philosophy of history

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.

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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 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.

Book 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 over consecutive Fridays. 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.

The Promise of a Technological Enlightenment: On Transhumanism and History

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

In the first decades of the new century, transhumanism aims at delivering the old Enlightenment promise. There can be little doubt that the aspiration to enhance (and even transcend) the capacities of the human being is an endeavor continuous with the Enlightenment ideal of human perfectibility. At least, this is the narrative that transhumanist themselves like to deploy in arguing for the feasibility and socio-cultural desirability of their views.

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Nick Bostrom

Although leading transhumanist thinkers hardly invoke the doctrine of the perfectibility of man as per Condorcet and others in explicit terms, they certainly tend to legitimize their views by outlining the respectable historical inheritance of the Enlightenment they wish to carry forward. This is how Nick Bostrom – the probably most celebrated transhumanist philosopher today – binds postwar and twenty-first century transhumanist ambitions (while being more ambivalent toward interwar ones) to certain eighteenth century visions of the progress of humankind when he claims in a historical sketch that transhumanism is rooted in Enlightenment rational humanism. Identifying such roots, however, does not compel anybody to accept the entire Enlightenment paradigm. The appeal of transhumanism based on the historical reasoning of its advocates is precisely that it comes as a better version of the Enlightenment, stripped off of the conceptual shortcomings of the latter. Accordingly, in the argument of Max More – another prominent transhumanist – the insistence upon progress in transhumanist thought prevails without the support of determinism and inevitability which the Enlightenment gave to all forms of progress.

All this adds up to what I would like to call the promise of a technological Enlightenment, that is, the promise of achieving by means of technology what the Enlightenment failed to deliver otherwise: the betterment of the human condition. But does this seem persuasive enough? Is the autobiography of transhumanism the most reliable tool and source of trying to understand transhumanism as a socio-cultural phenomena of rapidly growing significance? Probably not. Accordingly, it seems to me that the promise of transhumanism is something other than what transhumanists themselves claim. There certainly is a transhumanist promise, and that promise is definitely technological, but it has not much to do with the Enlightenment and not much to do with history.

In order to see why it is better to understand transhumanism as a technological promise of its own right and not as the promise of a technological Enlightenment what it aspires to be, the first thing to consider is the Enlightenment promise itself which transhumanism appropriates as its legitimizing narrative. That promise is advancement in the human condition that presupposes a belief in the perfectibility of human beings, which, in my understanding, is expected in turn to play out not on the individual but the collective level of humanity. Hence the idea of the perfectibility of human beings (whether consciously held or tacitly presupposed) necessitated a corresponding belief in the perfectibility of human societies. Reading Kant on universal history or Condorcet on the progress of the human mind equally makes clear that, for Enlightenment thinkers, human betterment can be achieved through the betterment of political constitution which eventually encapsulates the entirety of humanity.

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Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794; school of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, c. 1780-90)

What seems to be even more important is that the betterment of the human condition was supposed to play out both within and precisely as history. For the greatest invention of the Enlightenment was nothing other than the idea of history, the movement and mechanism of human affairs, the idea of the historical process that conceptualizes change over time in the human constitution. In history, humanity could be supposed to fulfill its already assumed potential – a potential that must have been assumed in order to able to be gradually changed for the better. The most striking aspect of the way in which the concept of history configured change was that change as betterment now concerned the very mundane world of human beings. It was against the backdrop of the kind of change entailed in the Christian worldview that the Enlightenment invented modern notions of historical process and progress. Whereas the Christian view held out the promise of a City of God apart from an earthly, compromised one, the Enlightenment promised the fulfillment of the historical process as the processual betterment of the human world.

Now, how does the promise of transhumanism relate to this Enlightenment promise? For it is one thing that transhumanism describes itself retrospectively as a better version of the promise of human betterment, making use of the most conventional historical narrative as a strategy to legitimize itself as a technological Enlightenment. But once you shift perspective and consider how transhumanism describes its prospective aims, the historical narrative about carrying forward an inheritance begins to look rather implausible. Indeed, what transhumanists explicitly wish to achieve in the future looks drastically different from visions offered by the Enlightenment.

The twofold definition of transhumanism in the Transhumanist FAQ wonderfully captures the contradiction between the retrospective historical narrative and the prospective aims. On the one hand, the first definition claims that transhumanism is “the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” This definition clearly appeals to the inheritance of the Enlightenment that transhumanism merely “affirms” and carries out via technological means. On the other hand, according to the second definition, transhumanism is “the study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies” (author’s emphasis).

Even though the second definition evidently refers only to the study of a cultural movement which also features in the first definition, the difference between the two descriptions of the potential of technology is striking. Whereas the first definition falls in accordance with its claimed Enlightenment inheritance insofar as it promises improvement upon what human beings are (and have always been), the second definition vests technology with the capacity of being a precise means of escape the confines what being human means.

