Book Forum: A Practical Past Beyond the Historical Past?

by guest contributor Sophie Marcotte-Chenard

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

In a book impressive by the vast array of themes, authors and traditions from which it draws, Jeffrey A. Barash proposes a dense reflection on the theoretical and practical aspects of collective memory, its symbolic institution in the public sphere, and its scope in contrast with what he calls the “historical past.” Barash’s inquiry plays on these two levels: the specificity of the distant past on the one hand, and the conditions of the lived experience given through collective remembrance on the other. The advantage of latter is that it escapes the problem of the remote past, which only exists through the operation of the historian. The specific object of history—the past—is by definition a reality that ceased to be. Therefore, we have a better chance to grasp memories created out of the experience of living generations (the shared experience of Martin Luther King’s speech, for instance, or the memory of the survivors of the Holocaust). Barash argues that collective memory, as an object of investigation, only comes at the forefront after a radical shift from a metaphysical and atemporal conception of human nature to a reflection based on an anthropological turn. An epochal change took place in the inter-war period in Europe: the tragic events of the 20th century paved the way to a vision of history and temporality based on discontinuity rather than continuity. The interplay, or tension—or even to a certain extent dichotomy—Barash draws between memory of lived experience and the “historical” past lies at the core of his demonstration and will be the focus of my intervention.

?The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge? from Au stralian artist William Longstaff (1929) depicting Canadian soldiers' ghosts marching up Vimy Ridge.jpg

The Vimy Ridge Memorial in Nothern France (Captain William Longstaff;
© Beaverbrook Collection of War Art,  CWM 19890275-051)

In chapter six entitled “The contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding,”Barash sets himself to “radicalize” the insights into historicity brought this distinction (p. 169). Briefly stated, collective memory has a specific limit, that of the temporal finitude of groups who share these experiences of remembrance. Collective remembrance will inevitably fade in the past and in the process become more opaque to us. For Barash, experience is the condition of collective memory. In that sense, his approach has definite phenomenological undertones. Temporal change and discontinuity make collective memory slip into the “historical past,” of which we can only have “passive recesses” and not a direct and full experience. The conclusion Barash draws follows accordingly: “In view of the historicity, contingency, and discontinuity of human groups, of the radical shifts between successive horizons of contemporaneity, the ongoing continuity of the êthos, deposited in the passive recesses of shared symbolic forms, is more often a source of ideological claims and political mythologies than of empirically ascertainable comprehension” (p. 170).

From that affirmation, one might think that Barash completely rejects the “historical past.” There are two main reasons for that. The first is quite clear: he insists on the fact that any supposed historical continuity—and its corollary, the idea of a stable identity of groups—could be instrumental in justifying ideological claims. The second reason has to do with the way we approach the past. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s notion the “flesh of the world” (la chair du monde), Barash claims that collective memory is based on the experience of the social and the political “in the flesh.” Given that, the remote past cannot but become a second-order “reality,” a “secondary form of recollection” (p. 35). There is, in the theoretical reflection on history broadly construed, an irremediable gap between Erfahrung and Wissenschaft, between experience and knowledge. In Barash’s view, there seems to be an unbridgeable distance between written historical accounts of the past and collective remembrance that spans generations, but still remains available in a more immediate manner.


Unveiling of the Vimy Ridge Memorial on 26 July 1936 (© George Metcalf Archival Collection, CWM 19910181-036)

As it turns out, Barash’s enterprise is more nuanced: the distinction between the two spheres serves the purpose of preserving the specificity of the latter as much as of the former. He does not develop extensively on that point, but it seems as though the “historical past,” narrated through specific forms and “mises en scène” (such as in historical novels) performs a function of its own. Barash writes: “However biased and incomplete even the most impartial attempt to recover vestiges of a past beyond living memory may be, its significance, far from limited to the status of a fictive invention of the present, reveals itself not only where it is capable of illuminating what has preceded current times, but where it enables us to place the fluctuating horizons of our own present in perspective” (emphasis mine; p. 196). The question is thus: does he propose something like a “practical past” beyond, or drawing from, the “historical past”? What is the specific ethical or normative function of the historical past that could make it “practical”? And can it intervene in the shaping of collective memory?

