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Collective Memory: A JHI Blog Forum

Symbols, Collective Memory, and Political Principles 

By Andrew Dunstall

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a very scholarly book that proves both a philosophical work and a history of ideas. The one offers a conceptual account of collective memory, and the other a narrative of changing conceptions and ideological uses of “memory.” In both cases, he argues that careful attention to the border between memory and history is politically significant for criticising appeals to mythical bases of political unity. I have some thoughts on that, but first it is worth summarising what I take to be key contributions of the book.

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Obama’s Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial (Steve Jurvetson)

The main contention of the book is this: collective memory designates a restricted sphere of past references. These particular references operate in practical life within a community, a “web of experience” (p. 52). Crucially for Barash, such a web consists of symbols (defined on p. 47-50). Symbols “confer spontaneous sense on experience by lending it communicable order at the primary level of its organization and articulation” (p. 47). What Barash means here is not that we attach various symbols to our everyday experience in a secondary process; rather, our perception is originally patterned in symbolic ways according to our learning, habits, and interactions.

Barash gives an example of an illuminating contrast. The quiet, “sacred” space of a church, and the banal (but still perhaps quiet and still) space of a car garage. Each space is meaningful in perception, because we are acquainted with their style and the activities that take place in them. Even when we are not familiar with the setting, we pick up cues from others or elements of the scene.  Experience is hermeneutic, which Barash refers to as “symbolic embodiment”. Our ability to communicate with each other in, and about, our experiences rests on this spontaneous symbolising activity.

Also note that we are not locked into our original perceptions. Experience is neither a private language, nor fixed, nor voluntarist. We constantly layer and re-layer interpretations of our lives as a matter of course. We can, for instance, understand somebody who describes their car garage as a shrine or sacred space, transporting the qualities of the cathedral to the domestic site of mechanical pursuits. We are readily able to creatively adapt our references through conversation and imaginative reconstructions. We can understand each other—even when we have radically differing interpretations.

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Martin Luther King press conference 1964 (Marion S. Trikosko)

Thus our memories come to be shared with those whom we regularly interact; for Barash, collective memory is this web of interaction. He gives an excellent example by analysing Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which included his own memories of watching it on television (p. 55). This sets up well the key distinction between experience “in the flesh” as opposed to that mediated by communication technologies (analysed in detail in chapter five). An important clarification is made here. When we are talking about events that are supposed to be real—like King’s speech, then we expect that they will mesh well with the other references our fellows make, and which are materially present in our environment. When they do not cohere, we are justified to be suspicious about the claims being made. And that disjunction motivates a critical reappraisal. Symbols themselves do not differentiate between reality and fictional states, but their overall network does. Thus imagination is essential to the “public construction of reality”, but such a construction is neither arbitrary nor imaginary (p. 49).

Collective memory is therefore neither a fiction nor a mere metaphor, but refers to a web of symbols formed through communicative interaction, reaching as far as that sphere of interaction does—across several generations, and within the context of a shared language, set of public symbols, and common purposes. Barash, however, carefully emphasises a corresponding diffuseness, differentiation and inconsistencies of such memory—and he insists on its epistemological limits to a living generation. Knowledge of life passes beyond living ken when it fails to be maintained in any real sense by a coming generation. Too often, such discontinuities are not benign: displacement, war, and oppression can be its cause.

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Mémoire (Benhard Wenzl)

Collective memory needs to be distinguished from the reflective activity of historians, as Barash clearly argues in his choice of title for the book. The critical targets of the book are twofold. Recent scholarship, on the one, that has conflated the work of history with the idea of collective memory (see p. 173ff.). On the other hand, Barash is all-too-mindful of the way in which collective memory is invoked for political purposes.  There is a normative-critical point to the distinction between collective memory and historical work. The historian or scholar of collective memory is someone who holds our memory work to account, scrupulously attending to myth-making and historical over-reach in political discourse. The historian is in the business of re-contextualising, of rediscovering the coherence of a set of events in the real. And so Barash takes a position on the reality of the past, and we see the importance of establishing the level of the real in the analysis of symbols (p. 175ff).

We can see some clear implications for historical methods as a result of Barash’s careful analysis. Collective memory is a part of how archives and diverse sources come into existence. History work needs collective memory, and it needs to understand its various forms. However, rather than take up debates about the reality of the past, or the distinction between the forms of collective memory and historical understanding, I am interested in a rather different and less explicit theme, which my preceding commentators have already raised. Let us think a bit more about the normative and political emphasis that Barash lays on historical understanding.

While collective memory is limited to living generations, there are nevertheless long-term patterns to community life that reach beyond memory. Martin Luther King, for example, called attention to the political promises of the Declaration of Independence, and of Lincoln, in the shadow of whose memorial he stood with those who had gathered with him. King, Lincoln, and their contemporaries belonged to a larger unity, an ethos; a particular rendering of democratic freedom. Michael Meng argues that Barash is drawing on a democratic emphasis in his insistence on finitude. Êthos, as in Aristotle’s Politics, translates as “custom.” Barash’s symbolically oriented theory incorporates ethos as an “articulation of long-term continuities in the symbolic reservoir upon which collective memory draws” (p. 105). While Barash’s examples consistently point to progressive and radical democratic examples (he also discusses the French Revolution’s republican calendar), the concept of ethos launches an analysis of the ideological invocation of memory by radical right wing movements.

