About this site

This site is the working forum for a Princeton University graduate seminar, HIS/HOS 591, a course that aims to sift out and attend upon alternative ways of engaging the past. In this course we are interested in modes of historical consciousness, experience, production, and expression that are not easily assimilated to current disciplinary forms. Along the way, we are going to try to refine our understanding of contemporary professional historiographical norms, emphasizing their genealogy, and, where relevant, surfacing critical contingencies. Our question: Where might the practice of history go from here? Themes to be explored include: anachronism and nostalgia; historical fiction/metafiction; reenactment, personification, and embodiment; “Dionysian historiography” and ritual; and so on.

The plan is to build out this website as a resource for imaginative and innovative thinking about historical method and practice — and to that end all the students in the class are free to post into these threads at any time, and to update/expand reading lists or other links.

A note on conventions: Pre Class Posts for a given week, together with the readings for the session, will be found at the bottom of the posting — after the seminar summary/write-up. I will take responsibility for the first pass at these write-ups, but student commentary is welcome. We’ll use green text and single brackets for first-order interventions, blue text (and double brackets) for comments on comments, and violet text (and triple brackets) for comments on comments on comments. Initialing comments is standard.

– D. Graham Burnett

Week 0: Race and Gender

This post comes post-facto, positioned at the peak of our page, though it was written once our class was well underway. We created our course curriculum collaboratively, but also celeritously. Thinking about “alterity” and “alternatives” to traditional historiographical methods, we thematically traced the future course of our course. In doing so, we both predicted and prescribed what would come next.

But our created course took on a life of its own, and through discussions and collaborative writing, birthed a possibility of new, “alternate” versions of our class, rupturing our understanding of what we ourselves had created. The following reading list, “Week 0,” argues that historicizing race and gender are integral in our course, both in revealing on what our historical establishment is founded, and leading us to potential new paths. If we turn back time, it might become our week 1.

Interventions interweave our sentences, our paragraphs and pages. Consider this one one of many, one which ruptures our rhythm without ruining it, and questions our creation without quashing it.


Emily Martin, The Egg and the Sperm: how science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles

Anne Fausto-Sterling, The Bare Bones of Sex

Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, Racecraft

Screening: Happy Birthday, Marsha!

If, in our collaborative endeavor, we wish to challenge the establishment and not unwittingly recreate it, we have to identify the foundations on which is has been built: whiteness and performative masculinity. Contemporary historians have begun to unveil a gaping blind spot in contemporary historiography: the extent to which our historiographical conventions and values emerged in order to preserve these values, and continue to do so. In using whiteness and masculinity as lenses through which to look at our disciplinary toolbox, we can better understand how these tools actually serve us, the cultures they perpetuate, and where our toolbox is lacking.

[I have taken a little time to think about this, and rather than putting a long thing in here, I am attaching a few comments on the questions raised in the paragraph above — focusing on the central challenge that JPO has posed.  I don’t have time right at this moment to do thoughts on the Dostoevsky below, but might ask JPO for clarification on that part of the post anyway: isn’t Dostoevsky talking about general human perversity and self-destructive folly here (as the last bastion of our “freedom,” as our final resort in our [semi-/sub- conscious] combat against determinism and the mechanico-metrical-auto-alienation of “rationality”)? How does this passage work for you in relation to the problem you are putting to us?  Forgive me for not being sure!  -DGB]

[We’ve been thinking about whether it’s possible to read JPO’s post in such a way that her intervention converges with the concerns articulated above by DGB about isolating gender and race as singular “foundations.” We share and feel these concerns deeply — we’re especially anxious about how quickly race/gender/[insert variable here] can become normativizing and disciplinary in ways that foreclose, rather than open up, inquiry. Yet we wonder if we might read JPO’s post in the same way we might read Oppenheimer’s film as playing on the conventions of documentary filmmaking. If we take this post’s tone as a mimicry of (historically male and white academic) rhetorical conventions, then we might read it as simultaneously enacting a certain bravado (through use of words like “challenge”) to emphasize race and gender while being critical of the logocentrism of presuming “foundations.” Reading the post in this way, as an undoing of its own doing, might enable us to negotiate the epistemological dangers DGB outlines and think outside the limiting dialectic of “foundational critique” in ways that foreground race and gender without rendering them singular. HHN/TS]

We need new criteria for evaluating alternative methodologies. If we value methodologies by virtue of their otherness, we risk remaining stuck in the value system of our discipline. We cannot escape our cage by merely grasping outside of it, and by attempting to invert “it,” we remain ironically tethered to it. Dostoevsky, a white dude, encapsulates “man’s” problem perfectly in Notes From Underground:

“It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself—as though that were so necessary— that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar… the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key.”


[Thank you for this, JPO. It’s good to think on, and totally in line with what I suggested we should try to do together as the term proceeds: imagine extended and improved versions of the class. I think we need to have a conversation in class this upcoming week (Week 7), and sort out how we might re-arrange some things in the second half of the term. I would encourage anyone who has an alternative proposition for a week to work it up now, so we have some things to think about on Wednesday the 26th of October.   I am also going to suggest that we eventually make a section of the website with several different/alternative weeks laid out (you will see below in Week 6 that I feel we probably should have had a week on Memory, and one might also have included a specific week on “the Body”). We won’t probably be able to do them all — or maybe even any of them, not on this go.  But they will be invaluable for anyone navigating the course materials in the future, and really helpful for me if I try another version of this class someday. -DGB]

[I hope that there will be a lot of discussion on this page, since it speaks directly to one of the main reasons why I chose to take up History in the first place. It might be that this is not a reason that we share, yet I would hope that in any case it might help us to think through what history does for us, what, if anything, we can learn from it, and as a consequence, what our ethical obligations as historians ought to be.

As far as I see it, the study of history is the only Geisteswissenschaft capable of liberating the individual, precisely because there is a limit to its ability to be prescriptive. However much we rattle the cage and subscribe to post-structuralist theories or embrace the linguistic turn, History as a discipline can hardly do without the idea that somehow, we need to do justice to the past. And that means that we have to work with “documents”, tangible material evidence with which to craft our historical narratives. One can rearrange them, deconstruct them, go on a quest to discover new ones or even use historical narratives as historical documents in their own right, as Hayden White does. Yet however much we push the boundaries of the acceptable categories of “documents”, and we have come a long way here already, we cannot simply pull them out of thin air. And if our documents necessarily exist within reality, then they are open to be subject to differing interpretations by different people. As such our methodologies and historiographical approaches can only be authoritative for so long, since soon enough the next bright mind comes along and finds a new, more compelling way of interpreting and compiling documents into historical narratives. 

Of course, this way of looking at history is completely idealized. History is not being written in a vacuum, but rather in the here and now. I think that the realization here, that History as a profession, the way it is practiced and the things we write, are in and of itself the products of sociological and economic trends is something we need to always keep in mind. I myself am a strict Crocean, and firmly believe that there is no history but contemporary history. When we sit down to write a work of history, we always do so because of an immediate concern. It might be because we are trying to understand more about a topic that is close to us, or because we are trying to make a name for ourselves in the professional field we have chosen, and now need to prove ourselves in. In either case, we write history, because it has meaning to us, here and now, in the present. What whiteness and masculinity do in the context of the historical profession today, is to circumscribe the realm of acceptable historical work, and to delineate the circumstances under which that work has to be written. While we might be eager to address controversial issues, the possibility that we are stepping on someone’s toes while doing it means that one has to carefully weigh whether to follow one’s heart unconditionally. We are thereby limited in our ability to use history to address our immediate concerns, or else put under undue stress when we decide to do so anyway.

Yet I think that it is precisely where the historical method can help us. As has been pointed out above, “we cannot escape our cage by merely grasping outside of it”. In fact it would appear to me that we cannot escape the cage at all, since it, much like ourselves, is the product of historical developments which we cannot simply do away with. What we can do, however, is to keep working in order to expand our freedom of movement. And history is to me the only way one can do that, because it ought to make us feel small.

In the sheer breadth of human experience, in its history of violent struggles, of dazzling accomplishments in art, science and culture, of hurt, of unspeakable acts of cruelty and of inconceivable acts of kindness, one will eventually have to face the realization that we are hardly as remarkable as we think, hardly as important as we perceive ourselves to be. Since the historical narratives which precede us, and which serve as the foundation upon which one rest his inflated sense of self-worth, are based on the use of documents, and those in turn are subject to differing interpretations, they are susceptible to the probing shovels of the historian, who can and must collapse them if it serves to do “justice” to history.

We might therefore want to cut down to size those who constrict our freedom of movement within the cage. Yet we ought to be careful in how we do it. I hope you will excuse the ongoing metaphor I’m employing here, but it would appear that some of the “big” figures of history are those which through sheer force of argument have pushed against the grates, bulging them out and thus expanding this collective space we are all trapped in. We need to make space for others, stepping back to avoid being at each other’s throats like caged animals and curtailing the destructive and prescriptive forces that threaten our well-being. But we should not forget that we also need to keep pushing the boundaries. And here we will need to be both strong and considerate, in order to be able to push together without stepping on each other. -AB]

Week 1: Introductions



I’m going to go ahead and try to offer a brief résumé of our ranging introductory conversation. Comments below are welcome, but I also appreciate that everyone is just getting going learning the mechanics of this website as framework for the documentation (and discursive extension) of our seminar discussions. We are here at the inception of what I hope will become, across the next twelve weeks, a shared enterprise. So here goes…

I suppose maybe our first session was a fiasco. I didn’t really think of it that way, but my faculties for self-deception are pretty well developed. The basic reality is that, as I explained when we all finally found ourselves in the same room (note registrar’s last minute room change; note, further, being in a room with no seminar table, no white board, no markers, and many fewer chairs than we needed — not to mention a basement room in a building I have never actually entered across nearly 20 years of campus life), I had thought this class was probably going to take shape as something like a reading course with perhaps 2 or 3 graduate students. I got materials for the course in late, and up to about a week ago there was no one registered for the class. For this reason I was not well prepared for a first session attended by 26 people, and decided that I needed to suspend commitment on the syllabus I had been preparing, pending some clarification as to who you all were, and what it was that you hoped to encounter/engage/achieve across a semester together. With the acquisition of further intelligence on those matters to mind, a significant portion of our first meeting consisted of our going around the room and taking a moment to listen to everyone in attendance. Yes, I wanted to hear names and departments, but I also wanted to give each of you a moment to talk about the kinds of historical problems you had confronted in your work. Here’s what I wrote:


I was myself amazed, and even touched, by how much came out simply in the course of those brief introductions. We brushed so many questions that seemed to me so central to an inquiry like the one I hope we will have succeeded in undertaking — as we look back on this semester from January 2017. I will not attempt a proper summary, but it is easy to touch a few of the salient subjects invoked in the course of that first two hours of our talking: the problem of seemingly unrecoverable dimensions of human experience in the past (sexuality, the dialectic of thought and bodily experience that constitutes an awareness of gender, the carriage of a head or the mien of a face, the history of desire); the problem of belief, and the awkwardness of attempting to access messianic and other forms of theological time by means of tools forged in the secular dilapidation to metaphysics (or indeed, perhaps, using tools actually forged as instruments of secularizing iconoclasm); the general problems of “untimeliness.”

In the course of all this I had a chance to put into the mix a number of the works and thoughts that have inspired my hunger for our subject: artistic achievements like the work of historicizing artists (e.g., Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, but also David Wilson and the Museum of Jurassic Technology); experiments with performance and experience in both pedagogical and contemporary art settings; great works of historical fiction; powerful encounters with virtual reality and gaming; increasing awareness of the transformational implications of new archives and new modes of accessing those archives; deepening concern about the long term viability about certain forms of immersive long-form text-based media, etc. There was no table in the room, going around that room I feel like we got a lot on the table.

Let me pull one thread out of what we wove, and tie it around my finger — tie it around your fingers. Put knots in it.

When Hélène mentioned having been ill for sometime (I think she referred to “two years”) and to having become interested during that time in the historicity of her own malady or condition, I got goose bumps. I had not thought before of this example, and I have not myself experienced that form of historical appetite (?), but I must say that very notion of finding oneself drawn to the historicization of one’s own internal pathological processes (the distinctiveness of the form of access, as well as the form of urgency; the quality of alienation that would seem to be inevitable attendant on such an inquiry) made a considerable impression on me. It goes right to the heart of what I have invoked as an interest in forms of history doing/thinking/making that disavow (or do not rely upon) some kind of objectifying distanciation, modes of historical work that permit or acknowledge (or even proceed from) the entanglement (even convergence) of subject and object -– modes of historicity that do not fear contamination. I found this moment so compelling that I would welcome any follow-up anybody might have. Is there work like this out there? Is there a discourse in the history of medicine that picks up on this theme? Have there been experiments in method and / or form directed to this end?


We took a break. After the break, we rolled up our sleeves and filled the blackboard with some thematic propositions and some good books – the idea being to begin to shape a syllabus that might let us get at the stuff we cared about. You can see a photo of the blackboard up above. The syllabus that I cobbled together out of our discussion is represented here on our website. I am looking forward to next week.

Week 2: History, Superhistory, Unhistory



The first part of our session today went to introducing this website itself in the class, and talking a little bit about how we were going to try and use this forum over the semester. That meant that a certain amount of nuts and bolts (how do we do a blog post, how do we not accidentally erase other people’s blog post contributions), but it also involved a certain amount of thinking-out-loud about why something like this might be a good idea. I mentioned that my first foray into using this format for a seminar (my co-taught course on pedagogy and performance, The Enacted Thought) had seemed to work pretty well, and got me interested in making additional efforts to dimensionalize and preserve what occurs around the seminar table. So I am hoping, if you all are willing, that we will together give this a try and see what takes shape.

(By the way, THIS is who signed up for what; I leave it to you all to keep track of this from here on out…)

After that we spent a certain amount of time going over the actual syllabus itself with me trying to explain (justify?) why I had grouped things the way I had, and why some stuff fell away. I also emphasized my hope that we will continue together to build out the readings across the the coming weeks –- quite possibly revising and/or reorganizing what I have laid out here as a trajectory for the term. Among other things, for instance, several of you mentioned that historical fiction ends up receiving slightly less attention, in the version of the syllabus that I have sketched, than some of you had hoped. My response has been to invite a few of you to caucus on the topic, and to go ahead and assemble the reading for a whole session specifically on this topic. We can put that up on the site as well and then actually push things around a little bit — perhaps even drop one of the weeks I have proposed, if there proves to be greater enthusiasm for historical fiction (or indeed something else that comes from you-all). There are always too many books. And there are already too many books on the syllabus here below. There are also, too few. It is ever so.