My suggestion is that his distinction involves a third sphere, that of a “practical” past. In his most recent book, Hayden White revives Oakeshott’s distinction between a “historical past” and a “practical past” (Oakeshott, On History, p. 19, 42). The historical past possesses no definitive existence: it is only an inference the historian makes in order to understand and explain what happened. In contrast, the practical past concerns everyday life. The former is primarily theoretical, while the latter is oriented toward matters of practical conduct and representation of our social and political world. As White points out, the practical past includes ordinary people carrying “archive of experiences” (White, The Practical Past, p. 99).

A substantial interpretation of the “practical past” would be tantamount to seeing history as providing lessons. This, in turn, would imply that there are unchanging features of human nature or at least transhistorical elements that would authorize the transposition of past actions and judgments to present circumstances. The stronger normative version of the practical past as historia magistra vitae faces serious objections: one would have to embrace a strong metaphysical claim such as the existence of natural law.

Jean-Pierre Houel - Prise de la Bastille (1789) - Carnavalet Museum

Jean-Pierre Houël, « Prise de la Bastille » (1789; source gallica.bnf.fr)

Doubts about a “practical past” in the sense of history providing normative guidance are not new. Hegel already expressed skepticism at the idea that we could learn anything about what one ought to do from studying the past. However, the purpose, in White or in Koselleck’s case, is not to recover some lost conception of history as a teacher of life. There seem to be another possible interpretation, one that is also found in Barash’s book: seeing the historical past as foreign leads to a more acute awareness of the contingency of the present.

White proposes to conceive of the practical past as a “space of experience.” (White, The Practical Past, p. 14) The recuperation or re-enactment of the past, it is true, could reinforce or justify “political mythologies,” but it could also serve to reactivate neglected past experiences or past concepts in order to challenge dominant views. One could think here of Quentin Skinner’s renewal of the Machiavellian republican conception of liberty. Koselleck’s notion of the party of the “vanquished” (Besiegten)—those writers of the past whose vision or doctrines have not triumphed – performs a similar function (Koselleck, Zeitschichten, p. 77). Both are illustrations of an indirect, yet practical usefulness of the past seen as foreign in essence. This, in turn, presupposes discontinuity: the renewal of the past is only possible in light of its alterity.

This idea of a practical past is perhaps best expressed by Claude Lefort’s notion of the “unthought” (impensé). Some events, social symbols or shared experiences carry vast reservoirs of meaning, which appear to be inexhaustible. In contrast with the “historical past,” the practical past could be constituted of such elements that provide continuity amid the discontinuity in temporality. As such, these events—revolutions, moments of foundation—connect past and present. It relates to what we could call a “politics of temporality” insofar as it concerns political and social events that “do not pass in the past” to use Claude Lefort’s expression (ce qui ne passé pas dans le passé (Lefort, Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel, p. 64-65). Some experiences and their remembrance endure in time and provoke a constant necessity of re-enactment. In other words, these events carry an “unthought”: something that has not yet been thought or has to be thought through again. Could it be the case that such a renewal of the past participates in shaping collective remembrance, not only in an instrumental way, but also in a meaningful one? In that regard, the role of imagination described by Barash makes it possible to envision such as relation to the past.

The idea of a “practical” past certainly supposes more temporal continuity than what Barash is ready to concede. Yet there is a sense of temporal continuity that goes beyond collective memory. Barash’s view presupposes what I would call a “minimal continuity thesis.” As in Koselleck’s thought, there are in Barash’s philosophy of time “structures of repetition” (Wiederholungsstrukturen) observable in the shared symbolic representations. Furthermore, minimal temporal continuity is a necessary condition of measuring and diagnosing temporal change. Far from being an obstacle to overcome, the opposition between continuity and change is a dynamic and productive tension in interpreting collective memory and the historical past.

Barash’s version of what I presented as a “practical” past is not, however, mainly about reactivating past concepts or ideas. Rather, it concerns a more fundamental insight: that of contingency in history and the illusion of an absolute standpoint. In the end, there is no vantage point: one can never achieve a totalizing perspective on history or look at collective memory from above. His interpretation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu exemplifies this point (p. 201).

The past was once an uncertain future. As such, it is as contingent as the present and cannot teach what to do in specific circumstances. That being said, looking at the remote past, even through imperfect historical sources, could highlight the contingency of our situation and in turn demonstrate the need for a plural reading of the present. Seeing the past as practical—and not simply historical—means recognizing the plurality of possible outcomes and the multiplicity of narratives that can emerge out of it and shape our collective representation of the past and the present. The past puts the present in perspective, even when, as Barash reminds us, historical accounts cannot deliver an objective and unbiased view of historical “reality.”