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Front National (Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2010)

Right wing groups sometimes evoke age-long memory in direct connection to social homogeneity. There is a French focus; Maurice Barrès, the late 19th and early 20th century conservative political figure and novelist, and Jean-Marie Le Pen and his party, the Front National, are Barash’s primary examples. Le Pen wrote in 1996: “When we denounce the terrible danger of the immigration invasion, we speak on behalf of our ancient memory” (cited at p. 109). The theoretical construction of symbolic collective memory has reached its sharp, critical point. For the finitude of collective memory, in its anchoring in a living generation, disallows the age-long memory and homogeneity of national identity that the right call upon. So while collective memory is not simply imaginary, as Barash has shown, the latter metaphorical use of it is mythical. Finitude must be, ought to be, reasserted.

Finitude is a common hymn amongst intellectuals today. And yet the normative argument for the critical function of historical work is not very strong here. I disagree with Meng’s interpretation then. Finitude does not supply a normative principle which would tell us how collective memory ought to be invoked. The alternative progressive examples show the point. Martin Luther King could equally draw on an ethos; so too should progressives today. And this is a practical, normative point, as Sophie Marcotte Chénard suggests. Repetition is not continuity, however. We must draw on the historical past and collective memory to defend progressive normative principles. Where else do they come from? Of course, a normative choice by the historian is that—a choice of what to inherit.

Barash bases his argument on a formal analysis of memory, symbols, and temporal intentionality. Finitude for him is a matter of logical form: living memory can only extend a certain length; the selection of what we remember is secondary for him. Finitude itself supplies no clear ethical principle, however. Which normative struggles, which injustices breathe life into “living memory”? Often such struggles far exceed that memory, as I have argued elsewhere. Barash, to my mind, implies these questions at various points, but does not make them explicit. Barash’s work is a provocative opening. When we come to reflect on our heritage, whether age-long or recent, the point is to choose what is worth preserving, and what needs changing.


Andrew Dunstall is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wollongong, where he teaches political philosophy. His research interests are in phenomenology and critical theory. His recent work studies the way that normative principles draw upon historical precedents, especially those beyond the “modern” era. You can read more about his work here.

Featured Image: Fête de l’Être suprême (Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1794)

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Collective Memory: A JHI Blog Forum

A Practical Past Beyond the Historical Past?

By Sophie Marcotte Chénard

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.

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.

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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 Chénard 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.

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

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Think Piece

Towards an Intellectual History of Modern Poverty

by guest contributor Tejas Parasher

 

Picture 1In Chapter 3 of The History Manifesto, David Armitage and Jo Guldi support historians’ increasing willingness to engage with topics generally left to economists. Whereas the almost total dominance of game-theoretic modelling in economics has led to abstract explanations of events in terms of market principles, history, with its greater attention to ruptures and continuities of context and its “apprehension of multiple causality,” can push against overly reductionist stories of socio-economic problems (The History Manifesto, 87). Citing Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a possible example, Armitage and Guldi propose a longue-durée approach to the past that, by empirically documenting the evolution of a phenomenon (say, income inequality or land reform) over time, can disclose context-specific factors and patterns that economic models generally elide.

In this blog post, I ask what intellectual history in particular might have to gain (and contribute) by following Armitage and Guldi’s provocation and taking on a topic that Western academia has almost totally ceded to economics since the 1970s: the study of global poverty. Extreme or mass poverty in the Global South is a well-worn term in the literature on cosmopolitan justice, development economics, global governance, and foreign policy. Across economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, poverty is usually invoked as a sign of institutional failure—domestic or international—and a problem to be solved through aid or the reform of market governance. I want to suggest here that the contemporary dominance of economic analysis has foreclosed other approaches to mass poverty in the twentieth century. These are discourses that global intellectual history is uniquely able to excavate.

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Delegates at the London Round Table Conferences (1930-1932) on constitutional reform, representation, and voting in British India. Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Sept. 14 1931.

To illustrate my point, I want to turn to a common trope I have found while researching political thought in colonial India. Between approximately 1929-30 and 1950, the Indian National Congress and other organizations fighting for self-determination began to demand the introduction of universal adult franchise in British South Asia. The colony had seen very limited elections at the provincial level since 1892. Through a successive series of acts in 1909, 1919, and 1935, the British Government gradually widened the powers of legislatures with native representation, while keeping the electorate limited according to property ownership and income. In its report to Parliament in 1919, the Indian Franchise Committee under Lord Southborough emphasized that the ‘intelligence’ and ‘political education’ required for modern elections necessitated a strict property qualification (especially in a mostly rural country like India).

Against this background, extending rights to vote and hold office to laborers and the landless poor was anti-imperial both in the immediate sense of challenging British constitutional provisions and, more generally, in inverting the philosophy of the colonial state. Dipesh Chakrabarty has accurately and evocatively described the nationalist demand for universal suffrage as a gesture of “abolishing the imaginary waiting room of history” to which Indians had been consigned by modern European thought (Provincalizing Europe, 9). Indian demands for the adult franchise were almost always articulated with reference to the country’s economic condition. The poor, it was said, needed to directly participate in politics so that the state which governed them could adequately represent their interests.