And, indeed, we spent some time thinking that that is part of the problem. Which is to say, all books, however diverse they may be (fiction, non-fiction, graphic novel, printed on caul fat, coffee table-able, super thick/heavy, that from a long way off look like flies) are really more alike than different –- i.e., they are all books. We took a moment to consider the possible importance of doing things other than reading books.  What about actually thinking? (I just noticed that the lead story in the Chronicle Review is on “not reading” – might be worth checking out).

How crazy would it be to spend some time with eyes closed (or maybe open?) and just freaking think, say, the Revolution of 1848? We actually went around the room and took a straw poll on the precise level of insanity at issue. I considered it a sort of “taking the temperature” in the room. On a scale of 1 to 10, votes ranged from 1 (not insane at all) to an 8 (pretty insane). Conversation followed. Among other things, it was noted that there are a number of extremely serious modes of human inquiry (mathematics, anyone?) in which lying perfectly still with your eyes closed and actually doing the work is not only recognized as wholly appropriate, it has in fact even been much fetishized across the centuries. History, not so much.

Anyway, we did not actually do any such historically-oriented “spiritual exercise” –- but I am not making any promises that we won’t give it a try. At least, not if you all are open to the experiment. I’m not sure it would be all that bad if we were to close our eyes and think for ten minutes. Not if we also all read a lot of books and demonstrate that we talked about them. And that is what this website is for.


I’m not exactly sure I can reconstruct how it happened, but after a bit of discussion about experience, and Chakrabarti’s affecting account of the importance of the temporality of suspension (of the I-am-not-yet-convinced wherein criticality resides — depicted here on our chalkboard, but very well represented in our seminar affects and basic habits of mind, I would argue),  we rather suddenly found ourselves in what I thought was a quite deep (even fundamental) moment of reflection concerning just what “doing history” really amounts to. It is likely that we each remember this portion of the seminar differently, but if I were to try to give witness on it, here’s what I would say:

Look at the middle part of the blackboard picture above. This part:

Screen Shot 2016-09-22 at 11.06.49 PM.png

It records how, suddenly, a to-my-mind-fairly-unobjectionable account of history as a process of “recovery” came under scrutiny (was this Tara?).

On the one hand one could ask (and people have) just what exactly might one try to recover? But what was for me more disorienting (and, I must say, pleasing) in this momentary vertigo was the larger problem of why recovering itself tends to feel like such a natural metaphor for the activity. Insofar as the language of recovery implies that something has been lost or displaced (or is, somehow, not available), there really might be some very concrete and timely problems with this whole formulation. After all, if (as I have suggested –- and I really think one cannot say this enough times), each of us, while standing in line at the DMV, has in our pocket something approaching the entire body of published discourse in all the world’s modern languages in a fully searchable format on our smartphones, does it really make sense to persist in talking in terms of “loss” and “recovery”? Maybe not, eh? In fact maybe something like “filtering” or “sorting” or “arranging” would be a more suitable figure. The problem may indeed be one of abundance rather than absence.  (I mentioned, in our first session, this essay of mine, which attempts to work with this very problem — it is written from the posture, held here, heuristically at least, that one can now “carve” in the past in something of the way one might imagine carving in a solid block of stone; this is not the “spoor model” of tracking poo-lumps in the archive, but rather the brave new world of the plenum, the manifold, the historical mass of the ALL).

There is more to be said about all this. And there is some relevant reading, too. In putting these thoughts down like this, informally, I am inviting you to help fill out some of the relevant references, if you are familiar with them — and if you wish to draw them to our attention. That is what it means to use this site as a location for us to constellate and collate what we know.

At this rather freewheeling moment in our conversation (untethered, one might complain, from any specific text) I felt like one what was needed was a still more “fundamental” account of the activity of doing history really is –- for me, anyway. An account of the activity that could hold whether one was committed to the language of recovery or to some other trope.

The line between the truly fundamental and the simply banal is often infra-mince –- drawn, perhaps, in a miasma of mood rather than in the ink of arguments.

Be that as it may, I lurched directly through an explicit formulation –- one that I have been tendering and refining for some time –- of just what it is I think I am doing. The phrase I used was “singing the we.”

If I have plagiarized this from someone else, I do not know from whom. In my moments of super-historicism I am comfortable with the idea that everything has been said. So if you figure out who else talks about the work of the arts and the humanities in this way, feel free to let me know. I will not try to unpack the two relevant terms in this formulation: “singing” and we.” But suffice it to say there are many “we”s, and the business of “singing” implies melody, rhythm, and the possibility of chorus/harmony.

By this point, Ohad looks as if he had been forced to swallow a live toad. (“Jesus Christ! Can we please talk about Nietzsche at some point?”).

So we took a break.

After the break we did actually talk about Nietzsche. And Ohad got us going with a delicious provocation: a close reading of The Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life ought properly lead to the conclusion that historicism itself is in fact a highly idiosyncratic ethnomethodology of the Germanic peoples, who developed this peculiar enterprise in the context of this very specific crisis of identity across the nineteenth century.

More thinking to be done there. Like maybe the Toews book?

We also tipped open a few key moments in Nietzsche’s text, in particular relating to the importance of unhistorical thinking — possibly to history itself, but anyway certainly for “life” (whatever Nietzsche means by that).

We ran out of time too soon.

And I left you with your first assignment for this website: could everyone please drop a key passage from the text in here below?  One to three sentences.  And please initial.

(Since I noticed that the English translations which we have been working with seem to deviate a lot from the original texts, I have taken the liberty to add the original passages in German where it seemed interesting to do so. I’ll try to point out the differences but any help from fellow German-speakers would be much appreciated. AB)

1) “Let us assume a man working on Democritus; I always have the question at the tip of my tongue: why not Heraclitus? Or Philo? Or Bacon? Or Descartes? – and so on at random…” -ORS

2) “Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere a coming into being. Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself, sees everything in moving points flowing out of each other, and loses himself in this stream of becoming. He will, like the true pupil of Heraclitus, finally hardly dare any more to lift his finger.” This passage, and particularly the allusion to Cratylus (the “pupil” in question, who is said to have decided, in view of it being impossible to say anything true under the conditions of human existence, that the activity proper to the thinking person was a continuous, slow, pointless air-doodling with the finger), got me musing on the notion of a “Cratylitic Historiography” — in which the historian sits perfectly still and engages in vatic, fatuous, lyrical finger ballet. -DGB

3) “…Such a standpoint might be called ‘super-historical’ [übergeschichtlich], as one who took it could feel no impulse from history to any further life or work, for he would have recognized the blindness and injustice in the soul of the doer as a condition of every deed; he would be cured henceforth of taking history too seriously… [There is] the ‘no’ [to reliving the past ten or twenty years] of the ‘super-historical’ man who sees no salvation in evolution, for whom the world is complete and fulfills its aim in every single moment…. But we will leave the super-historical men to their loathings and their wisdom: we wish rather today to be joyful in our unwisdom and have a pleasant life as active men who go forward and respect the course of the world” (I.) — This reductio ad absurdum of fetishizing and hence generating knowledge of the past for its own sake seems to me a profound criticism of the historical profession as it exists today. To recast one of Nietzsche’s best lines from Beyond Good and Evil, “Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?… Why insist on the truth?” To today’s historians, Nietzsche would ask, “Why take history so seriously? What ‘untrue’ or ‘non-historical’ elements are we thereby suppressing?” —J.Cat.

4) “One might imagine a way of writing history which has no drop of the common empirical truth in it and yet which may be able to claim the highest rating on an objective scale.” -DKJ

5) “The historical education of our critics no longer permits an influence on our real understanding, namely, an influence on life and action. On the blackest writing they impress immediately their blotting paper, to the most delightful drawing they apply their thick brush strokes, which are to be considered corrections. And then everything is over once again.” -JPO

(“Die historische Bildung unsrer Kritiker erlaubt gar nicht mehr, daß es zu einer Wirkung im eigentlichen Verstande, nämlich zu einer Wirkung auf Leben und Handeln komme: auf die schwärzeste Schrift drücken sie sogleich ihr Löschpapier, auf die anmutigste Zeichnung schmieren sie ihre dicken Pinselstriche, die als Korrekturen angesehn werden sollen: da war’s wieder einmal vorbei.” – Here Verstand and Wirkung are interesting word choices whose meaning is muddled by the English translation. Presuming that Nietzsche is using a Kantian understanding of the philosophical concept of Verstand, the ‘understanding’ he writes about is not simply the capacity to comprehend and process new information, but the ability to use that information in order to make decisions. Nietzsche’s use of the word Wirkung then points us towards the actual changes, rather than the mere influences, that historical education has enacted within the Verstand of the critic. Due to the critical mindset that his historical education forces him to uphold, the critic is unable to take decisions using his own Verstand, relying instead on a critical stance predetermined long before he sets out to put his thoughts to paper.  His blotting out of words, his ill-conceived brushstrokes ruining delightful drawings are not the result of misunderstandings, but are rather compulsive actions imposed upon the critic by his education. Consequently Nietzsche goes on to write that “Nie aber hört ihre kritische Feder auf zu fließen, denn sie haben die Macht über sie verloren und werden mehr von ihr geführt, anstatt sie zu führen.” – The Critic has lost his power over the quill, and is mindlessly following it. -AB)

6) “As long as the earth will still bear us!” -BCL

7) “And thus I hope that history can realize that its significance is not in universal ideas, like some sort of blossom or fruit, but that its worth is directly one which indicates a known, perhaps a habitual theme, a daily melody, in an elegant way, elevates it, intensifies it to an inclusive symbol, and thus allows one to make out in the original theme an entire world of profundity, power, and beauty” JanB

(“…und so hoffe ich, daß die Geschichte ihre Bedeutung nicht in den allgemeinen Gedanken, als einer Art von Blüte und Frucht, erkennen dürfe: sondern daß ihr Wert gerade der ist, ein bekanntes, vielleicht gewöhnliches Thema, eine Alltags­ Melodie geistreich zu umschreiben, zu erheben, zum umfassenden Symbol zu steigern und so in dem original­ Thema eine ganze Welt von Tiefsinn, Macht und Schönheit ahnen zu lassen.” – Here Nietzsche’s metaphor of the blossom or fruit is somewhat puzzling, but might be related to his use of the image of ripe figs in later works like Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche likens his aphorisms to ripe figs, saying that the reader need not do else but to enjoy them as they are. The Frucht of History, the blossom or fruit which it has come to represent, is then that of a self-contained idea or thought which one can enjoy without broader knowledge. Just how different that is from Nietzsche’s idea of the function of History is rendered by his use of the word ahnen, which is much more noncommittal than the English ‘make out’. The world of profundity, power and beauty to be discovered in the everyday is much more felt than actually perceived, ahnen being closer in meaning to ‘sensing’. I thus read this passage as an attempt to blur the contours of the self-contained ‘fruit’ that History has come to see itself as.-AB)

8) “Historical education really is a kind of inborn grayheadedness, and those who bear its mark from childhood on surely must attain the instinctive belief in the old age of mankind: it is now fitting for old age, however, to engage in the activity of old men, that is, to look back, to tally and close our accounts, to seek consolation in the past through memories, in short, historical education…. Does not this paralyzing belief in an already withering mankind rather harbour the misunderstanding, inherited from the Middle Ages, of a Christian theological conception, the thought that the end of the world is near, of the fearfully expected judgment?” (Section 8, first paragraph) It is common today to talk about doing/studying history for the present, but does this formulation inevitably imply that the present is an endpoint (even if we acknowledge that that endpoint is moving)? How can we approach history in a way that embeds the understanding that the current moment is in the middle (or perhaps even near the beginning) of a long conversation? (Or are we already doing this?) -RR

(“Die historische Bildung ist auch wirklich eine Art angeborner Grauhaarigkeit, und die, welche ihr Zeichen von Kindheit her an sich tragen, müssen wohl zu dem instinktiven Glauben vom Alter der Menschheit gelangen: dem Alter aber gebührt jetzt eine greisenhafte Beschäftigung, nämlich Zurückschauen, Überrechnen, Abschließen, Trost suchen im Gewesenen, durch Erinnerungen, kurz[258] historische Bildung… Steckt nicht vielmehr in diesem lähmenden Glauben an eine bereits abwelkende Menschheit das Mißverständnis einer, vom Mittelalter her vererbten, christlich theologischen Vorstellung, der Gedanke an das nahe Weltende, an das bänglich erwartete Gericht?” – Ryan brings up the interesting question of what place, if any, the future has within the study of History. I’m actually curious to know what the English translation of the missing part of this citation is. Here is the German: “Das Menschengeschlecht ist aber ein zähes und beharrliches Ding und will nicht nach Jahrtausenden, ja kaum nach Hunderttausenden von Jahren in seinen Schritten – vorwärts und rückwärts – betrachtet werden, das heißt, es will als Ganzes von dem unendlich kleinen Atompünktchen, dem einzelnen Menschen, gar nicht betrachtet werden. Was wollen denn ein paar Jahrtausende besagen (oder anders ausgedrückt: der Zeitraum von 34 aufeinanderfolgenden, zu 60 Jahren gerechneten Menschenleben), um im Anfang einer solchen Zeit noch von »Jugend«, am Schlusse bereits von »Alter der Menschheit« reden zu können!“- This passage seems to imply that humanity and human history ought not to be considered in their entirety at all, or at least not by a single individual, the ‘infinitely small atom, the single human’ which seems to be a grand way of talking about us historians.- AB)

(The “…” above, as translated by Preuss, is: “But this race of man is a tough and enduring thing and does not, after millennia, hardly even after hundreds of thousands of years, want to be observed in its steps–forward and backward–that is, it does not at all want to be observed as a whole by that infinitesimally small atomic speck, the individual man. Of what account, after all, are a couple of millennia (or expressed differently: the period of 34 consecutive lives of men calculated at 60 years each) that at the beginning of such a time we can still speak of a ‘youth’ and at the end of it already an ‘old age of mankind’!” I left this out for brevity and because I thought the indirect formulation of what the “race of man” resists (as opposed to the single man resisting the articulation of his own infinite smallness) was less compelling. But now that I come back to it, it makes me wonder if we are truly able to think of ourselves as continuous with that past mass of humanity, and how/why a historian chooses to ascribe collective agency to it. Returning to the part quoted on either side of the “…”- I’m thinking more about the idea that the recognition of how small is our place with respect to the rest of (past? future?) time is paralyzing. Paralysis is at once temporal and spatial – time stops, and we cannot move through space – and we (historians, humans) experience this sort of existential dread physically, spatially, as much as temporally – perhaps more spatially than temporally in fact, as we can stand still but time cannot. I’ve just started the Rings of Saturn since posting the above quote a couple of hours ago, and so far it’s doing an excellent job of addressing that spatial-temporal elision that occurs when we contemplate our own unfathomable condition. -RR)