Sophie Marcotte Chenard is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Centre for Ethics. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and Social Sciences from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. Her research focuses on theory and philosophy of history, 19th and 20th-century German and French thought, contemporary political philosophy and interpretive methods in the history of political thought. She has published on Claude Lefort’s phenomenological approach and Quentin Skinner’s contextualism and has a forthcoming article on R.G. Collingwood’s historicism in The Journal of Philosophy of History. She is currently working on her forthcoming book entitled Encountering History in the Making: Political Philosophy and the Challenge of Historicism, which focuses on the relationship between political philosophy and history in the early writings of Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron.

We Have Never Been Presentist: On Regimes of Historicity

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

It is great news that François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time has finally come out in English. The original French edition dates back to 2003, and my encounter with the book took place a few years later in the form of its Hungarian edition. What I wish to indicate by mentioning this small fact is that Anglo-American academia is catching up with ideas that already made their career. But to be more precise, it is perhaps better to talk about a single idea, because at the core of Hartog’s book there is one strong thesis, namely, that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union we live in a presentist “regime of historicity.”

The thesis makes sense only within a long-term historical trajectory, in relation to previous “regimes of historicity” other than the presentist one. Furthermore, it makes sense only if one comes to grips beforehand with Hartog’s analytical categories, which is not the easiest task. As Peter Seixas notes in a review, despite Hartog’s effort to articulate what he means by a “regime of historicity,” the term remains elusive. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that it denotes an organizational structure which Western culture imposes on experiences of time, and that changes in “regimes of historicity” entail changes in the way Western culture configures the relationship between past, present, and future.

As to the historical trajectory that Hartog sketches, it goes as follows: around the French Revolution, a future-oriented modern regime of historicity superseded a pre-modern one in which the past served as a point of orientation, illuminating the present and the future. So far this accords with Reinhart Koselleck’s investigations concerning the birth of our modern notion of history. Conceptualizing the course of events as history between 1750 and 1850—the period Koselleck called Sattelzeit—opened up the possibility and the expectation of change in the shape of a historical process supposedly leading to a better future. Where Hartog departs from Koselleck is the claim that even this modern regime that came about with the birth of our modern notion of history has now been replaced by one that establishes its sole point of orientation in the present.

I believe that Hartog’s main thesis about our current presentist “regime of historicity” can be fundamentally challenged. I am with Hartog, Koselleck, and many others (such as Aleida Assmann) in exploring the characteristics of the “modern regime of historicity.” What I doubt is not even Hartog’s further claim that Western culture left behind this modern regime, but that it happened sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that the modern regime is followed by a presentist one in which we live. In other words, what I doubt is the feasibility of the story that Hartog tells about how we became presentist.

Let me tell you another story—the story of how we have never been presentist. It does not begin with the fall of the Berlin Wall and it does not begin when the Cold War ends. Instead, it begins in the early stage of the postwar period, when Western culture finally killed off the three major (and heavily interrelated) future-oriented endeavors it launched since the late Enlightenment: classical philosophy of history, ideology, and political utopianism.

By the 1960s, skepticism towards the idea of a historical process supposed to lead to a “better” future already discredited philosophies of history. The complementary endeavors of ideology and political utopianism shared this fate, given that the achievement of their purpose depended on the discredited idea of a historical process within which it was supposed to take place. In other words, dropping the idea of a historical process necessarily entailed putting a ban on all future-oriented endeavors that were rendered possible by postulating such a process. These are, I believe, fairly well known phenomena. Since Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947 [1944]), or at least since Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957), Judith Shklar’s After Utopia (1957) or Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology (1960), the bankruptcy of the three major future-oriented endeavors of Western culture have become a fairly recurrent theme in intellectual discussion.

This is not to say that traces of these endeavors did not remain present as implicit assumptions in cultural practices, however. It took a post-1960s “theory boom” and decades of postcolonial and gender critique even to attempt to deconstruct the prevailing assumptions of Western universalism and essentialism. But the point I would like to make is not whether this did or did not prove a successful intellectual operation; rather, I would like to emphasize that regardless of the question of overall success, Western culture self-imposed some sort of a presentism already in the 1960s by putting a ban on its own future-oriented endeavors.