M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) began making such arguments in support of adult franchise soon after he gained leadership of the Indian independence movement around 1919. His ideal of a decentralized village-based democracy (panchayati raj) sought to address the deep socio-economic inequality of colonial society by bringing the rural poor into decision-making processes. Under the Gandhian program, fully participatory local village councils would combine legislative, judicial, and executive functions. As Karuna Mantena has noted in her recent study of Gandhi’s theory of the state, panchayati raj based on universal suffrage was seen to empower the poor by giving them an institutional mechanism to guard against the agendas of urban elites and landed rural classes.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, most demands for extending suffrage to the poor shared Gandhi’s premise. Even when leaders fundamentally disagreed with Gandhi’s idealization of village self-rule, they similarly considered the power to vote and hold office as a crucial safeguard against further economic vulnerability. In the Constitution of Free India he proposed in 1944, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954), the ex-Communist leader of the Radical Democratic Party, argued for full enfranchisement and participatory local government on essentially defensive grounds, to protect “workers, employees, and peasants” from privileged interests (Constitution of Free India, 12).

By far one of the most sophisticated analyses of the problem of poverty for Indian politics during these decades came from B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a jurist, anti-caste leader, and the main drafter of the Constitution of independent India in 1950. Ambedkar had been a vocal advocate for removing property, income, and literacy qualifications for voting and holding office since 1919, when he testified before Lord Southborough’s committee. As independence became increasingly likely from the 1930s, Ambedkar’s fundamental concern was to ensure that the poorest, landless castes of India had constitutional protections to vote and to represent themselves as separate groups in the legislature. Writing to the Simon Commission for constitutional reform in 1928, Ambedkar saw direct participation of the poor as the only way to forestall the rise of a postcolonial oligarchy: “the poorer the individual the greater the necessity of enfranchising him…. If the welfare of the worker is to be guaranteed from being menaced by the owners, the terms of their associated life must be constantly resettled. But this can hardly be done unless the franchise is dissociated from property and extended to all propertyless adults” (“Franchise,” 66).

During the height of the Indian independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, there was thus an acute awareness of mass poverty as a key problem confronted by modern politics outside the West. Participatory democracy was in many ways the answer to an economic issue: colonialism’s creation of a large population without security of income or property, placed at the very bottom of networks of production and exchange that favored either Western Europe or a native elite. This was the population that Gandhi repeatedly described as holding onto its existence in a precarious condition of lifeless “slavery,” completely lacking any economic power. Only fundamental changes in the nature of the modern state, to make it accessible to those who had been constructed as objects of expert rule and as backward outliers to productivity and prosperity, could return dignity to the poor.

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File photo from the 1952 general election, the first conducted with universal adult suffrage. Photo No. 21791a (Jan. 1952). Photo Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India.

My intention in briefly reconstructing Indian debates around giving suffrage, self-representation, and engaged citizenship to some of the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world is straightforward: attempts to address the effects of inequality in the Global South through the vote and local democracy rather than exclusively through international governance and economic reconstruction need to have a central place in any story we tell about twentieth-century poverty. Before they were taken up in the literature on efficient economic institutions and the rhetoric of international aid and development in the early 1950s (a shift usefully analyzed by anthropologists like Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar), colonial narratives about Africa, Latin America, and Asia as regions of intractable, large-scale poverty, famine, and market failure informed the political thought of anti-imperial democracy. The idea that existing economic conditions in India were problematic and deeply unjust was the basis of giving greater political power to the poor. A global conceptual history of ‘mass poverty’ in the twentieth century can therefore situate popular Third World movements that sought to increase the agency of the poor alongside more familiar, and more hegemonic, projects of Western humanitarianism.

This brings me back to my earlier point about what we might gain by re-thinking, with The History Manifesto, the relationship between intellectual history and economics. Once we start to trace how the categories and variables deployed in economic analysis emerged and changed over time, and how they were interpreted and practiced in a wide range of historical contexts, we can access dimensions of these concepts that may be completely absent from economic modeling. On the specific question of global poverty, an intellectual history that documents how the concept travelled between Third World thought, social movements, and global governance might give us theories of poverty alleviation that entail much more than simply distributive justice and resource allocation. This would be a form of intellectual history committed, as Armitage and Guldi put it, to “speaking back” to the “mythologies” of economics by expanding the timeframes and theoretical traditions which inform the discipline’s methods (The History Manifesto, 81-85).

Tejas Parasher is a PhD candidate in political theory at the University of Chicago. His research interests are in the history of political thought, comparative political theory, and global intellectual history, especially on questions of state-building, decolonization, and market governance in the mid-twentieth century, with a regional focus on South Asia. His dissertation examines the rise of redistribution as a discourse of government and economic policy in India through the 1940s. He also writes more broadly on issues of socio-economic inequality in democratic and constitutional theory, human rights, and the history of political thought.

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Collective Memory: A JHI Blog Forum

History as Critique

by guest contributor Michael Meng

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. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

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University of Chicago Press (2016)

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a highly insightful and erudite book on the complex relationship of the past to the present. Moving capaciously from the ancient period to the present, he addresses a wide range of issues regarding what it means to remember. Chapters include discussions on some of the central theorists of memory from Sigmund Freud to Maurice Halbwachs to Gerald Edelman; on the centrality of the image in twentieth-century mass media; on the reputed ‘skepticism’ of Roland Barthes and Hayden White in regard to the capacity of history to distinguish itself from fiction; and on the origins of “collective memory” as a theoretical concept to interpret the enduring “quest for stability and permanence” in the wake of twentieth-century challenges to metaphysics by Martin Heidegger and many others broadly influenced by him in post-1945 France (128).