Ryan, you brought up an interesting point about the paralysis that the historical mindset can engender. Since we are bringing up next weeks readings, it seems like this is something that Hayden White addresses when writing about the importance of Irony as a literary trope in historical narratives. Once we are confronted with the infinitesimal importance of our writing and work in the ‘grand scheme of things’, and once we seek refuge in the artificial distance to the epistemological object scholarly work now requires, it would seem that we surrender completely to that paralysis. However there is a part in me that believes that that sense of standing still, that momentary respite from the overwhelming dread of the passing of time, is necessary, and perhaps even indispensable, to the creation of what one might perhaps call ‘true motion’. That is in order to take real action in the present, we require that moment of contemplation that History, especially in its most historicist and ironic iteration, forces upon us. -AB

9) “Überstolzer Europäer des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, du rasest! Dein Wissen vollendet nicht die Natur, sondern tötet nur deine eigne. Miß nur einmal deine Höhe als Wissender an deiner Tiefe als Könnender. Freilich kletterst du an den Sonnenstrahlen des Wissens aufwärts zum Himmel, aber auch abwärts zum Chaos. Deine Art zu gehen, nämlich als Wissender zu klettern, ist dein Verhängnis; Grund und Boden weicht ins Ungewisse für dich zurück; für dein Leben gibt es keine Stützen mehr, nur noch Spinnefäden, die jeder neue Griff deiner Erkenntnis auseinanderreißt. – Doch darüber kein ernstes Wort mehr, da es möglich ist, ein heiteres zu sagen.” – Had to put this in since I love the wonderfully dramatic way in which Nietzsche illustrates the quest for knowledge of the ‘prideful European of the 19th century’. I’d be interested in how the second sentence was translated into English, since something like ‘the fulfillment of nature’ does not quite seem to get the gist of ‘Vollendung der Natur’, but I have no idea how to read it in German, let alone translate it into English.- AB

10)  “This inward life can to a rare degree prove delicately sensitive, serious, strong, and sincere…. But as a totality it remains weak, because all the beautiful threads are not tied together into a powerful knot.”

[I was sad we didn’t get to the Ermarth reading, so am writing about something that relates to her manifesto, the tying of knots, enunciation, content and form.]

I want to point out an artwork that might satisfy Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth’s manifesto, contributing a new mode of historical writing (making? thinking? production?), based on comparison rather than causality. It’s a piece by Mariam Ghani, an artist living in Brooklyn (and, notably, the daughter of the president of Afghanistan). In this work, Ghani has built an archive that musters together a trove of declassified transcripts from US military interrogation rooms in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo, the “black sites” of the “Global War on Terror.”

The US government has translated all of these documents into English for internal use. But it’s immediately clear that there’s something a bit off in the records: strange speech patterns, fractured narratives, disjointed exchanges between interrogated subject and interrogator. And this is all due to the fact that the government translators aren’t always conversant in the spoken languages (Arabic, Dari — an Afghan dialect of Farsi — and Pashtu). Why hire translators who aren’t fluent, you ask? Due to “security” measures, private American military contractors like to recruit second-generation Americans of Middle-Eastern origins for the job, because the government can grant them, as American-born, the highest security clearance. Those of that generation, however, sometimes only know a barely passable pigeon dialect. (You can read about that in this catalogue.)

Then the other component of the artwork is a one-hour-forty-five-minute video. I’ve (unfortunately) never seen it, so bear with me. But from what I understand, Ghani has recorded the voices of fluent translators returning these English documents back to the original languages, creating an asynchronous choir: a multi-tongue translation of a translation of a translation. The new narrators also sometimes fill in the redacted information with fictions of their choosing — à la “parafiction” of Walid (whom Graham mentioned our first day), or the “critical fabulation” of Saidiya Hartman. The work, therefore, doesn’t just outline the rips made passing from spoken statement to written record, but fills them in with invented pasts.

I think Ghani is doing exactly what Ermarth calls upon historians to do: enunciating (quite literally!) the obscured, underlying codes and vexed rules of a system, a system that is determining the way we represent a shared past. And in that enunciation, Ghani has unleashed multiple, competing, contradicting pasts, pasts constituted on comparison and difference: difference in language, difference in meaning, difference in voice. This is a history told from the vertiginous heights of the Tower of Babel… a form of relating based on total confusion… that still all comes together in the aesthetic realm.- NB

11) “To think of history as objective in this way is the secret work of the dramatist, that is, to think of everything one after the other, to weave the isolated details into a totality, always on the condition that a unity of the plan in the material has to be established, if it is not inherent in it. Thus, man spins a web over the past and tames it; in this way the artistic impulse itself expresses its drive for justice, but not its drive for truth. Objectivity and Justice have nothing to do with each other.”

The rift between objective analysis and artistic impulse is central within many disciplines—yet it is fascinating that Nietzsche here likens the artistic impulse with a drive for justice, something outside purely objective or factual recounting. To posit that this impulse drives the “taming” of the past is to imply a kind of emotional involvement with the material in question, one which operates separately from any accumulation of factual evidence. Considered in this light, one could argue that producing historical narratives of this nature are a kind of catharsis, a stitching-together or re-presentation data to reflect a deeply intangible experiences or suspicions.

In reading this quotation, I’m strangely reminded of a work of art by the artist Do Ho Suh, which aims to explore the blurred line between objective presentation and artistic justice. Here, Suh recreates the entry to his New York apartment entirely in translucent gauze, replicating the smallest of as-found details with a poetic material. The result seems to interweave twin desires for both objectivity and justice within the work—the sculpture remains a kind of empirical documentation but, through its material presentation and contextual disconnection, seems to communicate a deeply personal and dramatic narrative of memory, familiarity, and intimacy. -TC

12) ‘Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming: like a true pupil of Heraclitus, he would in the end hardly dare to raise a finger.’

– Section 1, paragraph 3

‘Because the archive, if this word or this figure can be stabilized so as to
take on a signification, will never be either memory or anamnesis as spontaneous, alive
and internal experience. On the contrary: the archive takes place at the place of originary
and structural breakdown of the said memory.’

– Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever

‘I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives’

– TS Eliot, The Wasteland

If we accept Nietzsche’s statement that our humanity/agency/consciousness (in opposition to that of the beleagured, contented cow) is premised on our ability to forget, how is the act of ‘forgetting’ enabled or inhibited by the age of mass data? If we have access to, via the smartphone in our pocket in the line at the DMV, not only our own would-be forgotten pubescent ranting/feeling/poetry, but also that of many others in our community, is it still possible to forget? Do our techniques of forgetting need to change? How does this alter/challenge our ideas of subjectivity and consciousness?

To add Derrida into the mix, what does structural breakdown of memory look like in this regard? How does this reshape the archive and, more importantly, if there is no breakdown of memory is the search for order giving ‘archons’ still possible in this new formulation of the ‘archive’? (A post-archive?). Is historical inquiry possible in the face of such abundant, but everlasting, ephemera? We have already talked about writing articles/essays that are fully footnoted and referenced according to the tools of our trade but contain nothing other than historical fallacy. Will this be the only possible mode of inquiry in the face of non-forgetting?

Are we perhaps resigned to joining Tiresias in the predicament of a weary gaze on a monotonous modernity that can ‘perceive the scene and foretell the rest’? The gift of foresight granted, the gift of forgetting taken away.



Just because it seemed related to this quote, I’ve linked the Wikipedia page to a Borges story; “Funes the Memorious”. Here the man in question does possess the power of not forgetting at all, but rather than to see everything in the process of becoming, he simply sees everything he has ever seen, in all of its most minute detail. The end result is, however, the same, he cannot lift his finger, and lives a miserable existence embroiled in useless efforts to catalogue the past. There is no foresight for Funes, but only a overwhelmingly vivid past. The problem is then perhaps not so much that we cannot forget, but that we haven’t figured out how to deal with all that information that not forgetting entails. – AB

[DGB coming in post-hoc on all this: in class I mentioned two art projects I have been involved with that deal with this set of issues in different ways.  The “Institute for Creative Destruction” (which is a collective; we did a thing at Sean Kelly a few years ago — squib here); and my piece with Sal Randolph, “Notes toward a field guide to shred,” which was part of the Cabinet issue on “Forgetting.”]

13) “If someone could, in numerous instances, discern and breathe again the unhistorical atmosphere in which every great historical event came to be, then such a one might, as a cognitive being, perhaps elevate himself to a superhistorical standpoint…” (Section 1, p 12).

I am interested in whether “breathing again the unhistorical” and the attendant possibility of the superhistorical stance might offer an alternate grammar for the work of historical inquiry. The “poetic act,” to use White, of the historian is often framed as one of recovery, which in turn prefigures a certain orientation towards the past that has both productive possibilities and dangers. Debates in the South Asian historiography have been attentive to the epistemological assumptions of this orientation. In the 1980s, Rosalind O’Hanlon (“Recovering the Subject”) and Gayatri Spivak (“Deconstructing Historiography,” “Can the Subaltern Speak?”) critiqued the subaltern studies collective for presuming the recuperability of subaltern consciousness by showing how in the process of recovery the collective encoded and universalized the subaltern as male; in other words, the presumption of recovery re-instantiated a ‘sovereign’ individual subject and enabled the same type of occlusions (including with respect to gender) that the collective had positioned its emergence against. More recently, Anjali Arondekar (For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India, 2009) has considered how the language of recovery can fetishize silence and loss, particularly along geopolitical divides, and literary theorist Rita Felski (The Limits of Critique, 2015) has suggested how such an approach can emplot inquiry as a mystery requiring unveiling, re-entrenching a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Reading Nietzsche against these literatures does not necessarily dispense with ‘recovery’ (for one, this language can be necessary, particularly when certain histories are actively suppressed, and secondly, examining alternatives always presents risks of reifying difference) but might place it alongside other possibilities – possibilities that might make the work of history more expansive, colorful, and strange in ways that exceed the very narrow task of “search and rescue” (Arondekar, “In the Absence of Reliable Ghosts,” 99) that can be implied by the language of recovery. So, to return to the quote, what would it mean to breathe, commingle, come into communion with, be overwhelmed by, tap lightly on, sleep in, molt history? How would the unhistorical and superhistorical figure in these articulations of the historian’s poetic act?


14) “The Greeks learned gradually to organize the chaos because, in accordance with the Delphic teaching, they directed their thoughts back to themselves, that is, to their real needs, and let the apparent needs die off. So they seized possession of themselves again. They did not remain long the over-endowed heirs and epigones of the entire Orient.” -HL


15) “Superhistorical men have never agreed whether the significance of the teaching is happiness or resignation, virtue or penance; but, opposed to all historical ways of viewing the past, they are quite unanimous in accepting the following proposition: the past and the present is one and the same, that is, typically alike in all manifold variety and, as omnipresence of imperishable types, a static structure of unchanged value and eternally the same meaning” (S1, p. 13). I was struck by the consideration of history as an event, a performative action that builds it up once it’s happening, opening a debate in its chronological conceptions. -ILM

16) Dann sagt der Mensch “ich erinnere mich” und beneidet das Thier, welches sofort vergisst und jeden Augenblick wirklich sterben, in Nebel und Nacht zurücksinken und auf immer erlöschen sieht. So lebt das Thier unhistorisch: denn es geht auf in der Gegenwart, wie eine Zahl, ohne dass ein wunderlicher Bruch übrig bleibt, es weiss sich nicht zu verstellen, verbirgt nichts und erscheint in jedem Momente ganz und gar als das was es ist, kann also gar nicht anders sein als ehrlich. Der Mensch hingegen stemmt sich gegen die grosse und immer grössere Last des Vergangenen: diese drückt ihn nieder oder beugt ihn seitwärts, diese beschwert seinen Gang als eine unsichtbare und dunkle Bürde, welche er zum Scheine einmal verläugnen kann, und welche er im Umgange mit seines Gleichen gar zu gern verläugnet: um ihren Neid zu wecken. Deshalb ergreift es ihn, als ob er eines verlorenen Paradieses gedächte, die weidende Heerde oder, in vertrauterer Nähe, das Kind zu sehen, das noch nichts Vergangenes zu verläugnen hat und zwischen den Zäunen der Vergangenheit und der Zukunft in überseliger Blindheit spielt. Und doch muss ihm sein Spiel gestört werden: nur zu zeitig wird es aus der Vergessenheit heraufgerufen. Dann lernt es das Wort “es war” zu verstehen, jenes Losungswort, mit dem Kampf, Leiden und Ueberdruss an den Menschen herankommen, ihn zu erinnern, was sein Dasein im Grunde ist – ein nie zu vollendendes Imperfectum. (JT)

17) “As hundreds of different languages correspond to the typically fixed requirements of men, so that one who understood these requirements could learn nothing new from all those languages: so the superhistorical thinker illuminates all history of peoples and individuals from within, clairvoyantly guesses the original significance of the different hieroglyphs and gradually even evades… the incessant flow of new script…how could he fail… and finally be nauseated!…”

I just wanted to comment in some small way on how the superhistorical man with a type of totality knowledge (or the spectre of the possibility of such) that Nietzsche sets up might connect with this idea of recovery from the last class and part of what TS says above.

This idea of totality of knowledge or complete knowledge indicates a vision of the past as reified and in some ways finite. I am undoubtedly constrained by my own limited position on the seemingly neverending grad-student-ladder-of-knowledge but it seems that this idea of the past is in contradistinction to an idea that the present as a fluid moving construct that necessarily readjusts the past. Which is to say that the past cannot be known and can never be known in a form of eternal completion.

To touch upon the invocation of Spivak above and the work of the subaltern studies, (it’s been awhile since I’ve digested Spivak and I’m not sure I can navigate it as eloquently as TS) this discussion does have some resonance with Ermarth’s discussion of the discursive condition. It might also be helpful to remember Spivak was the one who originally translated Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology into English and wrote an influential preface to his work.