Simply put, it is not the betterment ‘of’ the human condition what transhumanism desires, but the creation of something better ‘than’ the human condition as we know it. Where the Enlightenment assumed the malleability of human beings and human capacities, transhumanism instead presupposes that, whatever the human being and human capacities may be, technology can transcend them. Whereas the Enlightenment promised the unfolding of an already assumed human potential, transhumanism wishes to surpass what we think is humanly possible. Finally, if the Enlightenment thought that human perfectibility plays out as the course of history in a scenario of procedural and developmental change, transhumanism aims at introducing changes that are not merely stages of a historical development but potentially displaces the entire schema of history itself.

The change that transhumanism wishes to introduce is what I came to call elsewhere the prospect of unprecedented change. By this I mean a wider category that encompasses emerging postwar visions of the future of Western societies on a structural level, exhibiting a temporality other than the developmental one that the Enlightenment brought about. Instead of expecting the fulfillment of a process, the prospect of unprecedented change is conceived of as the sudden emergence of an epochal event defying any preceding states of affairs. Although first I introduced the term in relation to the notion of the Anthropocene and to the ecological vision it harbors, it is technology that has already transformed Western historical sensibility (with the prospect of unprecedented change promised at the time of the institutionalization of AI research in the early postwar years). Seen within this broader framework of postwar future visions, transhumanism is far from being a new chapter in the Enlightenment story of human betterment, that is, the story of history itself. Transhumanism rather proves itself to be one of the most relentless contemporary cultural practices, and one posing perhaps the most serious challenge to the very historical thinking which it employs as a legitimizing strategy.

To conclude, the point I would like to make is this: the technological promise of transhumanism is not a continuation of the Enlightenment story of history itself (the process of human betterment), but an alternative to history as Western thought essentially construes it. Transhumanism harbors a certain configuration of change over time as unprecedented, challenging the processual and developmental configuration of change over time that configures conventional understandings of history. And this, I believe, is something that both transhumanists and historians need to come to terms with and openly debate.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at Bielefeld University. You can find Zoltán on Twitter and his work on Academia.edu.

Croce between Hughes & White

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

The AHA met in Denver this past weekend. What follows is not a conference report, although there was much worthy of that. It is, rather, a response of sorts to two of the events I attended there in the form of a reflection on two classic works of intellectual history—H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society and Hayden White’s Metahistory—that were discussed at these events. The very different books both assign great importance to Benedetto Croce, and treat him at some length as part of a much broader argument.

The problem of objectivity in social science occupies the heart of Hughes’s 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. The book is rich, wide-ranging, and combines durable typologizing with uncommon subtlety. The narrative runs something as follows. In the middle of the 19th century, positivism reigned supreme, and positivists were certain that the social world could be known and perhaps even acted upon just as could the natural world. Such knowledge turned out to be at once elusive and unsatisfying. In the later part of the century, many thinkers in parallel staged a “revolt against positivism.” The positivism they attacked was often a caricature. For Hughes, the most enduring thinkers to emerge from this moment were those that felt deeply within themselves the pathos of the age, the wrenching pain of relativism, but also remained faithful to the core rationalist project of Enlightenment that had issued in the now-bankrupt positivism. Many proved to be all too willing to give up the egalitarian and democratic bent of the Enlightenment mindset when its notion of science proved unequal to social reality. Hughes’s story is partly one of the generation of 1890, but also of the encounter of this generation with the war in 1914, and the shards of what had come before that survived into the 1920s. This generation, Hughes writes,

had passed their youth at the climax of the Enlightenment—and simultaneously had inaugurated its most probing critique…their own psychological security—their confidence in such unstated assumptions as humane behavior and intellectual integrity—had given them the inner strength to inaugurate an unprecedented examination of conscience…The philosophies of urbane doubt—skepticism, pragmatism, pluralism—held no terrors for them (Hughes 426).

Their younger brothers (and here we indeed are speaking entirely about men) did seem to be terrified of these things, and Hughes identifies his period as one of experimentation and permissiveness between two ages of dogmatism.

Hughes identifies three figures as the geniuses of the age: Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Benedetto Croce. He explicitly writes about the problems and the figures he does because they have relevance in his own time, because the United States in the 1950s had not lost the orientation in social thought then established. Although Hughes doesn’t put it quite this way, as I read him, he believes that Weber more than anyone else posed rightly the central problems of value and objectivity and so provides a sort of standard—and leads into midcentury American social science; that Freud probed more deeply into the individual human psyche than ever before and is therefore an indispensable methodological tool, for instance for understanding Weber’s personality; and that Croce, who first formulated what Hughes takes to be the social science objections to Marxism, provides essential orientation for the historian in pursuing historical work.

