philosophy of history

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.

jean-claude_paupert

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.