The word “recovery” also navigates an idea of something that we once possessed and have now lost. It seems like a necessary component to this is to introduce that which we do not possess or perhaps have never possessed in our contemporary “we”. This is to say, a form of history seems to require some form of acknowledgment of the dismantling of our own contemporary structures of knowledge and building them anew in a form foreign to us.

To me, the quipu (or “talking knots”) of the Incans represents a shorthand reminder of my own impossibility of imagining, even now, a way of writing history independent of text or a similar linguistic form of writing history. It forms the edges of a discursive limit that I can never reach beyond.

After class on Thursday, I wondered if maybe a necessary addition to “recovery” then is a word that conveys the inevitable humbling required to reach beyond/around/through/with our own historicity and subject structures to find that which we cannot yet know/ do not know and the form of historical work required to move forward into that not-known space.

And maybe it’s only through this reaching and its complex contortions that the “expansive, colorful and strange” possibilities of history, referenced above, can ever be opened? HHN



Readings for the Second Week:

Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life

Jenkins, Morgan, and Munslow, Manifestos for History (selections)



Week 3: Narrative and Metanarrative



We started our session today by reading through a number of the Nietzsche quotes that you-all posted after our session last week, and the short essays that a few of you wrote in connection with those. We spent some time on Noelle’s post about Mariam Ghani, and also Taylor’s post about Do Ho Suh (and the question of doing “justice” to the past — as against being “objective”/“truthful”; Suh’s work left me thinking for a moment about medium — what might it be to represent the past not in words but in elaborate textile constructions), and finally, Jamie’s very interesting post on how “archives” now work (or will work?) in an era of profusion and technologically mediated preservation-of-the-all.

An anecdote on this last point — merely anecdotal. My maternal grandmother moved into an assisted living facility at the end of this past summer. This meant leaving a three-bedroom home in Larkspur, California, for a studio apartment in a senior residence center. En route, it was necessary to dispense with 92-years-worth of accumulated documentation — in a basic way the archive of her life, together with a considerable portion of the archive of her ancestors (not to mention her six children). I will spare you the details. But what most affected me as I reflected on the poignancy and psychological demands of such a transition was the very powerful feeling that, in a basic sort of way, the destruction/loss/forgetting of so much stuff need not really be a source of concern. After all, the totality of that multi-room (including the garage) repository could be rather speedily translated into a few thousand digital images — all of it could, without difficulty, go on my phone. I probably wouldn’t even notice the data-space. We could throw everything out while, in a certain sense, losing nothing. As I talked about this with my mother, I could feel the basic difference in our sensibilities around this question. I sensed a genuine generational gap. It is not that my mother didn’t “understand” that we could do this (she is perfectly literate in the armamentarium of digital technologies, and is as glued to her tablet as my nine-year-old), it is rather that this basic feeling — that basically everything can be serialized and made, in some basic way, a small spliced-in proliferating viral presence within the ever-expanding volume of data that one carries about on laptops and that continuously updates and reduplicates itself in various overlapping cloud storage archives — it’s simply not really available to her as a way of thinking about the past, the self, the present, and/or the future.

If all this is actually worth reflection, it may merit our attention in the context of that early discussion we had about the idea that changing archives of the past (and changing tools for accessing them) may imply/require changing conceptualizations of the historian’s “work.” You will recall, perhaps, my proposition: that as the full-text (and perhaps image?) searchable database of the past approaches homological conformity with the totality of the visual and textual production of those who have come before us, the business of making historical stories and/or arguments may come to resemble a process of “carving” in the all — a process of liberating, by free and precise gestures, particular forms from the manifold. I contrasted this with what I take to be the dominant methodological frame that has guided historical inquiry for most of the last two hundred years, to wit a “Spoor” model, wherein something like a principle of scarcity obliges the historian to thread narrative or argumentative linkages among discrete, isolated, and difficult-to-access archival “finds” (which must be approached as forensic singularities). Much as the value of some unique family heirloom (a silver spoon; a broach; a faded wedding invitation, still in its envelope) gains emotional power from its being a survivor against time, the archival singularities attain their privileged position in Spoor-model historiography because they have survived. Under conditions in which, in some sense, nothing does not survive, something other than survival is required to vignette some specific bit of detritus within the oblivion/omnipresence of the all.

To link all this to Metahistory seems suddenly, to me, not impossible. The relationship between narrative and path-making runs very deep. Our deepest story-forms are inextricable from trajectories of epic voyaging or romantic wandering. The Spoor-model of history, with its concern for tracing (as a tracker traces) fragments and signs into trajectories, seems essentially inextricable from storytelling (“look, first we see a broken branch here; then, a little further over there, do you see that flattened patch of grass?”). If this other kind of history-making that I am feeling my way toward describing — a form of history-making that approaches an archival plenum as the sculptor of legend approached the homogenous whole of the block of marble, seeing therein a form to be “liberated” therefrom — is anything, it may be a form of history-making that is fundamentally disconnected from “emplotment” in the sense Haden White invokes. The sculptor could, of course, tell the story of making the sculpture as a story of moves from point A to point B through the medium — which is to say, the sculpture could reconstruct the process of liberating that form as a “story.” However, such an account of the sculpture’s emergence would be significantly otiose — both with respect to the original vision of what was to be liberated, and with respect to the final object rolled out of the studio.

A slightly less vatic way of putting all this might be: Do historical practices that are reliant on excision/erasure/forgetting necessarily subject to the meta-historical problematic framed by White?

I am just not sure. And in part, I think it is very hard to say, because we have, as yet, a relatively depauperate ecology of historiographical modes suitable to the new archival condition. Or that is what I think, anyway.

I’m going to stay with this riff for another moment.

It seems to me that one important implication of our progress towards essentially “conformal” archives — archives that are co-extensive with the totality of what has been — is an increasing preoccupation with (fetishization of?) lacunae in the historical record. Whereas, under the previous dispensation, finding recoverable tidbits in the fragmentary residue of the past constituted the sacralizing/stabilizing work of the historian, under the new dispensation the localization of (potentially) significant aporias becomes, perhaps, an even more culturally significant operation.

If I’m right about this, I think it would go some way toward explaining certain features of paranoia-spectrum conspiracy theorizing that have become an increasingly important feature of collective life in the interwebs. Conspiracy theorizing is maybe best thought of as a kind of “interstitial historiography.” I have several things to say about all of this, but it would perhaps take us too far afield from this week’s reading. I’ll just say two things quickly. First, I just finished a new essay for Cabinet (it is still in edits) which is about the Chemtrails conspiracy theory. In that essay, I try to show the ways that conspiracy theorizing has become a new “tool” for approaching the past. I’ll post a draft of the piece here in case any of you have any thoughts (treat this as embargoed, since it is not out yet).

The second thing has to do with a historical form that, as far as I know, doesn’t really have a name as yet. I call it “Whitmanian” history, but this is probably unfair both to Whitman and to history. I am talking about a kind of historical work that locates a significant historical lacuna and then sets to the task of creating in that space a “history.” In one sense, this is a kind of fiction, since the “history” in question (probably) didn’t happen. But this is not quite historical fiction in the conventional sense either — since what characterizes “Whitmanian” history is an almost hysterical preoccupation with only making something in that historical lacunae that could have happened. And I don’t just mean that “could” in the minimal sense that “no element of the story defies reason.” I’m talking about a historical story that is nowhere and in no way contravened by the available sources that do exist. Which is to say, a historical story that must be capable of “connecting lovingly” with every historical adjacency. The phrase “connect lovingly” is Whitman’s, and it comes from that lovely, strange moment in “Starting from Paumanok” where the poet speaks to the past, and asks the historical forebears and precedents of his poetic work to “connect lovingly” with his own creation; there is an implication that his poem will return the embrace of all that which has come before. I have felt for some time that this expression captures something exquisite and counterintuitive about how past and present may be coordinated.

Perhaps another metaphor is in order: we talked a good deal last week about the language of “recovery.” Ordinary forms (the ones that so comfortably embrace the language of recovery) can perhaps be thought of as fishing expeditions. One surveys the past, there under the bridge. It is dark and deep. One tosses in one’s baited hook or, perhaps still more truthfully, dips one’s seine into the murk, yanking up various shimmering things. Whitmanian history, by contrast, would be better figured within this trope as something like scuba diving. It enters the medium and attempts to move around through the fragile forms, disturbing nothing, aspirationally of a piece with that which it would simultaneously investigate and tender. It wants to collect nothing, shoot nothing, hook nothing, net nothing; but it does seek, in slow and careful gestures, to get as close as possible to this fragile coral fan to move a delicate hand across the surface of the reef so swimmingly that the fish do not flee.

What sort of history work is this? It stands in some relation to the traditions of historicizing forgery that characterized certain tendencies in the early modern period, and it is not wholly at odds with the literary genre of the “Mystification” which emerged in the early nineteenth century. But my own sense is that this kind of historical labor is distinctive and may have an increasingly important role in the landscape of twenty-first-century historiography. I consider a lot of the work that I have done over the years with the “conjectural historiography” collective ESTAR(SER) to be experimentation with Whitmanian history.


Back to the actual seminar that we had. We talked about Hayden White. Much of this conversation focused on the concept of irony, and what it actually means that White identifies his own text as written in the ironic key. What does it mean to turn irony against itself in an effort to liberate historical practice from the prison of ironic emplotment?

Rather than attempt a play-by-play of our two-hour conversation, I am just going to pull out one moment that was affecting for me — simultaneously suggestive and clarificatory. I am referring to the moment when (and why did this happen? I cannot remember…) we were suddenly talking about what it might mean to “love” one’s subject matter. Or, to put it a different way, we found ourselves contemplating what a love relationship might mean in the context of a historian’s labor. For a moment this conversation swerved in the direction of so-called “affect theory.” There was a sort of “well there’s a lot of work on that” mood that got going for a moment. But then, a least as I remember it, we sort of pushed on that. Affect theory would seem to make a scrutinizable subject (to be examined dispassionately, with rigor, scientisically) out of “love,” but as will be immediately apparent to anyone who has been in love, love as a subject is notably different from the condition of loving (or being loved). Looked at from this perspective, it suddenly wasn’t so clear that the scholarly domain known as affect theory is actually “about” the thing we momentarily found ourselves considering.

History under conditions of love. I don’t know that it is possible. At least not under what I understand to be the operating conventions of the discipline. This is probably good in many ways. But it is not perfectly clear to me that it is not also very bad in some other ways that I am not certain I have yet figured out.

I can’t for the life of me remember how we got into that question from Hayden White (do any of you?), but it was definitely the moment that has stuck most firmly in my memory of the conversation.

[We got onto the topic because I pointed out that the hyper-rational categorization by rhetorical trope in Hayden White seems to me to be dancing around emotion as an organizing force–that sometimes history is simply written in a mood of sadness, or of joy, or of hope–and in academia the most acceptable mood is, of course, distant, detached skepticism.  I then asked what it would mean to write history in a mood of love, embracing that moment of connection with the mind of the other across time and space, when “it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours;” that feeling which draws many of us into history into the first place, and which we then do our best to bury under our “objective” analysis.  

I didn’t point it out in class, but this can also be notably gendered.  I often think of a review in my field which more or less accused the female author of the book in question of having a crush on her historical subjects.  (The exact quote was “dreamy infatuation.”)  Well, and why not?  If you don’t, on some level, love the people and ideas you’re spending years researching–if your heart doesn’t secretly flutter, contemplating them in all their strange and unique and inimitable self-hood, which existed only once and briefly in all of time, and is now gone–then what are you doing with all this time and effort?  What’s the point? – HL]

We also spent some time on the following two passages, which were signaled by you-all, but also have some spirited annotations in my copy:




After the break we talked about the Rings of Saturn. (I discovered, after class, that Disha wrote this interesting piece about the book; worth checking out). I myself am hugely impressed by the way Sebald’s strange and moody-meandering narrative effectively “activates” history. This was a revelation for me. A discovery. And I think it is something for all of us to reflect on. Jon has already invoked (above) the moment of most acute historical/historiographical self-consciousness in the text —specifically that moment of the narrator’s vertigo as he stands inside the panorama of the Battle of Waterloo:


A thought here (and I cannot remember if we got into this in class): I am persuaded that this moment is meant to be read against the celebrated Waterloo scene in the The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal’s epic and genre-defining work of historical fiction. In fact, the more I think about it the more the two scenes seem to want to be read against each other. I am not going to try and write that essay right here, but I am going to put in a link to Stendhal’s great scene here. Sebald’s positioning at the center of the panorama, as against Stendahl’s positioning at the periphery of the battlefield (the former contrived, bloodless, but sovereign; the other chaotic, comical, but immediate) is obviously meant to invoke/parody the project of historical writing per se. By situating this parotic insight in a simulacrum of Waterloo does Sebald intend tacitly to invoke a fiction writer’s power as a teller of truths concerning history that the formal historian is incapable of accessing?




After the Man Falls into the cyclical crisis of irony, we are forever doomed to live in sin. Only in realizing that the ironic mode is just one of many possible rhetorical modes a historian can employ, White argues, can we transcend the tragedy of irony. The stakes, broadly construed, lie in White’s claim that creating histories involves a series of judgments that are essentially aesthetic or moral. We cannot judge the success of a history on these criteria alone; nearly all possibilities are equally capable of buttressing good work.

Though White’s conclusions explicitly concern “nineteenth-century historical consciousness,” the stakes of Metahistory rely upon the framework’s universality, or near universality (xxii). If White’s framework fails to describe the histories which we produce, he cannot claim much about the choices that we make.

Insofar as White’s framework is descriptive, he tells us, the historians, what we have been doing all along. We have unwittingly been picking from his four fourfold categories: the modes of emplotment, argument, ideology, and metahistory. Since some combinations are internally inconsistent (and we would not pick them for reasons similar to why speakers do not use poor grammar in their native languages), there should be fewer than 24 possible combinations from which we can choose. As White’s Metahistory purportedly illuminates the choices that we have unconsciously (or pre-consciously) been making all along, the revelation that follows provides us with agency and choice: we can now knowingly choose our different modes.

Though he rarely makes this explicit, White’s framework is rooted Christian doctrine. He describes his narrative modes with respect to the Fall of Man; their fundamental differences regard whether or not we can achieve redemption after the fall, and how. His reliance on linear time makes his framework poorly suited to describe non-Western, and even non-Abrahamic, groups of people. And, White charges in as a kind of messiah, pulling the blankets off of our heads and endowing us with a new realm of consciousness.