Croce’s career can be schematized in terms of his three best-known slogans or positions: first, that history is to be subsumed under the category of art; second that all history is contemporary history; third that history is the story of liberty. This last is the title given in English translation to his 1938 La storia come pensiero e come azione, in which he defends what he describes as “absolute historicism.” Each of these slogans has a certain initial appeal. Yet Hughes’ description of the experience of reading Croce rings true:

Croce’s prose is limpid; it has the rare charm of sounding like the voice of common sense…With irresistible persuasiveness Croce carries his readers along with him. As we come to the end of a chapter we are both captivated and convinced. But when we subject the same pages to more careful analytical scrutiny, we find ourselves no longer so sure…we are driven to ask ourselves in despair: exactly what has Croce said anyway? (Hughes 223)

Indeed for Hughes the problem with Croce was that perhaps just because he in the end assimilated everything into the category of history, he never successfully came to terms with the non-rational character of value. Thus, “the ultimate irony of Croce’s thinking” is that “what starts as a rationalist theory terminates in a kind of mysticism” (Hughes 227). Hughes indicts Croce finally for a certain detachment, what has often been describes as an Olympian equanimity, “in brief, he lacked a sense of tragedy” (Hughes 229).

Irony and tragedy are key terms in White’s Metahistory, which appeared just 15 years after Hughes’ book. White uses the tools of structuralist literary criticism to examine what he calls the “deep structure” of the 19th century European historical imagination. The introduction establishes a system of interpretive categories: master rhetorical tropes, narrative or emplotment, explanatory or argumentative strategies, and modes of ideological implication. Just as, for Hughes, the truly enduring thinkers are those who struggled mightily with a deep contradiction, so for White those texts that remain alive to us are the result of internal struggle. Together with the centrality of rhetorical categories, White has taken on a theory of literary excellence: the best works struggle to synthesize incompatible modes. We as readers may continue to return to Michelet, but not to Ranke: “we admire the achievement of the latter, but we respond directly and sympathetically to the agon of the former” (White 191). White describes the larger goal of his book as an overcoming, through Irony, of the Ironic mode that is the origin of “the skepticism and pessimism of so much of contemporary historical thinking.” In so doing, “the way will have been partially cleared for the reconstitution of history as a form of intellectual activity which is at once poetic, scientific, and philosophical in its concerns—as it was during history’s golden age in the nineteenth century” (White xii).

The final chapter is on Benedetto Croce, regarded by White as “the most talented historian of all the philosophers of history of the century” (White 378). The first pages of the chapter recapitulate the path so far. After Nietzsche, “it remained only for a philosopher of history to reflect on this severed condition of historical consciousness and to conclude that historical knowledge itself was nothing but the existential projection of the Ironic mode to complete the cycle of possible historical attitudes in the philosophy of history…The problem would then be: how could one live with a history explained and emplotted in the Ironic mode without falling into that condition of despair which Nietzsche had warded off only by a retreat into irrationalism?” (White 378). Thus White must end with Croce because the task he believes Croce to have shouldered was just the one that White sees himself as taking up.

And Croce evidently failed. Looking over the first major phase of Croce’s work, from the 1893 programmatic essay reducing history to a subcategory of art, then the tetralogy of books from 1902-1917 making up his “Philosophy of Spirit,” White notes the central place occupied by history as a category. White goes on to object that “Croce consistently presupposed the absolute adequacy of his own “Philosophy of Spirit” for the spiritual needs of his age,” and that “he looked out at contending systems and back to preceding ones with that same Ironic gaze which the great cynics have shared with the great fanatics.” In short, Croce could not regard himself with ironic detachment (White 379). Despite his claims to have constituted “ethico-political” history, “in aestheticizing history, Croce de-ethicized it” (White 401).

White’s final judgment on Croce is withering. Croce’s liberalism, indeed his whole system of philosophy and history “was a sublimate of his generation’s awareness of the passing of an age, the Age of Europe, of humanism, and of that combination of aristocratic and bourgeois values which gave to the ruling groups of nineteenth-century Europe their distinctive life style” (White 423). History as contemporary history indeed. If White’s approach is narratological, it has frequently been pointed out that his chapters are nonetheless biographical. The chapter on Croce is no exception, indeed in the end the facts of Croce’s biography are adduced as evidence (not, White says, that more is needed) to show in good Marxist fashion that his work derives from his class position. White finds “the social equivalents of Croce’s main abstract philosophical categories: the principle of Life was nothing but a sublimation of aristocratic heroism; that of Death was nothing more than the bourgeois acceptance of practical exigency. The interplay of the two constituted Croce’s conception of culture, and the story of that interplay was his idea of history” (White 425)

The gambit of Metahistory, of course, is also to aestheticize history. White does not want to repeat Croce in emptying it of ethical content, if indeed we agree with him that this is what Croce did, and one can surely argue about his conduct under fascism. Rather, by being yet more self-conscious than Croce, White wants to pull the teeth of Irony itself and with liberatory intent:

Historians and philosophers of history will then be freed to conceptualize history, to perceive its contents, and to construct narrative accounts of its processes in whatever modality of consciousness is most consistent with their own moral and aesthetic aspirations. And historical consciousness will stand open to the re-establishment of its links with the great poetic, scientific, and philosophical concerns which inspired the classic practitioners and theorists of its golden age in the nineteenth century (White 434).