Behind these different explorations lies, however, an ambitious attempt on Barash’s part to identify an “impartial” or “critical” space for historical reflection in the sociopolitical sphere of public life in which historical thinking unfolds. Barash defines the critical function of history in the public sphere mostly by what it does not do: history is most clearly different from mythic, ideological recollections of the past but also, if more subtly, from the emergence of the ostensibly human quest to imbue the past with a common meaning through the nourishing of what Barash calls collective memory. In what follows, I consider his attempt to identify a space for history independent from collective memory and myth. Beforehand I will briefly establish as Barash himself does the central dilemma at stake.

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Plato (Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377)

Barash astutely begins his book with Plato’s concept of anamnesis. In the Meno, Phaedo, and Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that anamnesis recalls in the present what was always already known by the immortal soul prior to embodiment. Recollection brings one back to the hyperouranian vision of eternal truth that the soul had before falling into this world of flux and death. The political consequence of Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis is significant as Hannah Arendt understood in her important essay on authority (Arendt, Between Past and Present, 91-141). Arendt discusses Plato’s attempt to establish a system of authority that would transcend the conflictual and violent life of the polis. According to her, Plato sought to establish the hegemony of reason in the person of the philosopher king as the possessor of the truth gained through anamnesis. The philosopher contemplates the ideas that “exist” in a realm beyond this world of uncertainty and change. The philosopher contemplates the truth, and the truth is unassailable precisely because it transcends the uncertainties, imperfections, and perspectivalism of finite human existence.

The collapse of this Platonic notion of truth since the late nineteenth century has opened up for Arendt and others the possibility of embracing time or contingency as the basis for a democratic politics of equality. The argument being this: if timeless truth cannot exist for mortals, then no one single person or group can claim the right to rule over another (Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 19; The Human Condition, 32). The lack of absolutes or indubitable foundations precludes any one view from becoming dominant—a community comes together in shared recognition of the fragility of any view. This anti-foundationalist notion of democracy has been embraced by a range of post-1945 thinkers from Theodor W. Adorno to Jan Patočka to Jacques Rancière. In what can be viewed as an important addition to this post-1945 conception of democracy, Barash suggests that history—including the one he writes—brings to public awareness the “group finitude” that subjects any given collective memory to “modification” (215-216). History also underscores the impossibility of ever bringing to full clarity the “opacity” of the past (105-106, 113, 170). Hence, history reveals the fragility and limits of memory as the collective product of mortals who cannot transcend the gap between past and present, since a holistic view of time eludes the “finite anthropological vision” (113).

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Hannah Arendt (© Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1949)

A historical awareness of the finitude of collective memory proves especially important because it can undermine the ideological mobilization of collective memory for an exclusionary politics. One of the hallmarks of the radical right’s assertion of authority in modern European history has been the creation of myths about the alleged eternal homogeneity of the community whose interests it claims to represent. The radical right perpetuates a nationalistic memory that claims to be absolutely correct. By insisting on the fragility and limits of any collective memory, history challenges the ideological assumption that the past can be known with absolute certainty.

History also challenges ideological interpretations of the past in another way, as Barash shows in his gentle critique of Barthes and White’s portrayals of history as a form of fiction. In Barthes’ words: “Historical discourse is essentially an ideological elaboration or, to be more precise, one which is imaginary” (quoted in Barash, 179). While Barash appreciates Barthes’s and White’s challenge to naïve empiricism, their view is nevertheless “too extreme” for him (176). Many historians will probably agree, but I think it might be worth considering alongside Barash the deeper issue at stake here regarding the status of critical thought. Barthes’s deployment of the word ideology brings us back to the relevant nineteenth-century debate between British empiricists and German idealists over the question of whether reason is independent of history. Is reason universal and necessary? For Marx, a student of Hegel and Kant on this question, if reason is not universal and necessary, then it has to be conventional or ideological. And, if reason is ideological, then how can philosophy possibly fulfill its critical task? Herbert Marcuse lucidly summarized the issue in Reason and Revolution, writing that empiricism “confined men within the limits of ‘the given’” (Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 20).

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Herbert Marcuse

Barash’s project aims to rescue “critical” thinking from the conventions of the present as well but he does not do so through Hegel (177 and 216). How does he proceed? He locates a critical space for history by distinguishing it from myth, the central difference being that history relies on “the critical methods of reconstruction on a factual basis” (216). The historian builds a narrative partly from the facts of what happened. This view may sound like conventional empiricism at first glance, but it turns out not to be. To understand the nuance of Barash’s argument, we must ask a basic question: What is a fact? The strict empiricist claims that the facts are the unassailable truth that renders the authority of the historical narrative indisputable. The empiricist is an inverted Platonist who forgets the history of the fact. The word fact comes from the Latin factum, which means human actions and deeds. The facts are wrought by humans and that which is wrought by humans –– in the western metaphysical tradition at least –– has long been viewed as contingent beginning with Plato who views history as the study of the shadows of the cave.