White’s seemingly Christian and messianic status can be explained away by other means. The revelation could arise through a careful analysis of empirical data. Or maybe the internal tension of irony resolves itself dialectically, bringing us out of our intellectual immaturity. It seems that the latter is unlikely; White’s insistence that we transcend irony casts doubt on its synthetic potential.

Though White, unlike other messianic figures, does not sell himself as such, his “charisma” lies in his unspoken presence throughout Metahistory, not only as author but as specimen. Before measuring our own historical work up to White’s framework, he invites us to vivisect his own. As a specimen, we can use White’s Metahistory to contemplate the act of creating historical work more generally. It’s hard to say whether or not he “dies” during the procedure, but he has fallen prey to irony so that we don’t have to.


[later insert here:


Vivisecting White? I’ve been sitting with – perhaps waiting for the coming of – the messianic since JPO posted this, but it seems I can only resort to the ironic. So I typed up some thoughts on this and what I think Rings of Saturn might offer White’s vision of transcending irony. TS ]


Irony is important. It is indispensable for the sake of getting through life, as one would otherwise despair at the myriad of little problems and injustices we encounter every day. Or at least this is what I’ve been told by my Italian grandfather. Reading Hayden White’s Metahistory, irony seems to be of a somewhat more debatable utility, seeing as it lies at the heart of his understanding of the current predicament of the historical profession. In fact in his writing he goes as far as to argue that Irony ought to be seen as the main culprit in contemporary historians’ loss of a sense of purpose.

For White the ironic mode necessitates an unbridgeable distance between the historian and the past, making it an epistemological object to be studied in a vacuum rather than the tangible origin of our contemporary existence. This “historical” past is then a sterile past, one that can only serve as the playground of historians but has ceased to have any real societal, ethical or aesthetic import in the contemporary world. Being thus separated from the real concerns of present humanity, one needs not wonder that the number of undergraduate history majors wanes alongside the public interest in the historical profession.

White clearly has a bone to pick with historians writing ironically. Which makes his assertion that Metahistory is itself written in the ironic mode all the more interesting. What does White mean by this? And why would he write ironically if he believed that irony has had a overwhelmingly negative impact upon the historical profession as a whole?

Seeing as irony is notoriously hard to define, we ought to pay close attention to White’s attempts of doing so. Do we share his view that Irony is first and foremost meant to bring about a sense of disillusionment, going as far as to “dissolve all belief in the possibility of positive political action” (37)?  If yes, then how is the “self-conscious use of Metaphor in the interest of verbal self-negation” (36) capable of achieving such devastating results? And does the disillusion with the present state-of-affairs really preclude the possibility of political action? Taking political Satire as an obvious example, it would appear that it is precisely the ironic unveiling of the inadequacies of the status-quo which opens up spaces and avenues in which meaningful change can occur.

Seeing as I’ve already thrown enough questions on this page for the time being, I thought I would close with a quote from Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. Here the idealized 19th century humanist Ludovico Settembrini, a character bearing a lot of resemblance to Benedetto Croce, warns the protagonist about irony, saying that “where it is not a straightforward and classic rhetorical tool, not capable of being misunderstood even for an instant by the healthy mind, it becomes slovenliness, a hurdle to civilization, a unclean flirt with stasis, ill-spirit and sin.”


Hayden White is certainly not the first philosopher who, in an attempt to make his work more accessible, was sucked into a debate which blurred the original important argument of his book. I am talking here on the “History as Literature” debates that were afflicted on the philosophy of history community in the past few decades. These debates, I argue, missed the real scandal in White’s book. White’s most important point, in my view, is not the argument about the necessary lingual and ‘narratical’ mediation between us and the past, but his claim that there are four different types of mediation and therefore History cannot be understood as ‘scientific’ project in the full sense of the term [see: Daston’s “Sciences of the Archive” for ideas about other models of science]. In the following sentences I will try to explain my argument, which hopefully will prevent us from taking, what I believe to be, the wrong turn in our discussion on Metahistory.

What is the big scandal about the History as Literature debates? What is at stake there? As I see it, the question is always the question of mediation and reference. The common view is that History is about things that really happened while fiction is about, well, fictive things. This claim is so porous, that I cannot even mention all of its problems here. The main point here, however, is that history, as a form of knowledge, pretends to have an unmediated access to its object, i.e. the past.  People who hold such a naïve positivist world-view tend to get very angry when other people remind them that between them and their object there was, there is, and always will be a language. Historians, and especially positivist historians, are not ready for compromises and are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “If we cannot have a direct access to our object”, they say, “and we can only refer to it with/through language, in what sense we are better than those literary authors who use language to refer to non-existent things, god forbid. How then can we think of ourselves as knowledge producers and not as artists? How can we justify our place in the university – and our tenure – when we have no advantage over those cafes and galleries dwellers?” The point they miss in this argument is that it is not only them – the historians – that were deprived of a direct access to their object, they are at the same boat with the physicists, astronomers, and economists. All knowledge is a form of mediation, and all the objects of knowledge are referents of a scientific discourse of some sort.  Therefore, the interesting question is not whether or not the object of knowledge is mediated by language, but how exactly it is mediated. Culture – as Ernst Cassirer had taught us – is a set of different, “Symbolic Forms”, i.e. forms of mediation (and history, even academic history, is a cultural artifact).

Up until now, there is no scandal, and I believe that my “naïve positivist historians” are nothing but straw-men that help to make the “postmodernist” more scandalous then what it really is. But this is not White’s main argument. The main argument of the book, or at least the most interesting one, is that history has four, and only four, different forms of mediation. Not the mediation itself distinguishes between history and science, and even not the need to use more sophisticated narrative forms, but the fact that history has never chose its favorite form of mediation. This is serious, because due to the lack of common language (and common prefiguration, and emplotment) two historical accounts can be both incommensurable and ‘legitimate’. The lack of common language in history, White argues, is the main impediment in history’s attempt to self-fashion itself as a science. Therefore, history cannot think of itself as a project, in the same sense that physics is. It is not a common endeavor to achieve a specific – even if not well defined – goal, but more of an umbrella term that encompasses a set of cultural artifacts (historical work) and has very little normative authority upon them. In that sense, History is really a little bit like Literature.

Jon: In case anyone was curious about Sebald’s remarks on the paucity of sources describing the allied bombings of German cities in WWII (pp. 38–40), he later gave lectures on this theme that were published in a book translated as On the Natural History of Destruction. I once wrote a blurb on this text as a mediation on “the unexperienceable” that I copy below as a digression on what is curiously left out of or exceeds narrative:

“W. G. Sebald has noted that, in addition to the Shoah, the German experience of the war, dominated by the allied bombardment of dozens of German cities and the resultant deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, “never became an experience capable of public decipherment.” For Sebald, “an almost perfectly functioning mechanism of repression” led to “individual and collective amnesia” about the war and amounted to “self-censorship—a means of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms” (Sebald, 12, 10, 11). Accounts of the war exhibit “a curious blindness to experience” and seem “curiously untouched by the subject of their research,” leading Sebald to speculate that they “served primarily to sanitize or eliminate a kind of knowledge incompatible with any sense of normality” (Sebald, 20, 11). Cliché language in german war reportage such as “that fateful night” and “all hell was let loose” served “to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend” (Sebald, 25).35 Sebald invokes “[p]eople’s ability to forget what they do not want to know” and thus “to carry on as if nothing had happened” as a way of “preserving what is thought of as healthy human reason” and dealing with “experiences exceeding what is tolerable” (Sebald, 41, 42, 79). Sebald thus richly captures the denial and repression of the particularly catastrophic element of the war, the way it overturned a sense of normality by exceeding what was hitherto deemed conceivable and experienceable.”

Sebald on Waterloo (pp. 124–5 of The Rings of Saturn):


I found Sebald’s juxtaposition of history and experience in this vignette relevant to our discussion of Metahistory. To give a stab at linking our two texts: The theory of capital-H History Sebald critiques here could be easily ascribed to Hegel, who famously wrote that one could only write history from the end of history—i.e. his own time, with Napoleon having “enlightened” Europe—with the advantage of total retrospective knowledge. He was on top of the highest mountain looking down: there was nothing in the past he could not see and explain. White dismisses this positionality in his remark that reading a historian like Ranke is simply boring: there’s no productive tension, perhaps because experience and subjectivity are invisible from so high up. Sebald’s position at the center of the panorama places him on top of the same mountain: “We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was [wie es war].” He also steps out of voice here, speaking directly to a we.

Sebald brings in the issue of embodiment to disturb the monumentalist Hegelian picture by wondering if the mountain we stand upon is not in fact a “mountain of death,” a grave. Echoing Benjamin’s quip that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” it seems to me demonstrative of the method of the book as a whole that the final chapter on silk unearths the toil at silk looms resembling “instruments of torture or cages” hidden behind the beauty of the silk itself (283). The impression I was left with was much more sinister than what was raised in class: that “history consists of nothing but misfortune” (153) and, at the very end, that “our history…is nothing but a long account of calamities” to which the only appropriate response is “profound grief” (295). We may want to call this work Comedy because it rescues lost objects and persons from the dustbin of obscurity, but it also seems to insist on their deadness and the Tragic irreconcilability of man and nature. [J.Cat.]


Readings for the third week:

Hayden White, Metahistory

W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

Week 4: Dionysian Historiography



We launched this week by reading collectively through Alexander’s and Noelle’s pre-class posts (below). Alexander’s short essay gamely “inhabits” (the edge of) the Dionysian mood/mode, and invokes its power (dissolution of self in the mass; corybantic revelry; blackout-threshold euphoria; vigorous, orgiastic, joyful self-harm) while offering a memorable nod in the direction of looping time and the mythic meanings of cyclical recurrence. It was an exercise in the “key” of our reading. Noelle, by contrast, maintains a certain Apollonian (or perhaps properly Socratic) distance, tracing the contours of Nietzsche’s arguments and carefully specifying errors we might make in reading The Birth of Tragedy (and the errors we might discover there). She ends up focusing on the question of whether history can be “justified” as an aesthetic phenomenon — or, pressing the point, whether evil/bad/sad historical incidents can/should be “redeemed” though “artistic” gestures. She is (rightly, it seems to me) unpersuaded by the notion — perhaps it is more correct to say that she is left a little troubled by it.

And much of our early conversation consisted, from my perspective, of a kind of airing of various forms of dis-ease with our main text for this week. And this felt wholly appropriate — even necessary. We are definitely dealing with a text that is defiantly anti-democratic, palpably misogynist, and indulges in spasms of Teutonic culture-truculence that can not but induce quease in anyone who knows anything about the twentieth century. A few people in our class clearly know some stuff about the kinds of arguments experts have when they start talking about Nietzsche and anti-Semitism or Nietzsche and National Socialism — or even just Nietzsche in the history of continental philosophy.

By contrast, I sort of tried to steer us away from a “learned” conversation about this book and its context. I assigned a little material that deals with this (the Gossman, for instance; here is that beautiful Grafton review) and there is a lot more out there. A life’s worth. And I have no objection to any of you pouring a lot of life into these questions. But my feeling is/was: 1) we weren’t really going to make any progress on that kind of conversation in brief non-specialist class (we just aren’t equipped to do it); and 2) what could be more perverse that doing “Socratism” to a text built to denounce Socratism?

Now I’m not saying there’s no danger in permitting a text to teach us how it wishes to be read. I am not saying that we should always submit to a text’s autopoetic machinations. But in a basic way I was interested in experimenting with something like a pathei mathos reading of a pathei mathos text. Dangerous? Sure. Sort of. But not really that dangerous. Or at least I tend to think not. 

And so, with that, we sort of dove in.

I’m afraid, though, that the result may have looked a little like Burnett-grooves-Nietzsche. You were sort of obliged to watch me “feel through” the argument of the text.  In retrospect, I talked more than I wanted to. And probably more than I should have.  (On my way back to New York this evening, late, I talked with a friend on the phone — a fellow teacher. And he noted, somewhat reproachfully, that great teaching involves asking the right question — not trying to answer it).

[Really? – I apologize I couldn’t be in class, I was in an important mission of reading a paper to an empty room, a weird experience – but I cannot disagree more with the note above. Let me rephrase it, asking good questions is certainly a nice skill to have, but is it the only kind of teaching that should be considered great? what kind of approach to knowledge is implied in this saying? If Nietzsche himself would have come to teach this class do we really expected him to just ask us “good questions”. I believe that in our attempt to deconstruct “academic” historiography, or at least to think beyond its horizons, we should not forget its manifestations in the class room. Either way, the interrogative — is this the right word? — teaching style, the Socratic way, is certainly not the only ‘right’ way to teach (and I think we should always remember that the Socratic dialogues were, after all, written by Plato).] ORS  

[[I see the point here, ORS; at issue is really something like how to think about teaching itself; I showed the exchange to my friend, who felt I overstated his own view; he agrees with you — that there is certainly a time and a place for the forms of pedagogy that seek to convey, not merely pose questions; he also added, however (and he knows me!) that he rather suspects I need to practice the latter art! -DGB]]

[[[Hmmm speaking of the Socratic dialogues and the asking of questions… is this the part where we start talking about Hadot? And yes Ohad, your presence was missed that week. I hope the empty room was suitably appreciative of the sacrifice.

I’m actually really empathetic to the difficulty of calibrating pedagogical styles. I do think the emphasis is perhaps not on the asking of questions but the pursuit of an answer (which is maybe more suited towards the “seek to convey” referenced above). The expectations sometimes associated with the latter, of a binary right way and wrong way forward, can be detrimental depending on the on the direction and expectations of the course. I’m not saying that this is necessarily what happened in class but I was just thinking of my own personal experience.

I once co-taught an architecture workshop in Beijing where, given the particular cultural and social dynamics associated with the aura of instructor, the students were initially more concerned with what we thought was the right way and the wrong way to proceed. There were moments where it was a real concern that the projects would end up as an echo chamber of our own thoughts because we were not appropriately and adequately addressing the dynamics and expectations they had of us. (There were larger existential questions of the workshop that made this uncomfortable as well.) I would like to believe in the end we were mildly successful in defusing this, but I’m honestly not sure… – HHN]]]

So you had to listen to me on Wallace Stevens (“a ring of men shall chant in orgy on a summer’s morn”), and then (God save you) hear me riff on the Dylan of Street Legal (a massively, massively underrated album!): “The truth was obscure / too profound and too pure /  to live it you had to explode.”  I also mentioned that my own feeling for Nietzsche’s category of the Dionysian is closely entangled with a few acute experiences of terrifying-exhilarating self-loss-discoveries, one of which in particular I wrote about here (or if you prefer the German, which was the primary way it came out).