Hughes’s criticisms of Croce may be turned on White’s own attempt to overcome Croce. Like Croce his vision of what the writing of history might be seems impossibly encompassing. Beginning with art, White brackets the objectivity that so concerned Hughes and ends in historiography as freedom. White sets out with a rational formalist (although not a formist) account of historical thought and his book issues if not exactly in mysticism, in a therapeutic for historians.

Indefatigable Polyphony, or Alexander Kluge’s Narration in Complete Thoughts

by guest contributor William Stewart

Consider the oeuvre of the German filmmaker, writer, theorist, and general aesthete Alexander Kluge (b. 1932), and the word indefatigable springs to mind. The scale of Kluge’s work—thematics as much as sheer expanse and literal length, that of his individual efforts and that of the oeuvre as a whole—appears matched only by how quickly he produces it. Perhaps for this reason he explained to American author Ben Lerner that he normally sleeps ten to twelve hours a night. “Is that true?” Lerner shot back incredulously. “Yes,” answered Kluge, “I’m a specialist.”

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Ben Lerner, Devin Fore, and Alexander Kluge (© author)

Such was the exchange typical of Alexander Kluge’s recent two-day residency at Princeton University: at once playful, absurd, and personal, yet nonetheless deeply honest, deceptively insightful, and surreptitiously poetic. Coinciding with this visit, Princeton’s Department of German—the home of the Alexander Kluge Research Collection and, along with Cornell University and the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, one of three repositories of Kluge’s archive—hosted an event on the theme of ‘Narration,’ a concept that the gathering’s lectures, readings, conversations, films, and performances probed and stretched. The format was as practiced (including academic talks) as it was spontaneous: Kluge often veered from script, reverting to German and demanding that whoever happened to be sitting nearest to him serve as interpreter. Kluge himself worked, so to speak, as much as he was worked on. In a style reminiscent of the audial dialectics of the simultaneous translation found in programming produced by Kluge’s German television channel, dtcp, Princeton’s event engaged in a literal polyglossia, where diversity of both speakers and format served to create a veritable thematic polyphony.

Klugian narration is heterotopic. He transmits on multiple channels simultaneously: personal anecdote, theory, story, allusion, axiom, commentary. Yet despite its volatility, Kluge synthesizes this ensemble with astounding dexterity and forcefulness in the mind of the audience. The granularity of Kluge’s material suggests a swarm of disjunctive monads. Individual moments—clips from his films, passages from his theoretical work, the short prose of his fiction, or quotations from his lectures—capture fragmented arguments and apparently unrelated transitions. Only with distance, with separation does this logic of sampling reveal the greater beauty of its vision. Kluge narrates, as it were, not in complete sentences but in complete thoughts.

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Devin Fore and Alexander Kluge (© author)

An exercise in this narration in complete thoughts, the October event opened with a conversation between Kluge and Devin Fore, editor of the English translation of Geschichte und Eigensinn (History and Obstinacy, Zone, 2014). Kluge and sociologist Oscar Negt, both former students of Theodor Adorno and peers of Jürgen Habermas, originally composed this theoretical text collaboratively in 1981. Fore posed questions about the book’s difficult form, suggesting that its penchant for extreme detail created conditions for a “non-productivity” and a resistance to being taught. Kluge responded that the book had no interest in any kind of abstract theory; Negt, in fact, had insisted that the book involve no metaphors. “A concept without experience,” Kluge noted to Fore, “is void. An experience without concept is blind.” For Kluge, this “challenge of concepts” has to do with content’s being so “heavy”—schwer, lästig—a point whose metaphorical validity matches the literal weight of the thousand-plus-page Geschichte und Eigensinn. Kluge then sprung deftly to an ambivalent critique of the “grandchildren of the flower children in Silicon Valley,” parsing their perceived desire for total digitalization, that is, the desire to think the world solely in algorithms, as a kind of modern-day Dornrösschen. If Silicon Valley can be understood in the terms of Sleeping Beauty, then its algorithms are the spells that enchant the castle (or attempt to). Content may be thus relieved of its weight, but perhaps it is just this weight, qua spatial specificity and material constraint, that, when considered in Marxist terms of labor capital, previously allowed workers to “brake,” to perform their own kind of obstinacy against the forces of history. The algorithmically enchanted castle of Kluge’s Dornrösschen may fantasize and even promise a total dissolution of labor’s material specificity, but this comes at the cost of the laborer’s material specificity, as well.