Barash is not an empiricist in the traditional sense as just described. He strikes me as advancing what I might call a “contingent empiricism” –– an empiricism that strives to remain open to modification and change in full awareness of the temporality of one’s own exploration of the past. There is no Platonic escape from time in Barash’s account other than the “illusory” escape of myth (113). If there is no escape from history, if our perspective of what happened changes as we change and we change as we explore what happened, then the past cannot be grasped in a final or certain manner. The “opacity” of the past always withdraws from one’s temporal grasp. The only way to claim a final account of the past consists in turning the past into a constantly present thing that never changes.

If all is equally temporal, one might express worry that such a view leads to a vitiating relativism whereby every claim and behavior is equally justified. But this worry overlooks a central presupposition of critique. Any critical project, if it is to engage in an egalitarian exchange of reasons and is not to be mere apodictic Declaration (a “Machtspruch”), implicitly holds some value constant as the basis of the critique it offers. Returning to Barash’s book might illuminate the point. In the end, I see Barash as orienting history towards an affirmation of temporality or transience. The critical edge of such a view of history is not only that it challenges the mythic assertion of homogeneity but also that it undermines the ideological impulse to declare a secure and certain interpretation of our world. History disrupts certainty by affirming the complex condition of change that humans have struggled to make sense of since the ancient period. Ironically, history holds time constant as the basis of its critique of ideology and myth.

To conclude, let me return to my initial praise of Barash’s book. It raises a host of important questions about memory and history, while placing an important emphasis on history as an affirmation of the transience of human life. In this respect, I look forward to the exchange on his stimulating book.

The editors wish to thank Michael Meng for his graciousness in volunteering to write the inaugural post.

Michael Meng is Associate Professor of History at Clemson University. He is the author of Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland (Harvard, 2011) and co-editor of Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland (Indiana, 2015). He has published articles in Central European History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, The Journal of Modern History, and New German Critique. He is currently writing a book on death, history, and salvation in European thought as well as a book on authoritarianism.

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“Towards a Great Pluralism”: Quentin Skinner at Ertegun House

by contributing editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Quentin Skinner is a name to conjure with. A founder of the Cambridge School of the history of political thought. Former Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge. The author of seminal studies of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the full sweep of Western political philosophy. Editor of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Winner of the Balzan Prize, the Wolfson History Prize, the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize, and many others. On February 24, Skinner visited Oxford for the Ertegun House Seminar in the Humanities, a thrice-yearly initiative of the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme. In conversation with Ertegun House Director Rhodri Lewis, Skinner expatiated on the craft of history, the meaning of liberty, trends within the humanities, his own life and work, and a dizzying range of other subjects.

Professor Quentin Skinner at Ertegun House, University of Oxford.

Names are, as it happens, a good place to start. As Skinner spoke, an immense and diverse crowd filled the room: Justinian and Peter Laslett, Thomas More and Confucius, Karl Marx and Aristotle. The effect was neither self-aggrandizing nor ostentatious, but a natural outworking of a mind steeped in the history of ideas in all its modes. The talk is available online here; accordingly, instead of summarizing Skinner’s remarks, I will offer a few thoughts on his approach to intellectual history as a discipline, the aspect of his talk which most spoke to me and which will hopefully be of interest to readers of this blog.

Lewis’s opening salvo was to ask Skinner to reflect on the changing work of the historian, both in his own career and in the profession more broadly. This parallel set the tone for the evening, as we followed the shifting terrain of modern scholarship through Skinner’s own journey, a sort of historiographical Everyman (hardly). He recalled his student days, when he was taught history as the exploits of Great Men, guided by the Whig assumptions of inevitable progress towards enlightenment and Anglicanism. In the course of this instruction, the pupil was given certain primary texts as “background”—More’s Utopia, Hobbes’s Leviathan, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government—together with the proper interpretation: More was wrongheaded (in being a Catholic), Hobbes a villain (for siding with despotism), and Locke a hero (as the prophet of liberalism). Skinner mused that in one respect his entire career has been an attempt to find satisfactory answers to the questions of his early education.

Contrasting the Marxist and Annaliste dominance that prevailed when he began his career with today’s broad church, Skinner spoke of a shift “towards a great pluralism,” an ecumenical scholarship welcoming intellectual history alongside social history, material culture alongside statistics, paintings alongside geography. For his own part, a Skinner bibliography joins studies of the classics of political philosophy to articles on Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government and a book on William Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric. And this was not special pleading for his pet interests. Skinner described a warm rapport with Bruno Latour, despite a certain degree of mutual incomprehension and wariness of the extremes of Latour’s ideas. Even that academic Marmite, Michel Foucault, found immediate and warm welcome. Where many an established scholar I have known snorts in derision at “discourses” and “biopolitics,” Skinner heaped praise on the insight that we are “one tribe among many,” our morals and epistemologies a product of affiliation—and that the tribe and its language have changed and continue to change.

Detail from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Allegory of the Good Government.”

My ears pricked up when, expounding this pluralism, Skinner distinguished between “intellectual history” and “the history of ideas”—and placed himself firmly within the former. Intellectual history, according to Skinner, is the history of intellection, of thought in all forms, media, and registers, while the history of ideas is circumscribed by the word “idea,” to a more formal and rigid interest in content. On this account, art history is intellectual history, but not necessarily the history of ideas, as not always concerned with particular ideas. Undergirding all this is a “fashionably broad understanding of the concept of the text”—a building, a mural, a song are all grist for the historian’s mill.