Once we had spent some time clarifying the basic dynamics of the Apollonian and the Dionysian (and satisfied ourselves that we had some feel for how Nietzsche understood those forces to work in an exquisite and fragile balance in Attic tragedy — the Apollonian affording the necessary self-reserving/other-defining equipment to permit a harrowingly intimate dalliance with the sucking vortex of ecstatic-destructive obliteration [thereby opening the way to a healthy, vigorous, “affirming” pessimism, rooted in a fundamentally tragic-aesthetic culture]), we moved to the fateful eruption of that epochal monster-moron-magus: Socrates; the macrocephalic mighty mouse who stops the magnificent freight train of deep Greek civilization with a minute gesture of his teeny-tiny raised index finger.

It is the gesture of The Thinker. The gesture that heralds the advent of theoretical man.

Who is this prodigious birth, visited upon the Earth?

Much hinges on how you answer this question for yourself after reading the text. I tried a few different evocations. Perhaps most wickedly, I invoked the skewering refrain of Pablo Neruda’s Hombre Invisible: like Neruda’s bête noire, Socrates, contemplating himself, finds himself…interesante.

In fact, to Socrates, EVERYTHING is interesante.

So who is Socrates? He is this ALIEN SINGULARITY who, finding himself on this planet, and thronged about with humans each of whom is grimly limned with a radiant halo of pain-knowledge, seems to see past and through everything — seems, in fact, to see nothing but the world of beings, objects, and experiences as reconstructed in the form of manipulable thought-propositions.

Voilá. Theoretical man. Theoretical man doesn’t work with the world or the people in it — he works with his conceptual model thereof. With his theories. It is good work if you can get it. It is much less messy. It does not hurt. And it is, truth be told, very interesting.

All in all, it provides very considerable satisfactions, and is without many of the very most unsettling features of the tragic/pessimistic worldview. Socratic man doesn’t really need Apollonian reserve or artistic-theoretical Schein to protect himself from a fatal dose of obliteration-reality. He has been beamed up by means of his conceptual orientation to a concept plane adequately conformal with whatever world it is that causes all those unhappy people down there such misery.  The effect is one of “happiness” — if of a rather minor key variety. Nietzsche seems to figure it as a kind of bourgeois complacency.

At any rate, name calling and cartoon-philosophy aside, Nietzsche seems to see Socrates as something like a virus that breaks out in fifth-century Athens, which then proceeds to infect all subsequent humanity. We are basically all little Socrates ever since his train-stopping gesture. We all display well developed symptoms of Socratism: we greet the world “theoretically.” We engage the world “theoretically.” We manipulate the world “theoretically.” For the most part the whole thing leaves us feeling pretty good about ourselves. We have science. And I don’t just mean science like “chemistry” or “physics”; I mean science like knowledge. And we basically think that knowledge can save us. We don’t need “art” in anything like the way that the Greek citizen in the theatre watching a Sophocles play “needed” art. For them art simultaneously articulated and made tolerable the final/fatal knowledge that there was absolutely no point to existence and that we would soon die.

By contrast, Socrates has decided that both he and the world are…interesante. So he is kind of fine with the whole thing. Because interestingness suffices.

Or maybe it doesn’t. And here we really come to the exquisite punctum of the text — at least for me. Because Socrates (in Nietzsche’s telling) has a moment of doubt. It comes in the Phaedo. And it takes the form of a little dream-voice-daemon who whispers to him in the dark: “Socrates, make music.”

Nietzsche reads this bizarre moment in the Platonic corpus as an excruciating clue that Socrates experiences an excruciating moment of doubt concerning his own condition of supra-excruciation.

Maybe, he seems to find himself wondering, maybe…he was fucking up.

Maybe he was missing something.

Maybe he had gotten something very basic and very important wrong.

What could be more filled with bathos than this image of the imprisoned Socrates, awaiting his death sentence, and… suddenly, like, trying to learn to play the guitar. Picture him on the cot, trying awkwardly to strum the cords of Stairway to Heaven — for all the world like a thirteen-year-old boy in his basement.

It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s too late.

But Nietzsche is persuaded that in this touching final moment of uncertainty we are gifted with a prophetic possibility. Can art be reborn? In a new relationship to our Socratic condition? Nietzsche seems to think it can. Perhaps even that it must!

So who will be the music-making Socrates? What music will the music-making Socrates make?

Okay, at this point, one could talk about Wagner. Or one could talk about Zarathustra. But we aren’t going to do either of those things. Instead, we are going to do a little of what we agreed we were going to do in this class — namely, experiment.

And so at this point I gave us all a task: conjure an exercise in “Dionysian historiography.”

Perhaps I was not sufficiently precise about this. (What would it even mean to be precise about this?) But I think I meant something like: “What kind of history would a music-making Socrates sing?”

We took a brief turn into some of the things that this might mean, and some of the things that I have been thinking about as I have been feeling around in this notion.  There was, for instance, the bit about the printer’s thumb-print that I mentioned — from Darnton’s The Business of the Enlightenment. I have worked up a little discussion of it here, with excerpts. We also spent some time on Norman Klein’s stuff (including the book/multimedia thing that was assigned for this week — contact me offline if you want the login codes). Here are some open links if you want to explore this stuff further: video discussion of The Imaginary Twentieth Century; excerpt compilation with talking-head for Bleeding Through. We also talked about sound and music as particular kinds of historical sources, sources that produce physical synchrony across time — which can perhaps be thought of as weird fold-in-time embodied “sympathies” that merit attention under the rubric of Dionysian historiography.  Many of you will probably be familiar with Emily Thompson’s remarkable sound archive of the 1920s (the “Roaring Twenties”), a project that can be read against Klein and Bistis’s stuff in a productive way (both projects deal with the same period). I really like the Roaring Twenties thing.  It is an amazing exercise in archival collation.  Here is an essay by Emily on it.  Does it, in the end, Socratize its Dionysian subject matter?  Sure.  To a considerable degree.  But still, it is quite a thing.  Here is some other (slightly more radical) stuff that works these same “transmedia” territories:



But putting all of this stuff aside, let’s turn to what we came up with in our peripatetic thought-exercise. I am keen to see what you all worked up (anonymity and pseudonymity both permitted).

1)  Notes below.  They include the notion that primary sources be printed on edible paper with non-toxic inks, and ritual consumption of a text precede any reading thereof. Also, the idea that there might be a kind of “Experience Camp” for historians structured along the lines of the “Kidnapping Camps” that are run for international executives and human rights workers.  The sort of thing where you know you are going to be subjected to a simulacral kidnapping and hostage situation, but it is still realistic enough to be instructive.  Historians could train under conditions of confected immediacy.


[Each of these suggestions–of eating sources, and of creating “experience camps”–called to my mind fictional literary references. 1. Rachilde’s La Marquise de Sade, on eating an object as the most complete form of ownership/ control. 2. John Fowles’s The Magus, which involves the creation of elaborate immersive historic experiences. I’ve attached some information about these books, and scans of relevant scenes, here. -RR


[[I have to say, I love these thoughts/links.  On eating and knowledge, consider this. -DGB]

2) A visit to the gravestone of theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in Princeton, where we try to think of “nothing.”

“…we must think of the same that the sleeping rocks dream of.”

— Jonathan Edwards, “Of Being” (1721)



From Edwards’s “Of Being” (1721): “When we go about to form an idea of perfect nothing we must shut out all these things; we must shut out of our minds both space that has something in it, and space that has nothing in it. We must not allow ourselves to think of the least part of space, never so small. Nor must we suffer our thoughts to take sanctuary in a mathematical point. When we go to expel body out of our thoughts, we must cease not to leave empty space in the room of it; and when we go to expel emptiness from our thoughts, we must not think to squeeze it out by anything close, hard, and solid, but we must think of the same that the sleeping rocks dream of; and not till then shall we get a complete idea of nothing.”

[I found this very moving – DGB]

3) aa720_plate4med

In attempting to “undo” our Socratic stance and approach the Dionysian, we ask, rather than ‘recovering,’ what would it mean to birth history?  To strip out all abstraction and consider, very materially and earnestly, giving birth to history in its gory/glory, its promise and pain, pleasure and danger? -TS and JO 


We began our conversation by talking once more about Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. What was his subject? What was he tracing? We decided that it would be wrong to say his book is “about” his walking tour of Suffolk: its subject is rather a mentality, an existential state of being. Sebald’s meditation seems to reveal that unmediated emotion, the physical sensations experienced within the body upon encountering a particular stimulus (in Sebald’s case, an awareness of the traces of destruction around him) are at once concrete enough to ground us, and chaotic and un-ordered in a Dionysian sense, to access some part of the retelling of the past that conventional historiography (being beholden to a concrete subject and the convention of chronology) cannot. If we can find some way of tracing a feeling through space and time, and following the bodily sensations that (we can only assume) connect the way I feel when I feel [sad] to how you feel (literally feel, at the level of a sinking in your chest or an emptiness just below your navel) when you feel [sad] then we could exist next to the past and next to someone else reading/experiencing/remembering on the level of the sensate emotion.


In this passage, Sebald “imagines” (sans will to truth) that the fishermen who once worked away at the desolate beach he finds himself upon were “moved…by the same unfathomable feelings,” and he gestures towards what those might be with images and associations; the state of mind represented is evoked but nevertheless remains “quite alone,” preserving and indexing the experiential excess not captured by his own narrative (52). JC & DKJ

5) We talked about the fetishization of evidence, carried in some countries to a greater extreme than in others, and how the direction of scholarly thought does not always move neatly upwards from small bits of evidence towards a greater conclusion, but often flows in putative reverse, from the leap of intuition into a post-facto hunt for facts, to support the idea one has already formed.  It’s a sinful practice in science, and therefore in historiography, and yet an inescapably human way of interacting with reality.  Perhaps a Dionysian approach to history, by accepting the validity of other ways of knowing, could finally escape from the requirement that every historical claim be furtively fictionalized as being based on these seventy-three citations, MLA format, rather than a moment in the shower after years of immersion in your sources when the emotion surfaces, “I feel that this is how it was.”

When it comes to communicating the knowledge gained outside of reason, maybe the humblest approach is to accept the precedent of a thousand different cultures, and the practice of the vast majority who have brought back news of the place beyond boundaries, and write the lyric.

“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

Czeslaw Milosz, Ars Poetica


6) We started our discussion by talking about this article “The People Who Collect Strangers’ Memories.” The people interviewed in the article collect hundreds of old postcards and early 20th-century photographs of people, with a preference for individual portraits. One of the collectors says, “It seems so incredible to me that a moment can be captured—that I can show up 50 years later and pick up an image and have this emotional response. It feels like someone is whispering to me across the decades. Sometimes, it almost feels like I can whisper back.” In most cases, little specific history can be recovered about the person in the photo, and in fact this knowledge of absence makes room for the present viewer to project herself into that photograph/ persona/ past. This relationship is akin to reincarnation, which suggests a vertical collapse of the individual across time—i.e. the individual merges with a series of past and future individuals—rather than the perfect horizontal (and vertical) collapse of the true Dionysian, which requires that individual identity be entirely subsumed by the present (and past) collective. So we concluded that this sort of communion with the imagined past through singular images is still highly individual, as well as cognitive, and not fully Dionysian.

[Addendum on related methods of personal history-making. A photo of my table of photographs: my grandparents and great-grandparents on the left and right, and in the middle an old portrait I picked up at a junk store as a teenager (which has been in my possession for longer than the grandparent photos). As I never knew my grandfather at all or my grandmother as a young woman, all the portraits feel more or less equally familiar and distant at this point. -RR


The more we discussed the limitations of photographs and different types of narrative (like most filmmaking, for example), the more we came to the conclusion that the Dionysian itself is ahistorical, a state of existence. We imagine it like an ozone layer spanning all human history (and future), so that once you slip into it you inhabit a space which could theoretically be inhabited also by people past and future.

During the conversation, we looked at the film The Seasons by Artavazd Peleshyan/Pelechian. (Note: Helene first saw it in a documentary seminar she took with Harun Farocki. She has a longer analysis of that film from a paper she wrote in that class that she’ll email around if people are interested because it speaks to the same themes–although just keep in mind this was written 6 years ago… and it’s a straight analysis paper).  Peleshian has a specific theory of the distance montage he mobilizes in his films where what he wants you to sense are not the images and sounds on the screen but what their uneasy juxtaposition opens up and recreates in your mind. But to go further it’s a very specific type of layering and montage that is not narrative but should be seen as a type of deep vertical section cut. The film operates sound and images in a disjointed and unsettling way that confuses and complicates our ingrained linear expectations, and opens up an unknown uncomfortable space of ‘something else.’


A link to watch it is here (although we recommend watching in a much better resolution; Helene has a copy of it somewhere she can find if people are interested) and we thought this quote from an interview with Scott Macdonald is useful:

Macdonald: Last night you were talking about distance montage and how, after a certain point, the spectator hears things that aren’t there. I know what you mean: I hear that heartbeat and the time counting down throughout the film, even when it’s not actually on the soundtrack. And sometimes I can’t tell whether I am really hearing it or remembering it, imagining it.”

Pelechian: Yes. The power of distance montage is that even if it’s something that’s part of the whole that isn’t there at a particular moment, you feel its breath. Distance montage is capable of making what is absent present. [1]

[1] Scott MacDonald, Critical Cinema, Vol. 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). 95.


[Amazing material; thank you for this – DGB]


So Alexander and I had some thoughts about the ‘historical chorus’ and how to arrange and construct harmonies from the archive which we are going to experiment with in the hope of getting some interesting results! In the meantime, I have just finished Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, a novel set to the backdrop of collectivization. During the formation of the collective farm towards the end of the novel, there is a moment of Dionysian outburst, too lengthy to quote in full here but I have chosen two sentences which I feel resonated with our discussion. The kulaks have been removed from the collective and, to the music of a scratchy radio:

‘the entire collective now compacted in the yard began to make the noise of its as yet insensible but already essential happiness’.