In many ways a demonstration par excellence of the thematic expansiveness of Geschichte und Eigensinn, a program of “narration” concluded Thursday evening. Kluge’s curated event, with participation by Mike Jennings and musical accompaniment by Jamie Rankin, combined prose readings, film clips, poetry recitation, and live piano recital. Filmic ruminations on the material history of the Bataclan building in Paris were accented, for instance, by Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’; Kluge emphasized Mayrhofer’s verse—“Die Erde ist gewaltig schön / Doch sicher ist sie nicht”—as a prism through which to consider the Verschränkung (interlacing) that occurs between, one, the orientalism of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta, Ba-ta-clan, which inspired the theatre building’s architecture and, two, the horrifically violent events of November 13, 2015. Indeed, this Verschränkung remained a topic of interest throughout the narration, and Kluge went to great lengths to distinguish it from any notion of causality. The evening fixed on the ways turmoil links historical moments large and small, and the legibility that this Verschränkung provokes. For Kluge, history operates not like a river, but like a glacier, as Lutz Koepnick explained in his lecture on “Kluge’s Moments of Calm.” The move of history for Kluge is thus an erasing one, eroding as it roves, and yet nevertheless leaving behind clear, interpretable stratification. As Koepnick’s analogy suggests, whatever calm exists in Klugian narrative cannot be separated from the turmoil that defines modernity.

The polyphonic quality of Kluge’s own narrative style endowed the conference with space for less orthodox encounters, the highlight of which was Friday’s conversation and collaborative reading between Kluge and Ben Lerner, American author of 10:04 and recent MacArthur Fellow. Kluge and Lerner presented poetry that they had composed in response to each other’s texts, a form that resonated with Kluge because, as he phrased it, one cannot help but write always to the side of what one sees. Kluge’s attraction to Lerner arose from the latter’s collection The Lichtenburg Figures, but Lerner’s later remark on Kluge’s defining stylistics provides perhaps a more telling affinity: Kluge’s work, in Lerner’s eyes, employs a clinical or scientific and therefore cold gaze, and yet simultaneously maintains the wildest of metaphysical possibilities. In fact, this obstinacy of the metaphysical or fantastic against the clinical had been considered earlier in the day during a lecture by Richard Langston, the lead translator of Geschichte und Eigensinn. For Langston, who examined the thematic pertinence of the recent collaborations between Kluge and the German visual artist Anselm Kiefer, Kluge’s work always contains at its core a “protest of feelings,” a kind of innate human criticality that endows scientific subject matter with an “alchemical” aesthetics and renders the subjective legible within the perceived natural world.

This subjectively sourced power is a clear motif of Kluge’s, evidenced by the title of his 1983 film Die Macht der Gefühle (The Power of Feelings). Philipp Ekardt highlighted scenes from the film to demonstrate the degree to which emotions and feelings are the target of an ongoing investigation in Kluge’s oeuvre. Within Kluge’s narratives, he argued, individual feelings aggregate to produce historically driving forces, a process through which the subject is transformed from analyst to agent. Kluge presents such powerful protest of feelings as a necessary response given the complicated role of hope and the utopic in his critical thought: unlike his predecessors Walter Benjamin, whose utopic visions were rooted in the past, or Theodor Adorno, for whom hope arrived from the future, Kluge relies on the counterfactual as a mode in which to access and practice potential futures, an observation that Leslie Adelson presented in her lecture “Making Time with Alexander Kluge in ‘Saturday in Utopia’.” Feelings of dissatisfaction with and criticality toward the present situation act as a powerful engine for Kluge’s narration, in which it is the future, not the past, that is rewritten as utopian reality.

Kluge concluded the event with a concrete consideration of this counterfactual future through a lecture and a film screening, which posed questions of political ethics and responsibility to the public sphere. Against the ever-increasing isolation allowed by what Kluge termed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and the rise of an Internet of Things; against the growing tendency for the “public realm” to become more and more mediated through the non-materiality of interfaces, algorithms, and a globalized, automatized world; the subject must more and more stake the validity of her experience as a moment of possible public interchange. This requires what Kluge called a “counter public sphere,” one that can be narrated only by poetry, can think in both singularity and probabilities, and is capable of dealing in both algorithms and anti-algorithms—a new polyphony for the modern day.

There is a certain violent relationality in Kluge’s ideas, one inherent already to the late-capitalist objects of his critical scrutiny, but also in the way his notions connect to each other. His thinking moves quickly, shifting abruptly and never pausing to second-guess a remark. As a form of critique, such a breakneck mode of narration can be perilous, and it is certainly not without its pitfalls. But as Kluge himself quipped on the precariousness of his thinking: whoever skates on thin ice will not fall through as long as he skates as fast as he can. Perhaps. What cannot be denied is Kluge’s unique gift for associative faculties, for collage and assemblage, for articulating valences that might otherwise be missed as conceptually absurd, ideologically contradictory, or temporally incongruous.

