbusters. But the approach they chose only further complicates the history at hand. How easily can past historiography be dismissed when presenting German history to a general public?

The exhibit organizes itself upon the thesis that German history is “inherently fragmented.” Hence the (today de rigueur) ambiguity of the exhibition title: these are different memories of an “unstable” nation in geographical, historical, and political terms. For the exhibition’s curators, continuities and discontinuities frustrate strict chronological accounts. Accordingly, the chosen items readily fall under themes such as “Germans no more,” documenting German-communities in both the former East Prussia and Czechoslovakia for instance.

History as told by the objects, all the objects, and nothing but the objects obscures more than it reveals. In the absence of any chronology whatsoever, the thematic approach coupled with the impartiality promised by the items more often than not fails to invoke much history at all for those coming to it for the first time. For example, a cart used by East Prussian refugees in the wake of the Second World War strikes a touching note—but how well can we understand its importance without reference to the war and the present-day controversies surrounding the German Vertriebene (refugees or expelled persons—this problem of translation alone hints at the politics involved)? Or to broach an overwhelmingly large topic in as concise a manner as possible, just where does one place the Third Reich and the Holocaust in German history? A small exhibit dedicated to the gates of a concentration camp fails rather more than it even should. To my mind, the show ultimately amounts to a single history of Germany—albeit one defanged of difficulty or the need for much interpretation at all.

This is not a call for a museum rehearsal of professional historiographical debates or for a full-throated embrace of historical politics. We don’t need to refight the Sonderweg controversy. And indeed, I would here guess that the British Museum exhibit has been conceived as an implicit rejoinder to the overwhelmingly crass and politicized exhibit at the Louvre ostensibly dedicated to German art. Happily enough, however, some ready counterexamples come forward. The wonderful Time, Conflict, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern (with an excellent accompanying catalog) forgoes a strict chronology without leaving aside politics or more tightly-focused questions of national memory. (The exhibit’s focus on catastrophes and its ranging across several national histories affords another discussion, however.) More broadly-speaking, French museums such as those at Peronne or Caen prove models of involving such historians as Jay Winter (at the former) as curators themselves. The museum-going public rises to any perceived challenge that a more academic-driven historical exhibit might pose.

I look forward to writing here soon about another exhibit, La Collaboration 1940-1945 (about Vichy France), put on by the Archives Nationales. The questions there should prove just as substantial. But to return to the British museum and that ambiguous title once again, one stuck with me: just whose memories of which nation were to be seen there? I can’t help thinking that I and crowds of other people encountered a lot of objects, fewer memories—intact, accessible, or otherwise—and even less history in any graspable sense.


Think Piece

Back in the Sattel(zeit) again

by John Raimo

Where does the historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006) stand in intellectual history today? Among his readers, Koselleck remains a preeminent theorist of historical time and historiography, an innovative figure in ‘conceptual history’ (Begriffsgeschichte), and an accomplished historian in practice, not least in his editorial oversight of the great political lexicon of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1972-1996). The historian’s status in his native Germany seems assured with continuing posthumous publications, scholarly attention devoted to his work, and the opening of his archives to researchers. Koselleck also remains a lively reference point among such thinkers and historians as Aleida Assmann, François Hartog, and Jacques Revel, not least following Paul Ricœur’s sustained engagement with his German contemporary. Translations of his writing (perhaps most prominently in Portuguese) and the practice of conceptual history further contribute to what has become a global reputation.

Speakers at an AHA panel this last weekend discussed the limits of this influence.* Helge Jordheim addressed the continuing feasibility of larger tropes found throughout Koselleck’s writing, most prominently the notion of a Sattelzeit (‘saddle-time) or a transitionary period into political (even secular) modernity roughly spanning 1750 and 1850. The notion of a Sattelzeit itself hearkens back to his earliest work. In his dissertation (published as Kritik und Krise or Critique and Crisis in 1959), Koselleck famously argues that the 17th century absolutist state inadvertently created the first effective, oppositional public sphere in the Enlightenment. This laid the foundations not only of the French Revolution, but also of the liberal subject (as understood today) and of the modern political order which followed. This latter period furnishes the span of Koselleck’s studies in conceptual history, namely programmatic studies of semantic change in key political concepts. Kathleen Davis questioned the consequences for historiography in this broader division, however, and not least in terms of reconceiving the Middle Ages as such. (The triad of antiquity, mediaeval, and modernity also preoccupied Jacques Le Goff to the end of his career, incidentally.)