When Chiklin, a proletarian who journeyed to the farm to enact collectivization, joins the throng, his experience is recorded as follows:

‘Chiklin, now in the thickness of the people, forgot all about the remnants of his own life and began working his legs so rapidly that the snow beneath him disappeared and the damp earth died up’

After this outburst, and for the remainder of the novel, the collective farm speaks with one voice. The collective farm speaks, the collective farm replies; as a collective, not as a collection of individuals. I wonder, then, if a Dionysian historiography would draw attention to/examine these moments in which selves are lost. The process by which a collection becomes a collective. How are these moments put to use by power structures? How far can the moments themselves be enacted by power structures? What do these moments do in the history of society? What is their function? Is the Dionysian a necessary component in revolutionary movements? Is it a necessary starting point of all collectives? These questions are half-finished and half-formed but may, perhaps, prove rewarding. In a strictly Socratic sense. JP


Me and Taylor’ve looked into the director Steve McQueen: his methods directorial and cinematographic. See here for the first, Taylor’s below for the second.

What spoke to me most from this discussion was Socratism defined as that which picks a subject to study at a place of remove. Once past actors and events are fastened-into place – that is, explored and presented only by external, non-living evidence – we can no longer ‘be with’ those subjects. This necessity poses a particular bind for oral historians, who so often fail to discuss what they do (as interviewers, creating a document which they’re unavoidably ‘in’) without confronting a certain, institutional anxiety; that to be with a person, intimately withdrawing information, is a scale too far beyond normal archival work, in which probing a non-living thing for the same answers yields a silence and stillness from that subject. The Socratic trope  fits that like a glove.

What Nietzche might see here, in the research-and-write stance just pedestaled, is a scenario where the past and its interrogator are in a sense mutually unresponsive. That sense being the operative: despite the mass of information gelling between the head of the historian and the accounts they find, there is so often a filter preventing what’s felt, seen and smelt becoming any kind of basis for what’s produced. There are of course many historians throwing light on this problem, as with Carolyn Steedman’s Dust, but once given the task of locating a ‘Dionysian historiography’, or rather one that descends the intellectual-ironic vantage we’ve discussed, there are moments in history books and film and theatre that now appear to push towards that end, but are limited by the facts they are books, films and pieces of theatre, which we customarily meet with a nose for what’s interesting.

There’s Dionysian history par excellence, I think, in the work of Steve McQueen, but it seems buried under the finished article. Acting is the par excellence bit. But rather acting as McQueen has fostered it, creating films on locations that themselves drive performances toward a state of Dionysian abandon. The moment of ‘explosion’, of becoming something else moving and sounding according to different, imaginative rules. That sentence may well be found in the zealous preface to some Acting 101, but for our purposes it can overlay historical study in a fashion matching the idea of ‘Dionysian historiography’ we’ve worked up thus far: ‘What kind of history would a music-making Socrates sing’? Matching, as in it can at least offer ‘What kind of history would a dramatic Socrates act?’ and, with reference to McQueen, I’d suggest it would take location as its raw material. Here’s an interview of the cast of 12 Years explaining their enchanting phrase ‘dancing with ghosts’. Note Ejiofor’s experience with the Louisiana environment, leading him to discard what we’d call a Socratic disposition and pass into a state where, as McQueen remarks, everything he does seems ‘correct’ in reenactment. ‘Correct’, maybe, because to a some extent it responds to the same environmental circumstances of  1840s Louisiana; the weather and landscape perhaps form inhabitable artefacts. In this sense, however, there might surely be as many natural limits as there are opportunities to ‘repeat’ what came before. Except the aim is and would not be to repeat, but to rhyme along with what we already know, in action.  The great shame with lauding this aspect to McQueen’s process is that it’s only available to us via the film, or via interviews, which are watched and conducted (in the case of the film, edited) in a ‘Socratic’ spirit. It must be tried to be witnessed as ‘Dionysian’ historiography.

So I think there’s an interesting triangle to be drawn linking acting, place and the phenomenon Graham’s described listening to music, where certain physical aspects of yourself are moving sympathetically with instantiations of the past. By example he used music, and here I’d like to suggest place and costume functioning as a ‘mask’ transforming the actor almost by association (see this process on This is England, a film about 80s skinheads). A much greater proportion of yourself is made to sympathise here, and very much put at stake; consider another interesting example from that set.

I guess this all poses an elaboration on the beautiful example given in 2), where we might also ‘be with’ the past. Where this differs is in making actual people the monuments to think of nothing worldly with; in that hole fills the dramatic conceit walled up around them in the form of lynching trees, swamplands, tenement buildings and council estates we know to be haunted. – JTD


Josh and I were most interested in the films of Steve McQueen as a potential mode of Dionysian historiography. McQueen is arguably one of the most important filmmakers of his generation, creating long, tense narratives which often relate to very specific locations, events, and moments in time. Josh and I talked both about McQueen’s penchant for filming within the specific spaces and settings in which his portrayed, semi-historically-accurate narratives actually occurred, and his use of extended shots as a means of creating a highly unconventional experience for the audience.

I will specifically discuss this second element––McQueen’s innovative “long shot”––as a means to understand McQueen’s filmmaking as stepping stone for a future Dionysian historiography. Without the use of dialogue, text, or other forms of semantic communication, McQueen typically frames long sequences of his films with only music and an uninterrupted camera take. These moments often occur at pivotal structural junctures within his larger filmic narratives, particularly during emotionally turbulent sequences and episodes. Rather than attempt to project emotion through conventional narrative techniques (particularly spoken-word dialogue), McQueen offers only an unflinching camera shot and classical music as a means to communicate his characters’ inner turmoil. The lack of dialogue, conventional editing techniques, or even narrative movement during these passages tends to afford the viewer a kind of release from the analytical structures of filmic communication, instead immersing the viewer in a kind of Dionysian state within the film’s as-constructed fiction.

Below is an excerpt from McQueen’s film Shame, which portrays Michael Fassbender as a New York City executive battling sexual addiction. At this moment in the film, Fassbender’s character wrestles with his seemingly-incurable dependency, unable to find a reprieve from torment in any space within the city. Fassbender leaves his apartment momentarily to run; McQueen’s camera follows the actor through city streets with only classical music underpinning the action. The audience is left to project and immerse themselves within Fassbender’s mental state, literally carried with the actor as he navigates through the city.


– TC



I spent much too much time thinking about how to best tackle the subject of “Dionysian historiography”. After much hand-wringing I thought it would perhaps best to simply relate an anecdote from this past summer.

I found myself in Lisbon when Portugal won the European Championship. The import of winning an international soccer championship might be difficult to understand for someone who has not grown up in a soccer-crazed country. And even then, one has to be lucky enough to be in the country when it wins a major tournament, a rare occurrence to say the least, in order to fully comprehend the importance of the event. Describing it is difficult, for how is one to describe the collective joy of millions and millions of people, pouring into the streets to celebrate the outcome of a what is still, despite the utter upheaval and the intense emotions it causes, a game.

I was lucky enough to witness this for the first time in 2006, in my own home country, when Italy won the World Cup. But I won’t write about that here, since I was too embroiled in the celebrations, too much part of the general euphoria to have more than hazy recollections, snapshots of a night of collective folly in which I had completely and utterly become part of the mass of people. Lisbon was different.

In Lisbon I drifted in and out of the crowd. I would be chanting in Portuguese and jump on passing trucks to wave flags along with my friends, becoming part of the drunken masses as I had 10 years earlier. Yet my inability to speak more Portuguese than the few chants I had learned, and the fact that until a week earlier I had been passionately been supporting the Italian team in their bid for the championship, kept on pulling me back from the Dionysian revelry, and forced me to stand-by as a mere observer time and time again.

This frustrated my desire to simply enjoy myself, and to forget about any troubles or worries that I was hoping to step away from during my vacation in Portugal. While my friends were losing themselves ever more in the maelstrom of perdition that was slowly gaining momentum, I could not do much more but try to keep up. I followed them as they started walking away from Alameda square near the technic institute where we had watched the decisive game and towards Praca do Marques de Pombal, taking Avenida de Republica and joining the immense procession of people that had formed on the Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo. And as I was walking, I suddenly realized that we were following in the footsteps of those students who had celebrated the end of the Estado Novo on the 1st of May 1974, the day in which the people of Lisbon celebrated the successful end of the Carnation Revolution.

By the time we had arrived at the Praca do Marques de Pombal, I was unsure whether I was still trying to participate in the celebrations over a soccer game, or had just traveled back in time 40 years to see the Portuguese people rejoice over the end of dictatorship. Standing on a the roof of a busstop I overlooked hundreds of thousands of people amassing in the square and in the Avenida da Libertade, which stretched southwards and towards the harbor. Something had driven the men, women and children of Lisbon to take to the street once more, and to congregate in the exact same places that had been the scenery for the protests, clashes and eventual triumph in 1974. And standing on top of that busstop, I felt like I could actually see some of that history.






Following Ohad’s example last week, I want to mark a hidden trapdoor in our text, which we might risk falling down in our discussion today. That door opens to the Apollonian-Dionysian antagonism, one of the many dyads structuring Birth of Tragedy, among them nature/culture, Wille/Vorstellung, music/image, birth/rebirth. The trap is this: It may seem that Nietzsche holds up the Dionysian above the Apollonian, as a “purely artistic and anti-Christian” approach to life… that Nietzsche thinks the Dionysian is pure aesthetic experience, appearance, our elected sprit against all “moral interpretation.”

But that’s not quite right. The Dionysian is not the path to truth, because, of course, there is no Truth — this is Nietzsche! The Apollonian is just as much a form of art — one that creates meaning — as the Dionysian, which rips itself away from meaning. In fact, we need the Apollonian because we can’t sustain ourselves within the Dionysian chaos — only through art (mediated by the Apollonian) can we face this primordial state. This is the tragic wisdom we seek.

Instead, Nietzsche has a different idol to take down: the “enigmatic ironist” Socrates, who (now again) stands on trail… on trial for murdering art. He did this by creating a philosophy incompatible with life, discarding our existential “nausea” and endless suffering. How do we resuscitate this sense of tragedy? Then triumph and find joy in that suffering? (Notably, the question is not how do we transform suffering into happiness — that would be too Christian a trope.) Nietzsche affirms that it is only through “aesthetic resignation,” aesthetic “justification” that we might… “learn — to laugh!”

Today I would like to talk about the claims of this last argument. As historians, can we borrow this famous formula? “Only as aesthetic phenomenon is [history] justified?” I’m not sure. Does it sound naive to you too? Is history justified through aesthetic phenomenon?




Look at this installation at last year’s Istanbul Biennial by Michael Rakowitz, “The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours” (2015). The piece gestures at the 1915 Armenian genocide by appropriating the Art-Nouveau style popular in Istanbul in that era. Bones (femurs, dog skulls, duck feet, vertebrae, tibias) stand in for the flourishes and tendrils of the old historic molds.

Overall, it’s a sloppy, excessive work — there are a lot of other whimsical elements outside the photographs above — but for our purposes, let’s pretend it’s good. (In fact, everyone should look at Doris Salcedo’s work — now that I think about it, that’s a far better example of this genre.) Anyway, is violence, is genocide justified because we can later produce beautiful things reflecting on it? This seems like very dangerous conceptual territory — certainly, we don’t need the Frankfurt School to explain why it sounds frankly perverse. But maybe “justified” is just too strong a word? Is “justification” a vain pursuit in the writing of/production of history?

So today let’s talk about what can and cannot be translated from Nietzsche’s text to the way we talk about the past….

[I just wanted to link an amazing essay Salcedo wrote for her recent retrospective here. One of her most interesting ideas is that “The work of art is concerned precisely with that which is not an event” (i.e. exactly what the historical record cannot capture and does not reflect). I was also struck by the fact that she rejects historically-specific interpretations of her work: even though a piece may have been inspired directly by her on-the-ground work interviewing victims of gun violence in Los Angeles or Chicago, or helping Colombian mothers search for their murdered sons, or more general reflection on the Holocaust—she nevertheless insists that all these works have interchangeable meanings, such that her representations of Colombian graves or the missing shoes of Colombian victims could just as easily help mothers in Los Angeles mourn their lost sons. -J.Cat.]


I wrote something, but it’s here now.

Readings for the fourth week:

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

For context and background, take some time with:

Lionel Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burkhardt (particularly Part IV)

And Consider:

Norman M. Klein & Margo Bistis, The Imaginary Twentieth Century

Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

Week 5: The Language of the Dead



We spent the first chunk of seminar today canvassing for thoughts about the final project/exercise for the seminar. Just to reiterate here what I said in that discussion, you are definitely free to write a 10 to 15-page paper as a final exercise for this class if you wish to do so. And you can do that on your own if you want. You are also welcome to do a final project in another medium if you are so inclined. And you can also do that alone. Go ahead and write me off thread if you are planning something along these lines. But as I made clear, I have a soft spot for “collaborative” projects in this course. I am not going to force anyone to work with anyone else, but I feel that we do so little collaborative work in history (and the frameworks of support and reward for such work are so limited) that I would like to encourage those of you who are willing/able to use this class as an opportunity to experiment with this important and basically marginal mode of intellectual/creative labor. I also tried to make clear that I am happy to give an assignment to anyone who cannot come up with what they want to do, but I would very much like to see “emergent” collective enterprises emerge (if they do). So that is to say, I would like you all to feel around a little bit towards forms of self-organization on final projects. I would also like to be included in this process. And by that I mean it is my intention actually to do some form of final project “with” you all. It is a little hard to say how that is going to work until we get a sense of what emerges.

So we got started thinking a little bit about what might emerge. Jenne proposed a pretty interesting idea: some form of “curation” of a small set of documents/artifacts, which would then become the basis of discreet and circumscribed historical exercises. One can imagine this working in different ways. We could pair up and and have everyone make an exchange of “dossiers” upon which we would then all do this exercise. I can also imagine us going to some outside person and having that person curate a small historical “archive” for all of us (or at least for everyone who wants to do this). In some ways, that might be more interesting. It would give us a kind of “control” in the experiment, since all of our historical exercises would be working the same documentary terrain. I like this idea enough that I would be up for helping make it happen if there turns out to be interest in doing something like this. In a way, I think it would be an interesting opportunity to invite someone we admire from outside the class to assist us. Suggestions for the right person to ask on this? Let’s see what takes shape in the email threads.