And indeed, attending “A Narration” often left one with a strange inability for temporal judgment: it was difficult to say whether Kluge’s material felt so passé as to be dated or so thoroughly resistant to the vogue as to, in fact, be avant-garde. Likely, the better answer is neither. Klugian narration enacts a sort of Auszeit, a state exterior to categories of normal time, be that in its form—the easy Verschränkung of styles, sources, and chronologies—or in its aim—the kind of contra-factual futurity observed by Adelson. In a previous conversation with Kluge, Joseph Vogl has described the revolutionary as one able to “dissolve and stitch together different times,” one who “assembles history,” “a vessel for temporal states.” As Princeton’s event demonstrated over and over, Klugian narration exemplifies this move of dissolving and stitching together again. His work is nothing if not an assembly, an assembling, an assemblage of history, and, as a narrator, he is nothing if not an indefatigable vessel for temporal states.

William Stewart is a PhD student in Princeton’s Department of German, which he joined after working for a number of years in the studio of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. He is interested by the ways in which cultural-historical moments appear reflected in works of visual art, film, and literature, especially in the years following 1968.

Histories We Repeat

by guest contributor Timothy Scott Johnson

 You know, I’ve always been suspicious of analogies. But now I find myself at a great feast of analogies, a Coney Island, a Moscow May Day, a Jubilee Year of analogies, and I’m beginning to wonder if by any chance there isn’t a reason.

            Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (William Weaver, trans.)

Analogies abound in historical writing. Despite their near-ubiquity, however, I find historical analogies drastically under-examined in modern historical analysis. When examined, they usually emerge under the rubric of explaining why one historian’s analogical reasoning proves defective. But examining historical analogies used by our historical subjects can prompt us to ask larger, important questions.

The work done by Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White on historical tropes and metaphor, Reinhart Koselleck on concepts, and Hans Blumenberg on myth and metaphor all importantly contributed to the study of historical representation. None directly address analogies as such, however. At best, they treat analogy as a subset of metaphor, one in which the connecting logics are perhaps more clearly (or crudely) asserted than in mythic or metaphoric representation. Whereas myth and metaphor tend to be impressionistic with underlying logics pushed to the background, process and structure are foregrounded in historical analogy. Processes, narratives, and historicities embed themselves in historical analogies.

Analogies themselves are one of the key ways of thinking difference and similarity. Accordingly, we should not be all that surprised that the likes of Kant, Humboldt, and Droysen foreground the analogy’s role in rational judgment. And insights on analogy litter the first and concluding chapters of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Even thinkers further afield like Fourier and Swedenborg were captivated by analogical reasoning. Without planting flags in any particular philosophical camp, it is not, I think, too controversial to recognize the importance of analogical thought in epistemology and aesthetics in general. To push even further, we could speculate with the linguist George Lakoff that analogies are a universal anthropological fact to be dealt with and not simply an anti-rational demon to be exorcized.

If analogies prove part of our human understanding, what then of historical understanding? For historians, analogies provide something akin to the efforts at modeling the so-called hard sciences developed after the Renaissance, making past reflections a sort of historical laboratory for contemporary and future reflection. Luciano Canfora’s brief study Analogia e storia offers some provisional insights into how historians have thought analogically. Dating as far back as Thucydides’ introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War analogical thinking has been at the historian’s disposal for discerning shared processes and dynamics among different events. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives are perhaps an even clearer exemplar. Canfora’s colleague Carlo Ginzburg has also made the case that Aristotle’s discussion of paradigms in the Rhetoric is essential for understanding his view of history. Yet, at the same time, Canfora observes that large-scale similarities brought about by analogy also tend to obfuscate small-scale differences and represent history as tautological and self-referential. Thus, for instance, by definition every revolution risks being interpreted according to the French or Russian Revolutions. The political as well as historical pitfalls of such heuristics are many. Often, Canfora claims, these analogical oversimplifications can be productive in their own right; they can also be political expedients with little concern for historical understanding.

If the particular analogy of a given event to the French Revolution seems familiar—even well-worn, thanks perhaps to the legacy of Theda Skocpol’s comparative revolutions approach—the French Revolution has had other, more surprising, analogical applications. Often, these applications occurred by historical subjects themselves as a way of grounding their own historical situation. Even before French historian Albert Mathiez claimed the Bolsheviks were neo-Jacobins, for instance, Lenin adopted the mantle for himself. When grasped from the subject’s perspective, examining the historical analogies subjects use to describe and understand their own historical moments, the analogy actually has the power of getting beyond the pitfalls of the historian’s macrohistorical determinations. Rather than foreclosing analysis, they can point to analytic surprises.

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Following De Gaulle’s return to government in May 1958, on the cover of the French magazine L’Express a Marianne, symbolic of the French Republic, is ready to guillotine herself.