If we are to make a distinction between the history of ideas and intellectual history, or at least to explore the respective implications of the two, I wonder whether there is not a drawback to intellection as a linchpin, insofar as it emphasizes an intellect to do the intellection. To focus on the genesis of ideas is perhaps to the detriment of understanding how they travel and how they are received. Moreover, does this overly privilege intentionality, conscious intellection? A focus on the intellects doing the work is more susceptible, it seems to me, to the Great Ideas narrative, that progression from brilliant (white, elite, male) mind to brilliant (white, elite, male) mind.

At the risk of sounding like postmodernism at its most self-parodic, is there not a history of thought without thinkers? Ideas, convictions, prejudices, aspirations often seep into the intellectual water supply divorced from whatever brain first produced them. Does it make sense to study a proverb—or its contemporary avatar, a meme—as the formulation of a specific intellect? Even if we hold that there are no ideas absent a mind to think them, I posit that “intellection” describes only a fraction (and not the largest) of the life of an idea. Numberless ideas are imbibed, repeated, and acted upon without ever being much mused upon.

Skinner himself identified precisely this phenomenon at work in our modern concept of liberty. In contemporary parlance, the antonym of “liberty” is “coercion”: one is free when one is not constrained. But, historically speaking, the opposite of liberty has long been “dependence.” A person was unfree if they were in another’s power—no outright coercion need be involved. Skinner’s example was the “clever slave” in Roman comedies. Plautus’s Pseudolus, for instance, acts with considerable latitude: he comes and goes more or less at will, he often directs his master (rather than vice versa), he largely makes his own decisions, and all this without evident coercion. Yet he is not free, for he is always aware of the potential for punishment. A more nuanced concept along these lines would sharpen the edge of contemporary debates about “liberty”: faced with endemic surveillance, one may choose not to express oneself freely—not because one has been forced to do so, but out of that same awareness of potential consequences (echoes of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon here). Paradoxically, even as our concept of “liberty” is thus impoverished and unexamined, few words are more pervasive in present discourse.

Willey Reverly’s 1791 plan of the Panopticon.

On the other hand, intellects and intellection are crucial to the great gift of the Cambridge School: the reminder that political thought—and thought of any kind—is an activity, done by particular actors, in particular contexts, with particular languages (like the different lexicons of “liberty”). Historical actors are attempting to solve specific problems, but they are not necessarily asking our questions nor giving our answers, and both questions and answers are constantly in flux. This approach has been an antidote to Great Ideas, destroying any assumption that Ideas have a history transcending temporality. (Skinner acknowledged that art historians might justifiably protest that they knew this all along, invoking E. H. Gombrich.)

The respective domains of intellectual history and the history of ideas returned when one audience member asked about their relationship to cultural history. Cultural history for Skinner has a wider set of interests than intellectual history, especially as regards popular culture. Intellectual history, by contrast, is avowedly elitist in its subject matter. But, he quickly added, it is not at all straightforward to separate popular and elite culture. Theater, for instance, is both: Shakespeare is the quintessence of both elite art and of demotic entertainment.

On some level, this is incontestable. Even as Macbeth meditates on politics, justice, guilt, fate, and ambition, it is also gripping theater, filled with dramatic (sometimes gory) action and spiced with ribald jokes. Yet I query the utility, even the viability, of too clear a distinction between the two, either in history or in historians. Surely some of the elite audience members who appreciated the philosophical nuances also chuckled at the Porter’s monologue, or felt their hearts beat faster during the climactic battle? Equally, though they may not have drawn on the same vocabulary, we must imagine some of the “groundlings” came away from the theater musing on political violence or the obligations of the vassal. From Robert Scribner onwards, cultural historians have problematized any neat model of elite and popular cultures.

Frederick Wentworth’s illustration of the Porter scene in Macbeth.

In any investigation, we must of course be clear about our field of study, and no scholar need do everything. But trying to circumscribe subfields and subdisciplines by elite versus popular subjects, by ideas versus intellection versus culture, is, I think, to set up roadblocks in the path of that most welcome move “towards a great pluralism.”

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Forms of Bureaucracy

by editor John Raimo

What sorts of history does bureaucracy yield, and what might histories of bureaucracy itself look like? That the two questions remain distinct yet fall closely together emerged in the course of an excellent recent conference organized by Rosamund Johnston (New York University) and Veronika Pehe (European University Institute). Speakers for From Josef K to Lustration: Bureaucracy in Central Europe sought to move from case studies to broader definitions of bureaucracy or vice-versa even as they reflected upon historiographical and disciplinary challenges specific to the subject. Classical definitions from Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and others proved less a starting point than something to be challenged. A thematic organization of panels brought together a variety of regional and chronological expertise; the final conclusions were less simply heterogeneous than thrillingly suggestive of broader lines of common phenomena and historiographical challenges.