Koselleck is not a systematic thinker, and he constantly revised his theories. While conceding a theoretical blurriness, the AHA panelists make a strong case that Koselleck’s legacy should be contested and both geographically and chronologically expanded. How far can this be done?

Two notions spring to mind. The first applies to the Sattelzeit thesis and the professional turn to global history imagined by Michael Geyer and Charles Bright among others. Following such historians as Adam Tooze, we might take the 1870s as the starting point for a worldwide convergence of (and converging opposition to) political and economic vocabularies. This is not to advance a theory of modernity, necessarily, nor indeed to dismiss the alternative national histories floating about before, during, or after the period in question. (Here Koselleck’s notion of a modern ‘collective singular’ arising in historical thought also bears upon any reconstructed ideas of progress.) As per Koselleck’s account of conceptual history, both semantic change and the circulation of ideas would prove jagged and asymmetrical in any historical telling. Yet the larger Sattelzeit thesis—when extended beyond Germany—could be tested against any history of globalization or a perceived global condition.

Conceptual history also expands beyond political concepts in Germany. Indeed, the same historiographical approach applies just as easily to larger transnational exchanges. These also prove more expansive in terms of content, finding traction not only in political but also in politicized vocabularies. Carol Gluck and Anne Lowenhaupt-Tsing’s volume Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon (2009) furnishes a wonderful model for global history written in this key.

Another suggestion bears upon a possible conceptual history of human rights. The subject has recently become one of the most formidable and exciting fields in history: formidable, in light of the exacting debates swirling around its origins and character; exciting, in the sheer volume of its historiography today. But where will histories of ideas, of governmental policy, and NGOs now lead historians?

Koselleck’s insistence that circulation refines and changes concepts may afford a broader historiographical frame. Ideas trickle down and bubble back up. Drawn against a global stage, the receptions (plural) of human rights ideas and policies would vary between regions, states, areas, political identifications, and people before returning to political science departments and the occasional history blog. How deep do the archives extend on this score? What sorts of translation occurred within and across languages, which mediums carried the ideas, and how far did global aspects of human rights travel? Is there a social history, a cultural history, a media history, and so on for human rights?

The research program of Koselleck’s great lexicon, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, establishes an initial framework for these questions. The introduction sketches out levels of reception while implicitly tracing an arc of scholarship. Historians begin with ‘classic’ (Klassiker) texts in political theory, philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, and so on—call it the ‘Great Man’ approach to intellectual history—before advancing to ‘widely circulating’ (Streuweite) texts including literature, journalism, pamphlets, bureaucratic records, and scholarship as much as private letters and diaries. This constitutes the great work of archives then contrasted against the third-level of ‘dictionaries’ (Wörterbücher), namely the reference works progressively fixing (or attempting to fix) concepts for each period.

This schema may first appear overly-determined. Yet in practice, the historiography blurs and leads ever outwards. One example for human rights historians in this register can be found in the career of Robert L. Bernstein, founder of the Human Rights Watch as well as the long-term head of Random House.** The publication of dissidents under Bernstein’s aegis might conceivably furnish a history of the book or a literary history for human rights, say, and an account of popular intellectual history of American readers of Soviet dissidents. If Koselleck’s theories and conceptual history indeed open up such new perspectives and even archives for consideration, what other anchors for a global history of human rights can be found elsewhere?

*Please note that the panel was incomplete.
**The author thanks Timothy Nunan for this reference.