Take, for instance, the French Revolution’s role in deciphering the French-Algerian War (1954-1962) and the fall of the fourth French Republic. Beyond an occasion to examine the important tensions between colonial difference, identity, and hybridity in postwar France and Algeria, the French Revolution analogy can also act as a diagnostic index uniting assumptions about French politics and history with assumptions about Algerian politics and history. That individuals on all sides of the war would refer to the French Revolution to mediate their own experience is both obvious—nationalism 101, so to speak—and illuminating. It highlights the various expectations actors had of the limits and possibilities of their moment. The historical analogy thus serves as a way into the microhistorical world. Taking subjects’ own large-scale assumptions about the unfolding of history as a starting point allows the historian to reconstruct their moment from within.

Let’s look at three specific instances of this analogy during the war. First is testimony from Jean-Claude Paupert, a veteran of the war in Algeria and subsequent member of pro-Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) support networks. Despite declaring years later that he was no “revolutionary hothead,” Paupert was tried and found guilty of providing material aid and support to the FLN in 1960. In his closing trial declaration, Paupert explained his actions were meant to defend French civilization and French values, particularly those tied to the Revolution:

I have not chosen to help the Algerians because of their mistreatment, but because the struggle of the Algerian people is a just struggle, and I have not chosen to aid Algerian militants in spite of their terrorism, but because terrorism is their destiny.… Being French is not a virtue stored in a refrigerator, it is a fidelity one invents. To be French today is to be Algerian … We know well, for both princes and for valets, that fraternity is a terrorist act.

The Revolution’s Jacobin ideals of terror and fraternity were applicable in 1960 since Algeria was going through its own revolutionary moment that obeyed the same dynamics as the French Revolution. In this way, examining statements like this one and the many others like it from the war, we can build an understanding of what a nascent metropolitan third worldist engagement meant.

Next is a completely different sentiment, a message from General Jacques Massu, a rightwing supporter of French Algeria. By the end of the war he would help direct the Secrete Army Organization (OAS), a rightwing terrorist group bent on keeping settler control over Algeria. In May of 1958, however, he proved instrumental in bringing down the Fourth Republic and returning Charles de Gaulle to power. In a letter addressed to “Mon Cher Camarade,” dated 13 May 1958, the day of the Algiers generals’ putsch that would bring down the Republic, Massu wrote, “I must ask the best of yourself in order to combat the enemy and make the great ideas of generous France triumph in Algeria, these ideas that, since 1789, have shaken the world” (Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine, Fonds Daniel Guérin). Pro-colonial military action and the perpetuation of the civilizing mission were behind this instance of analogy to the French Revolution.

Lastly, analogy to the French Revolution emerged as popular among FLN supporters educated either in France or in state-run francophone North African schools. The poet, radio host, and FLN spokesman Jean El-Mouhoub Amrouche, criticized the ethnologist Germaine Tillion for failing to see Algerian nationalists as properly modern political subjects:

It is true that one can hardly recognize these hungry souls demanding the destiny of free men and being inhabited by spiritual needs. ‘Liberty or death’: it was good and true for the great ancestors of 1793 and the barefoot of Year II. Who could imagine the fellagha [rebels] of the Aurès, Oranie, Soummam, or the clandestine actors from the towns or villages of Algeria, have discovered in their desperation the only path towards the light by proclaiming themselves free and sovereign over the land of their forefathers?

Amrouche saw the legitimacy of the Algerian nationalist cause through the prism of the universal French ideals the civilizing mission encouraged him to embrace. Recognizing the FLN’s political legitimacy meant recognizing their affinities with Revolutionary actors.

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Jean-Claude Paupert, center, was part of support networks that sheltered Algerians and laundered money for the FLN. (Image from Mediapart)

Simply observing these three different analogies to the French Revolution does not automatically reveal any obvious conclusions, except perhaps about the sheer elasticity of what the French Revolution could mean to different hereditary claimants. And the variety of events within the Revolutionary era of 1789 to 1799 allowed for a large degree of adaptation, highlighting on the one hand citizen military defense or on the other radical Jacobin universalism. But the analogy also works like an index of the type described by Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory, pointing in various directions to further research questions. Why, for instance, would Paupert and Amrouche think that Algerian history was at a moment similar to the end of old regime France? North African history had been denied by historians throughout the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth centuries. Perhaps something had changed in perceptions of North African history (and indeed, much had changed). After all, the analogy is not present in earlier moments of anticolonial violence in North Africa. Further, why would a rightwing military officer feel the need to call upon the principles of 1789 when planning a government coup? What conditions would drive Massu to connect French Republicanism with a rather Bonapartist move (another historical analogy ever present in 1958 France)? Insofar as analogies reveal a subject’s assessments of the logics at work in a given moment, they grant a uniquely valuable point of entry for intellectual historians.

 

Timothy Scott Johnson recently defended his dissertation on the use of the French Revolution in the French-Algerian War at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the intellectual history of postwar France.  