Yet this self-imposed presentism remains only one side of the coin as concerns the ideological-utopian project. The other side is the proliferation of technological imagination and the future visions simultaneously launched when Western ideological-political imagination had been declared bankrupt. You can think of the space programs of the same period or of the sci-fi enthusiasm of the 1950s and 1960s, both in cinema and literature, which was inspired by actual technological visions reflected in the foundation of artificial intelligence research as a scientific field, splitting out of cybernetics in 1956. Today, this technological vision is more omnipresent than ever before. You cannot escape it as soon as you go to the movies or online. Just like every second blockbuster or like DeLillo’s latest novel, magazine stories and public debates now habitually address issues of transhumanism, bioengineering, nanotechnology, cryonics, human enhancement, artificial intelligence, technological singularity, plans to colonize Mars, and so on.

Hartog shows himself to be well aware of this technological vision, just as he remains aware of how the notion of history brought about by classical philosophies of history was abandoned in the postwar years, entailing the collapse of ideology and political utopianism. I can think of only one reason why he still fails to consider this as the abandonment of the modern regime of historicity. It seems to me that Hartog mistakes matters of political history like the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) for matters of intellectual history like the skepticism toward grand ideological-political designs of the common future that had already taken root in the 1950s-1960s. This must be the fundamental ground upon which Hartog places “the collapse of the communist ideal” alongside the fall of the Wall, as if the intellectual “ideal” could simply collapse together with the material collapse of the Wall or the political collapse of the communist bloc. This elision prevents Hartog and other critics from seeing that, first, the loss of Western ideological-utopian future-orientation was self-imposed and, second, that it did not result in overall presentism but in exchanging an ideological future-orientation for a technological-scientific one that emerged simultaneously with the abandonment of the former.

Of course the emerging technological-scientific vision (again, vision, and not necessarily the actual technological advancement, which one can debate) can be considered ideological as well, but that is beside the point. More importantly, the obvious omnipresence of the technological-scientific vision hardly enables us to talk about “a world so enslaved to the present that no other viewpoint is considered admissible” as Hartog does. Not to mention that the temporal structure of the technological vision may be completely other than the developmental structure that underlay late Enlightenment and nineteenth-century future-oriented endeavors. If these past endeavors were deliberately dropped for good reasons, whatever future endeavor Western culture ventures into, it simply cannot be a return to an abandoned temporality. If the future itself has changed, it necessarily entails a change in the mode by which we configure the relation of this future to the present and the past.

I think—and Hartog might agree if he reconsidered future-orientation—that the principal task of historians and philosophers of history today remains coming to terms with our current future vision. It is the principal task because insofar as we have a future vision, we imply a historical process; and if the technological-scientific vision is characteristically other than the abandoned ideological-utopian one, then the historical process it implies must be different too. What this means is that – using Hartog’s vocabulary – we may already have a new regime of historicity which we have yet to explore and understand.

Yet even if we do not fully grasp what regime of historicity we live in, one thing is certain: it is anything but presentist. In fact, we have never been presentist.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at Bielefeld University. Lately he devotes articles to the question of how our future prospects and visions inform our notion of history, not only as related to the technological vision, but also with respect to our ecological concerns and within the framework of a quasi-substantive philosophy of history. You can also find Zoltán on Twitter and Academia.edu.

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).

“Jules Verne would roll over in his grave,” or Döblin on the Future

by guest contributor Carolyn Taratko

Migrants streaming into Europe’s cities, postcolonial conflicts brought home, Greenland’s melting ice sheet, scientists emancipated from nature’s constraints through the use of genetic engineering; these sound like today’s headlines, but in fact they come from the pages of Alfred Döblin’s novel Berge Meere und Giganten (1924). It narrates the story of humans between the twenty-third and twenty-eighth centuries. Along general lines, it is a story of bipolar world of great, urbanized powers, East and West, a catastrophic war (the Uralische Krieg), and the quest for new areas of settlement in Greenland to relieve growing population pressure. Its epic form allows for many digressions: descriptions of landscapes modified by technology, war and hubris, accounts of battles and love triangles burdened by cultural baggage in a world of empowered, even ferocious women. It is, in one word, staggering. The force of the imagination behind this work is a wonder in itself.