Think Piece

Intellectual “Entanglements” and the Status of Modern British History

by Emily Rutherford

In my post about the History Manifesto last week, I wrote that one of the things I want to explore on this blog is the “crisis” in which the national history of modern Britain has found itself in the last fifteen or so years. As the historical discipline has become increasingly global in its outlook, British history rightly no longer enjoys the disproportionate emphasis it once had in North American departments. Now that it is no longer professionally viable for graduate students to focus in this one national field, and thanks also particularly to the theoretical interventions of subaltern studies and new methods in imperial history, it is much rarer to find a North American historian who will take the risk of specializing in British (rather than imperial, comparative European, or Atlantic World) history. (Given its status as the national history, the field is not in anything near the same level of decline in the UK.) Furthermore, it is harder to justify the relevance of studies which focus on actors who had little awareness of themselves as imperial subjects, whose lives were lived largely within Britain and shaped by distinctively British cultural and social factors. I write about people who, while they often corresponded with Europeans, Americans, Indians, and others, lived their professional lives in the Oxbridge-London triangle, rarely spoke other living languages (Latin and Greek were another matter), and only left the UK very occasionally for a lecture tour in America or a holiday in the Alps. It’s all a bit… parochial.

Still, I’d like to say a little about a new, very global, even anti-British-history, book that unexpectedly offers some opportunities for historians concerned with telling stories about intellectual cultures distinct to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain. Kris Manjapra’s Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire, published by Harvard last year, undertakes an exciting experiment in deciding deliberately to leave Britain out of a story of encounters between German and Indian intellectuals in the period roughly 1880-1930. Indeed, argues Manjapra, Indian and German intellectual relationships in a variety of fields, from experimental science through philology and psychoanalysis to visual art, were formed in explicit opposition to a perception of British hegemony around the globe (9). He traces significant and surprising connections among both left- and right-wing ideas, which eventually had major consequences for European and world politics. German Orientalist scholarship produced in collaboration with British imperial agents was adopted by the Nazi ideology of Aryanism; an anti-imperialist discourse in which German and Indian Marxists participated had unintended consequences in fascist theories of Lebensraum. But before the rise of the Nazi Party, German “post-Enlightenment” thought and Indian collaborations carried the possibility of a third way for imagining the global order, between Western European liberalism and Soviet communism—potential that was eventually firmly eclipsed by the the Cold War’s binary division of the world and the rise of a “Third World” discourse to which India was consigned (276, 290). Manjapra deftly maps these rapidly-shifting political stakes through the first decades of the twentieth century, in the process making a good case for intellectual history’s ability to demonstrate how the unintended consequences of ideas can bear a causal relationship to world-historical events.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid how Britain as a national category and British actors who helped to broker connections between Indians and Germans haunt Manjapra’s account. There were two particular examples that grabbed my attention. First, the famous German philologist and Sanskritist Friedrich Max Müller took on Indian students and played a pivotal role in founding an academic school of German Orientalism whose fate in Germany and India Manjapra traces throughout the book. But Max Müller did his work in England, in Oxford, surrounded by English as well as German and Indian students and colleagues, in a rich intellectual and cultural context that bore a closer and more complicated relation to British imperialist, anti-imperialist, and simply-apathetic-to-imperialism thought than Manjapra seems to want to let on. Second, in a smaller episode, Manjapra describes Freud’s correspondence with the Indian psychoanalyst Girindrasekhar Bose, who along with other Indian psychoanalysts infused Freud’s ideas with classical Indian philosophy, creating a new form of psychoanalysis with a particular nationalist valence. But Bose did not know German: he and Freud corresponded in English, using not Freud’s own jargon but the English translations James Strachey had created, such as “id” and “ego,” and in the process telling the historian a great deal about what a British or English intellectual context might have to do with this Indo-German encounter.

In the story of Freud and Bose, Manjapra says that English functions merely as a “trade language” (225), but there is much more than this to be said about the role of a distinctively British intellectual context and actors who operated in relation to it. Manjapra and other historians have redrawn maps of geopolitics and intellectual encounters that destabilize uncritical assumptions of Britain’s centrality and relevance, but there’s no reason that British historians should not regard this as an invitation to reformulate and strengthen claims for the relevance of the British context to understanding transnational episodes in intellectual history such as the late-nineteenth-century development of philology or psychoanalysis. In the process, my suspicion is that it will become clearer how British historians’ rich understandings of the cultural milieux in which such ideas were developed can aid in understanding their movement across borders; what forms of intellectual and cultural exchange were practiced between British and German writers and academics (an under-examined topic in this period); and perhaps also what relationship there is between imperial might and less hierarchical forms of international intellectual relationships like those Age of Entanglement seeks to describe.