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.

Practical Past, Runaway Future

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

In his latest book and recent articles, Hayden White puts the almost-forgotten notion of the “practical past” back on the scholarly agenda, and right at the center of debates within the field of philosophy of history. By reviving the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s distinction between the “historical past” and the “practical past,” White argues that embracing the latter will help to restore the public reputation of history.white the practical past cover

By “history,” White means more than just historical writing and the academic discipline of history. He characterizes the “practical past” several times as a general societal attitude, in contrast to the discipline’s attachment to the historical past. However, I would like to read White as someone who is attentive to the necessary intertwining of “history” understood as a general sense of the course of events and as academic historical writing. In such a reading, a call for the embrace of the practical past would serve the same purpose as the call of The History Manifesto: to bring historical studies into contact with the most pressing concerns of our times, and to do so in a way that would enable historians and the discipline to be instrumental in shaping future action. Whereas The History Manifesto wishes to accomplish the task by turning to long-term thinking, in The Practical Past White argues that we should tell stories in which the past is living in the present, because these stories can serve as practical guides to future action.

In White’s view, the problem remains that the discipline of history is engaged instead in what Oakeshott called the historical past: “a dead past” that is “for itself alone.” Although I sharply disagree with White on this, I have to concede that his argument does not hinge upon such agreement. His point is that the desired public relevance of history lies in its capacity to tell practical stories in which the past is still with us, and by which we might go forward.

White’s turn to the practical past has already attracted a great deal of feedback. Some of this is positive, like that from White’s biographer, Herman Paul, who thinks that the notion of practical past is perfectly consistent with White’s overall humanism and an ideal of history that facilitates social action. More critical voices, like Chris Lorenz, note that the entire distinction between historical and practical past is based on a positivistic tradition that White thereby upholds. More is to come when the International Network for Theory of History devotes its second conference to the issue of the practical past. It will be held next year in Brazil under the title “The Practical Past: on the advantages and disadvantages of history for life.”

Given this wide impact, it is important to ask the question whether the notion of the practical past (and, for that matter, The History Manifesto) is a feasible and appropriate link between historical studies and our wider societal, cultural and political concerns. The answer I would like to give to this question is, unfortunately, anything but affirmative. The practical past is more of the problem than the solution: the notion of history that underlies White’s suggestion is precisely what has lost its relevance to recent societal concerns. In an article forthcoming in the European Review of History, I offer a detailed argument supporting this claim, but within the confines of a blog post I will focus on the essentials.

In the most general terms, the practical past fails to engage with the very concerns to which it wishes to connect. The feasibility of a conceptual framework for bridging past, present and future hinges on whether it can make sense of the future prospects we presently have. But the future prospects we presently have can best be called unprecedented changes: those entailed in the concept of the Anthropocene, in the prospect of a “technological singularity” and “intelligence explosion,” in nanotechnology, or in the practice of bioengineering and human enhancement.

Many of these may strike you as science fiction, but what matters is not whether we will actually witness, say, a technological singularity, when machines of our creation begin to make even more intelligent machines and thus suddenly outperform us. What matters is that this is the prospect of the future we have—not only at the cinema, but also at laboratories and university departments. Our notion of history—in the sense that White uses it, as both the course of events and as historical writing—does not depend solely on our retrospective stance. It derives from the way we configure the relationship between the past, the present and the future. If our future prospects qualitatively change, our notion of history, including history understood as historical writing, has to change with it if we wish it to survive.

Thus, the problem with White’s practical past (and with The History Manifesto) is that it is based on a notion of history that cannot make sense of our future prospect of unprecedented changes. For the practical past, based on a deep temporal continuity and on the continuity of human experience, has to bow down before a change that does not unfold or evolve from a past state of affairs (and this, I believe is precisely what Dipesh Chakrabarty finds so disturbingly challenging in the notion of the Anthropocene). The practical past is able to conceptualize only that sort of change and notion of history which White ponders in his book: the change during which a substance retains its identity, and a history in which a subject retains its identity while undergoing changes in appearance. What it cannot conceptualize is a change in which what was previously regarded as a subject that retains its self-identity through all changes (that is, humanity, on the largest scale) disappears or gets replaced by another subject that comes to existence without unfolding from the past. What the practical past can conceptualize is, for instance, the process of nation building; what it cannot conceptualize is unprecedented change.

In order to answer the question of how historical studies could regain its instrumentality in shaping our lives, we should first have an answer to the question of what sort of concerns we have and what sort of future life we envision. Before we could demand a role for history in shaping future action and wider societal concerns, we should consider what our societal concerns demand from our notion of history.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology. His research revolves around the interrelated efforts to devise a quasi-substantive philosophy of history to account for history understood as the course of events, and to frame a critical philosophy of history that reconciles the linguistic and non-linguistic dimensions of history understood as historical writing.