A panel dedicated to bureaucracy and the production of knowledge began the conference. Ana Sekulić (Princeton University) explored how Franciscan monasteries under Ottoman rule quickly mastered the intricacies of the imperial bureaucracy, even as the latter came to almost informally accommodate them with reference to questionable Ahidnâme charters. That is, overlapping competencies on both sides of an imperial divide gave way to something like a formalized détente, as in the case of exceptions made for monastic inheritance under Sharia law. Rachel Schaff (University of Minnesota) spoke on how postwar Czechoslovak bureaucracy created the genre of melodrama to categorize an important body of interwar films. Anachronistic discrepancies naturally followed even as the form of records prevented correction or, in a certain sense, a body of expertise to revise the record. Alina Popescu (University of Bucharest) took as her subject how Romanian censorship collapsed under its own weight both with its own increasing rigor and with widening autonomy from central authorities. Censoring institutions could be broken up and reconstituted as necessary under Nicolae Ceaușescu. In his comments, Jan Surman (Herder Institut Marburg) emphasized how closely archives would hew to the internal narratives of bureaucracy, and what challenges these posed for historians. Throughout the panel, one could trace the problem of how bureaucracies generate competing forms of expertise which in turn challenge the easy functioning of the system.

“Rethinking Images of Bureaucrats and Bureaucracy,” the second panel under Jiřina Šmejkalová (Prague College / Palacký University, Olomouc), moved from inner to outward workings of these offices and officials. Margarita Vaysman (St. Andrews University) looked to the popular author Aleksii Pisemskii who, drawing on his long civil service career, could mediate between his experience and public notions of bureaucracy. His role in forming a public ‘tradition’ of Russian bureaucracy to be criticized has been overlooked even as his sort of rhetoric towards the same came to be adopted across the political spectrum. The tensions between state teachers and the central educational authorities in late imperial Austria furnished the subject for Scott Moore (Eastern Connecticut State University), as the sheer distance between the metropole and country came to reflect operational challenges as much as ideological differences under the same rubrics of liberal progress. Alice Lovejoy (University of Minnesota) discussed the paradoxes linking bureaucratic sponsorship of cinematic avant-gardes. An interwar avant-garde notion of didacticism quickly became institutionalized after WWII in terms of personnel, funding, artistic form, and notions of an audience. At the same time, however, international associations of filmmakers fractured as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, resulting in new artistic relations and antagonisms to bureaucracy.

Calling Mr. Smith (Stefan and Franciszka Thermerson, dir.; 1943), a wartime documentary on Nazi atrocities produced under the auspices of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in London

As Felix Jeschke (Charles University) noted in his comments to a panel dedicated to bureaucrats and regime change, social upheavals directly affected the inner workings of bureaucracies more often than not. Ilya Afanasyev (University of Birmingham) discussed how a perennial lag between public, theoretical ideals of Bolshevik bureaucracy and its actual operations forced constant revisions to both sides of this equation. Marián Lóži (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů) explored what he termed ‘regional Stalinist elites,’ the temporary layer of bureaucrats aiding in the transition to communist rule in Czechoslovakia from 1948-1952. Both as representatives as well as functionaries of a new system, these bureaucrats’ role necessarily proved transitory even as they embodied both the positive and negative effects of the new regime upon everyday life. Molly Pucci (Trinity College Dublin) went so far as to question to what degree Stalinism yielded new definitions of bureaucracy as opposed to classical definitions. Looking to biographical studies as much as distancing herself from the paradigms offered by secret police organizations, Pucci suggested that the instrumentalization afforded by the “machine of the party” (the rhetoric and structure of cogs and quotas), the “permanent purge” of personnel turnover, the structural ambiguities and redundancies attending hierarchies and authorities, and the complexity revealed by perpetrator studies resulted in something wholly new. And in an appropriate keynote speech to the first day’s proceedings, Ben Kafka (NYU) illustrated the psychological underpinnings of any individual interaction with bureaucracy, not least the phenomenon of a ‘still face’ both personalizing and depersonalizing the very lowest levels of contact.

Joanna Curtis (NYU), Mirjam Frank (Royal Holloway), and Tereza Willoughby (Hradec Králové) began the second day’s proceedings with a panel chaired by David Vaughan (Anglo-American University in Prague) on the subject of cultural bureaucracies. Looking to the postwar career of the Wiener Sängerknaben, Curtis showed how two myths of bureaucracy—the idea that it expresses rational impulses and that it fundamentally embodies irrationality—faltered in this instance of an institution falling between a humanistic embrace of music, fears of cultural imperialism at home and abroad, and a shambolic interior structure under strict state control. Frank continued the discussion of Austrian culture by moving to the interwar period and discussing how bureaucracies realizedvarious conceptual changes leading to the Ständestaat period. The cosmopolitanism of the Habsburg Empire was made to yield an ‘Austrian’ identity premised on the interior culture of the reduced nation in the fairs at the Prater; the genesis of a tourist industry in the Weiner Festwochen elided a movement from Volk to a public; and the Ständestaat eventually held ‘culture’ as a shield against geopolitics. Willoughby demonstrated something similar in terms of bureaucratic manipulation of popular culture, namely how an official and unofficial rhetoric of ranking artists survived in the Czech Republic after the transition from communist rule—even if the terms changed. In this sense, as Willoughby showed, bureaucratic inner workings of television simultaneously preserved not only a similar editorial structure but also an only slightly-modified notion of audience numbers guiding the programming choices.