Alfred Döblin (c. 1930s)

Alfred Döblin (c. 1930s)

This earlier novel by the author of the famed Berlin, Alexanderplatz runs over 600 pages and resists any neat summary. Günter Grass once described it as “written as if under visionary influence.” Döblin clarified his goal: to write so that “Jules Verne would roll over in his grave” (Döblin, AW, Brief an Efraim Frisch, 2. Nov. 1920, 120). Yet it has largely been forgotten, partly due to the fact that scholars are unsure of how to handle such works. Among historians utopian/dystopian works are a relatively underexplored source, liable to be written off as curiosities. It is as if the act of marveling at their visionary power, at the uncanny “accuracy” of the predictions held within such fictions somehow precludes taking them seriously.

Döblin began work on Berge Meere und Giganten in the fall of 1921, a year after the publication of his historical novel Wallenstein, set during the Thirty Years War. He oriented the project around the question, “What will become of man, should he continue to live in this way?” The time he spent researching, he reported to friends, was marked by extreme physical exertion and a neurotic state that bordered on mania. Döblin’s time at a military hospital Alsace-Lorraine during the First World War had brought him into direct contact with the horrors of the war that serve as the origin of this fictional universe. The recurring images of flesh mangled by machines that appear in the novel are hardly writerly abstractions.

Wider political forces also gave life to this novel. Contemporary observers and generations of historians have commented on the crisis-ridden years of the Weimar Republic. There is no doubt that, in Detlev Peukert’s words, the “birth trauma” of the Weimar Republic in the November Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles left the German government vulnerable to a prolonged crisis of legitimacy. Saddled with reparations, bound with demands for disarmament and dealing with maimed territory, the young republic faced challenges both at home and abroad. But for Döblin it was the failure of the 1918/19 Revolution (which he would later make the subject of a four-volume historical novel) that proved to be the most colossal disappointment. How to move forward? What had once seemed to be the best hope for the future – Social Democracy– had been largely discredited and hollowed out. Döblin experienced outrage, supplanted by recognition.

His outrage was best articulated in his journalism from these years. But even for as sharp an eye as Döblin, reportage and satire had its limits. Within the framework of a historical novel, Döblin was able to pursue a different “truth.” The novel, he wrote, is privilege to its own truth—not the “facts” of journalists or of white-bearded historians (Döblin seems quite unimpressed with the latter group), but personal and social truth (Echtsheitscharakter). It could address gender relations, love, marriage, friendship—in short, things that no newspaper and serious history book could illuminate. Such were the arguments Döblin marshaled in favor of the historical novel, whose setting in the past granted it a certain degree of plausibility. A novel set in the distant future failed to offer such security.

If Döblin was convinced of the power of the historical novel to represent and critique, why did he spend years drafting a novel set in a distant future, a space that would unsettle the reader and court the bounds of plausibility? We can see from his years of embittered reportage that Döblin was ready to take his critique not only of Weimar Germany and of the increasingly apparent tendencies of urbanization, mass culture, rationalization in the “the West” one step further.

Döblin did not make the jump to utopian fiction in 1921 in isolation. Utopian works gained wider currency as a genre and intellectual project in the early twentieth century. Novelists turned towards future-oriented, experimental forms, academics began to take utopia seriously as objects of analysis, and across the political spectrum in Germany such projects were embraced as a means of representing a world worth striving for. As the sociologist Hans Freyer wrote in 1920, utopia constituted a “creative form of practical rationality.” Rüdiger Graf has identified the transformation that the term “utopia” underwent in the early twentieth century, shedding its earlier fantastical and pejorative sense to become recognized as a form of critical debate at the very heart of the emerging social-scientific project. The intensified interest in utopia followed from a general acceptance that these constructions (no longer just fictions) acted as a determining force in political behavior. Graf has charted the development of utopian studies alongside sociology; the two represented twin approaches to understanding the crisis of the 1920s. In the wake of the World War, the Russian Revolution and revolutionary events that swept across Europe, a dawning awareness of the contingency and malleability of circumstances was accompanied by an acceptance of utopian discourse. Graf refers to this process as a radicalization of Reinhart Koselleck’s concept of the Sattelzeit: an intensified encounter in which the horizon of expectation overtakes that of experience.

And here we must return to Döblin. Seen in this light, Berge Meere und Giganten is no mere flight of fancy; it is a rigorous exercise in historical imagination and continuity. Within Döblin’s novel we can see the horizon of expectation playing out in front of our eyes in lurid detail, defying any neat summary.

Carolyn Taratko is a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University. For the 2014-2015 academic year, she is based at the Freie Universität in Berlin. Her current research focuses on resource management and perceptions of crisis in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century Germany.

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.