Personnel and agents emerged as a running theme throughout the panels, appropriately leading to the “Bureaucracy Personified” panel chaired by Veronika Pehe. Mátyás Erdélyi (Central European University) looked to the life and career of Josef Körösy (1844-1906), the director of the Budapest Statistical office. Körösy’s work there over several decades demonstrates how the international networks girding national offices, professional training in medicine and law, and sheer problems of scale could open gaps and debates between different, supposedly parallel bureaucracies. Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh (European University Institute / Sciences Po) similarly focused upon Jacek Kuroń (1934-2004) and how the “immanent critique” of bureaucracy in his 1964 “Open Letter to the Party” and Polish reform communism helped yield the Polish dissident movement across generations. And in a tour-de-force of close-reading of police files, Muriel Blaive (Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů) showed how the tones, arguments, and vocabulary of the secret police in Communist Czechoslovakia allowed for pockets of agency on both sides of the state divide, with the basis of participation changing between generations of families, jealous wives, and lazy police officers caught in the midst of official forms and habitus-change.

A final panel on gaps in bureaucracy perfectly closed the conference. With Kafka chairing, Cristian Capotescu (University of Michigan) opened by suggesting that “bureaucratic blindspots” both followed from and further developed bureaucratic procedures, indeed startlingly so in the case of cross-border charitable ‘giving’ practices on the edges of communist Romania. In a lighter talk discussing his own experiences applying for a “Certificate of Slovak Living Abroad,” Charles Sabatos (Yeditepe University) showed the relative complexities of the term ‘národnost’ or nationality as they emerge in the retrospective projection of the term backwards in Slovakian bureaucracy today. Whether politicized or not in the wake of 1989, bureaucracies did not necessarily become simpler or uniform with the advent of the European Union, and Sabatos’ case suggests that indeed inefficiencies might be the true purpose of many offices. And finally, conference organizer Rosamund Johnston (NYU) presented her ongoing research into the history of Czech Radio. Moving between the extant archives and the period practices—technological, material, and human—of radio production, Johnston documented how Czech Radio produced its own idiosyncratic variations of bureaucracy filled with lacunae, parallel hierarchies, specific forms of record-keeping, and traces of history. Layers of bureaucracy both occluded and preserved characteristic gaps calling for further reconstruction. Her case studies suggested how much further historiography can and should go in order to ‘fill in’ these holes.

Excerpts from Postava k podpírání (Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, dir.; 1963)

The conference ended on an artistic note. Pavel Juráček’s film Joseph Kilian (Postava k podpírání; 1963) was shown before a guided tour of linked art installations by students from the Center for Audio Visual Studies (CAS) at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). Juráček’s script is darkly comical, dedicated to the travails of a man trying to return a rented cat (…) to avoid late fees when the business wholly disappears. A sort of collective solidarity gradually emerges in the face of grinding state and official absurdity; an almost gentle sense of sympathy emerges among the menace. The work of the CAS and FAMU students under Eric Rosenzveig’s guidance followed in much the same vein. The very impersonality of bureaucracy could be seen to allow certain forms of disinterested critique— humorous and edged with a greater sense of historical distance. What both the film and the artworks allowed viewers to understand is how tightly the personal experience of bureaucracy remains tied to particular aesthetic forms, images, and genres; this heritage of paperwork and incomprehension naturally survives until today.

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Listening in to art by FAMU and CAS students (courtesy of Rosamund Johnston)

It reflects no small credit to the conference organizers that the proceedings both proved interesting and exploratory. Participants’ willingness to conceive of bureaucracy in terms other than those of Weber’s classical definitions—not to mention period or retrospective notions of secret police workings—opened up further avenues of research in terms both of a longue durée across eastern and central European history and of cultural exchanges and differences between east and west. The slow churn of paperwork may exhibit an unchanging face at first glance, but each case study of glacial bureaucratic rigor mortis yields considerable evidence of change behind the scenes.

The larger question hovering over the conference might be more bluntly termed. Did a particularly eastern and, later, a particularly Soviet form of bureaucracy emerge apart from any larger ideas about modernity? Here a tendency of many speakers to focus upon the Stalinist and postwar era suggested immediate problems of continuity. Did different degrees of internationalization (carried out from before and after WWII) characterize Austria and countries further to the east? That is, did competing models of bureaucracy and management exist—Soviet, American, Ottoman, Prussian, Habsburg, and so forth? And what might be said about the direction of causality between technology and organization? Despite what one might expect to find interesting, here a closer attention to the nitty-gritty, ground-level office forms, official rhetoric, and specific archival gaps proved most promising in terms of challenging old definitions and making clear the need for interdisciplinary research. Sociology, anthropology, media studies, cybernetics, historical epistemology, art history, architecture, law, and psychology to name but a few fields would all find work to do alongside more strictly historical research. One might be forgiven for presuming all this to be terribly boring. Yet seeing how the boring, frustrating, labyrinthine, and commonplace were specific, timely constructions—how they mediated social relations as much as experiences people had when encountering different state powers—draws back a curtain on the innermost workings of history.

From Josef K to Lustration: Bureaucracy in Central Europe (23-24 February 2017) was supported by NYU Prague, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, NYU Global Research Initiatives, and NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. The author thanks the conference organizers for the invitation to attend and report on the proceedings.