Without prejudice on any of that above, I’m going to go ahead here and put in a plug for the idea that I have floated. In the beginning of of Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession he drops an exceedingly odd and, in my view, tempting footnote:


[To fill out the footnote a bit, a short amusing article from Time Magazine, Jan. 10, 1972, entitled “Tripping History,” as follows: 

“The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a perennial gathering time for the academic clans, who convene in hotel ballrooms around the land to discuss the use of dependent clauses in Hamlet or the number of DNA molecules that can fit on the head of a pin. These occasions usually range from the merely boring to the achingly tedious. Sometimes there are exceptions, provoked by hostility or humor (see SCIENCE). Last week, at the American Historical Association meetings in New York City, Professor James Parsons of the University of California’s Riverside campus proposed that his colleagues use psychedelic drugs to expand their understanding of the past.

“With perceptions heightened by drugs, said Parsons, a man might ‘reach a greater understanding of early China by investigating the fondness that the ancient Chinese had for the particularly exotic dish of bear paws.’ Or a researcher who wanted to understand President James K. Polk, suggested the professor, could hole up for two years in an ante-bellum Tennessee mansion, read the books Polk would have read, ride horseback through the countryside and trip out occasionally on drugs—all in order to put himself inside Folk’s psyche. Parsons’ point is that historians too often neglect what he calls the ’emotional dimension’ of history. He is probably right, but using LSD to re-create the Spirit of ’76 might make the upcoming bicentennial celebration a bit more than most Americans bargain for.”

More spoilers can be found here. He has some pretty interesting suggestions.


I have long been tempted to see what could be done with this slightly unmanageable moment in the history of disciplinary history. Any of you who might be up for the challenge, do not hesitate to be in touch.

I’ll throw one more thing into the discussion. For the last two years I have co-organized a symposium entitled “What History Could Have Been.” These have been a pair of workshop/presentations — the first at Princeton, the second at The New School — at which a variety of imaginative historians have engaged in what I call “conjectural historiography.” You can read an account of this enterprise here and I am going to drop the posters for the last two of these in here below:



I don’t think that the frame conceit for these two events is necessarily what we should be doing as a final exercise for this course. (Though I would welcome any of you that got interested in experimenting with this form.) But some of you might want to try it, because it is a pretty interesting thing to try to do, and it has produced some amazing work. My colleague in the History of Science department at Penn, the wonderful John Tresch, did one for the event earlier this year that was a total tour de force. I am about to publish his piece, entitled “Each Society Gets the Failed Utopia it Deserves” in the new “Conjectures” section of the Public Domain Review website. This is an actual forum for experimental historical work, and it just got started. I am the series editor and if any of you have good ideas about work that is being done that might be suitable for this venue, please let me know.

The reason I mention all of this is partly just to let you know that is is out there, and partly because Dominic Pettman and I are (along with my friend and colleague Jeff Dolven) are thinking about doing a third instantiation of “What History Could Have Been” this spring. If any of you wrote really great pieces in the idiom, it would be tempting to include the work as part of that occasion. It is also possible that this spring’s “What History Could Have Been” symposium might be slightly refigured with a more capacious remit, and that, thusly expanded, it might serve as a venue for other work coming out of our class. Let’s see what happens.

Enough about all that.

About the first two thirds of our seminar discussion focused on Joshua Oppenheimer’s arresting film The Act of Killing. I think we had a “good” discussion, but I do not think it was an especially “easy” discussion — and at the end of the seminar I was left with a strong sense of regret for all the things that we didn’t somehow get to, all the (other) things that feel important in the film, especially those that relate to our theme for this seminar.

What did we talk about? Well, we went around the room and everybody said stuff. Everyone had stuff to say. In fact, everyone had a lot of stuff to say. Everybody had so much to say, and the stuff that everyone had to say was so strongly felt and so rich that it felt, from my perspective, a little difficult to “convene” or “coordinate” a real (collective) conversation.

In some sense one might argue that it is neither my job nor anyone else’s, (c.f., my exchange with Ohad in the write-up for last week’s class). But there is also a perspective that says it is all of our work to make a collective conversation actually happen. It is also sort of, in a way, maybe more my responsibility.

At any rate, it didn’t feel easy. Nor does it feel easy now to résumé everybody’s different contributions and reactions. A basic thing that wants to be said, and that we did not explicitly say there in class, is that everybody seemed to have had very strong reactions to the film. In fact, one might argue that a lot of what was really being said as we went around the room was something like, “I had a very strong reaction to this film.” There was even, I recall, a bit of email thread exchange earlier this week about the simple visceral/emotional impact of the film. It is not, I think, for anyone easy to watch. We might have spent more time talking about why that is in a more focused way, because I believe this was a kind of subtext in the conversation we did manage to have (and perhaps a subtext that did not really comport with or facilitate the discussion itself).

I felt like kicking myself after class that we did not bring back into the discussion of The Act of Killing today any of the very powerful analytic language of the Dionysian and the Apollonian from last week. How did we miss that? It feels like some sort of collective amnesia or weird act of conjoint psychological repression or something. Nietzsche’s analysis of Schein in Attic tragedy — his discussion of the way that theatricality itself can permit the viewer to stand closer to the fatal-catastrophic-truth-horror than ought otherwise not be possible for us to bear — feels more than just a little relevant to The Act of Killing. It seems like the absolute RADIOACTIVE CENTER of this film. The film both stages such occasions of tragic horror and enacts them.

We, as viewers, are brought closer to the horror than is entirely consistent with our remaining uncompromised. Grotesque and extravagant mummery (feathers, garish makeup, kitsch waterfalls, smeared luminosity) are used to hold us enthralled to appearances, even as the appearances (having gotten so close, having gotten us to sit still and look) say unspeakable things that we might otherwise have succeeded in not hearing.

The Birth of Tragedy analogy is not perfect, but there is enough to it that I remain confused as to why it did not come up. (An aside here: did anyone else find him or herself “managing” the cinematic experience of this film by means of now-so-easily-available techniques? I am talking about minimizing the window on the screen and checking email. I am talking about putting the laptop on the kitchen counter and continuing to watch while making lunch. I found myself behaving in this way in relation to the film quite a bit, and took note of the interesting media promiscuity that now both enables and undoes our access to certain kinds of immersive experiences. Attic tragedy did not happen on a window that could be minimized).

So all of that is stuff we did not discuss in relation to the film. Indeed, as Alexander (I think?) pointed out after class, there was something undeniably “Socratic” (in Nietzsche’s sense) about the conversation we did have. That is to say, I do feel that a lot of the talking we made happen could be interpreted as an extended collective effort to “get away from” the movie — and to do so by means of thought.

[I hope this is the right color. I should have mentioned that I am colorblind. In any case I just wanted to note that I saw the movie with a projector in a darkened room. The only way I had to escape the images and sounds of the movie was to pause it and go outside to smoke a cigarette, which I had to do a couple of times. This obviously influenced the way I watched the movie, and processed it afterwards. I did bring up the point of the “socratic” kind of discussion we seemed to have had in class, which seemed to have been primarily the result of our attempts to bring thoughts that were extraneous to the movie into the discussion in order to deal with the immediate gut-wrenching reaction that the movie elicits. Distance between us as scholars and the epistemological object in question is a prerequisite for any thoughtful analysis, yet the fact that this distance can be created in a variety of ways needs to be taken into consideration. This is especially true given that apparently only some of the methods of creating distance are useful in thinking through the topic at hand. I don’t want to one-up Graham here, since I am usually very much in the habit of watching stuff on my laptop while I do a million other things. Yet it seems to me that the distance created by a short cigarette-break, in which I discussed the movie with fellow historian Lorenzo Bondioli, who was the first one to relate Anwar Congo’s murders to the horrors of the holocaust, makes for a more ‘productive’ distance than that created by the act of pushing away the horrific images of the The Act of Killing to the background of our daily lives. Similarly, the only way to approach the movies theoretical implications might be to detach our discussion of it from our everyday concerns at first, losing ourselves in its darkest abysses before reemerging into the light to process our experiences, just as one might talk about a movie after having watched it in the darkness of a theatre. AB]

[[I think Alexander’s point here is terrific. We perhaps glossed over the more visceral, corporeal aspects of the film because they were so immediately apparent––yet this is exactly what contributes, in large part, to The Act of Killing’s extremely effective method of historical recounting and consequent transmission of knowledge.

When living in Hong Kong, I befriended an Indonesian colleague with whom I ended up becoming very close. We discussed the killings of 1965-66 and, after some time, I developed some sense for the scope and pervasive fear that this event inspired (and still inspires) within Indonesia. Yet, in all of these socratic discussions with my colleague, I never was able to comprehend (in an arguably Dionysian way) the implications of this episode in daily life within Indonesia, to feel, in a more visceral sense, the degree to which this trauma still haunts the country. The facts and numbers discussed with my colleague could do little to help me understand the degree of fear and tension that still remains within the country. It is one thing to understand the empirical evidence of an event such as the Indonesian Massacres, but it is quite another to have to live through the experience, to be personally implicated, even as an observer.

In constructing The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer physically recreates scenes from the Indonesian Massacres, a process which eventually leads to the emotional breakdown of Anwar. Compellingly, while Anwar appears able to cope with the cerebral, factual knowledge of the killings at the film’s outset, the experience of making Oppenheimer’s film brings him to a state of emotional breakdown unseen at the outset of the film.

Likewise, we, as the audience, are exposed to this very same process––in this virtual transplantation into Indonesia, this immersion within the lives of Anwar and his cohort, we are exposed to the unfiltered corporeality of the Massacre’s remains. It is perhaps all the more compelling in that we are given little context and little warning: suddenly we are with Anwar, following his every move, engaged in a hysterical search to make him a movie star. While we may be aware of the acts of violence committed a half-century ago, this knowledge is Apollonian, inert. Our exposure to the film seemingly allows––or forces––the audience to process information in a non-socratic way, to absorb the smallest details of both past and present within Anwar’s life. Watching Anwar describe and reenact his processes of murder somehow brings abstract concepts, ideas, and numbers into a terrifying reality, allowing a historical document to somehow become tangible, real, if only for two hours. TC]]

Maybe that is not fair.

But I am not sure it is not fair.

Our class is a class about history, and specifically about forms of historical inquiry, presentation, and expression that are difficult to assimilate to current disciplinary norms in the practice of professional historians. I would like here to focus my thoughts on The Act of Killing (and our discussion of it) on this core theme of our seminar.

But before I turn to that, maybe just one more moment on the scope of our responses: it strikes me as nothing less than astonishing the diversity of comment this film produced among our number. We literally had reflections on the film that ranged from “this film made everything else that I am doing and studying seem sort of pointless,” to “this film is a banal and masturbatory exercise in complacent Western moralizing.” We had a least two people who argued that the film was so profoundly ethically compromised as to be morally vicious, and we had at least one person who that felt that the film ought properly be understood as a thinly secularized apotheosis of Christian eschatology. In a basic way such extravagantly divergent impressions within a community of (relatively) like-minded folks is shocking. I am not sure that such remarkable lack of consensus, taken on its own, indicates that a work of art is “good” or “important.” But I do think it strongly suggests that we would all do well to watch the film again.

Turning to questions of history and method, it is notable that there was here, too, a considerable degree of divergence of opinion. I do not think that we were all even able to agree as to whether this should really be called a work of “history.” A number of people pointed out that it offers essentially nothing on the “why” of the events as they happened. We learn next to nothing about the broader historical context of Anwar’s actions.

Is this really true, though? When we thought about it more, we weren’t sure. Yes, the filmmaker includes zero historical footage of politicians debating communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia in the period. But we do come to have a sense of Anwar having been a hood, in a basic sort of way, and that seems to explain something.

And even if you grant that the film has no real interest in traditionally historical methods of “explaining” historical events, it seems difficult to argue that a watcher of the film could come away without having learned quite a bit about what actually happened in Indonesia in the 1960s and 1970s. And that’s “history,” isn’t it?

[TWO notes about the film and history making.

1) History, as we often say, is about “giving voice” [do you say it in English?] to those who no longer have one. Usually we think about the oppressed, the victims of history, as those who needs to be (re) heard. This movie, however, gives a voice to the perpetrator — and this is by itself an interesting twist. Thinking about it, it is quite amazing that the prepetrator was stupid enough to talk (maybe this is the big scandal of the movie). But when thinking about it in terms of history-making, I think we should ask whether history – as a genre – can genuinely listen to the prepetrator, or maybe its ironic emplotment must (re)present the prepetrator as a victim? Is it possible for a virile and non apologetic mass murderer to appear as such in a historical narrative without being reduced to his/her context or being redeemed by remorse?

[[I think this is a really interesting question; I think the answer is “yes,” but I am not sure — and that seems significant.  DGB]]

2)After watching both films, I think that one of their interesting dynamics is the tension between history and nostalgia. While the first movie presented as with Anwar’s perverted nostalgia (which in this case has traumatic quality)  to the “Act of Killing”, and left us with many questions about the “historical value” of the film; then the second movie was more complicated in this respect. It shows us both the two ridiculous murderers enjoy a moment of shared nostalgia, remembering the murder of the brother, and the protagonist in his quest to recreate the narrative of the murder — to do history. History, it seems to me, is the idiom of the victims, of those who were deprived of the ability to act. The perpetrators can return to the memory of their actions, can return on their actions, and therefore has no need nor interest in History, they can remain in the realm of nostalgia.  —-ORS]  

When I did try to get us to something like “consensus” concerning the project of the film (something I wanted to do as a point of departure for the “real” project of clarifying the foundations and/or principals of our divergent impressions) it was hard. Why was it so hard?

What I wanted to assert was something along the lines of: “this film wants to bring us up close to another human being.”

Seemed uncontroversial to me.

But we somehow got ensconced, at this point (according to my memory), in a series of animadversions concerning the transcultural applicability of categories like “the self,” and “the person,” and even “human being” itself. And while, at the time, I found this frustrating, it now seems to me that that really might have been the whole point. Which is to say, I believe that the film is affectingly legible as a potent and destabilizing instance of what I have described to you as what I take to be the highest and most sacred calling of art and scholarship: “singing the we.”

Nearly all of the hard questions concerning how to live and what to do (political questions, ethical questions) prove at some level to ride on one or another definition of the relevant “we.” It is, in my view, the capacious and essential work of those who think about people and the things they make and the things they have done (and who make things — books, plays, films — in the course of that activity) to extend and delimit, conjure and articulate, display and decry the various “we’s” upon which so much else depends. The Act of Killing feels to me like an exceedingly powerful instance of this essential work. The film asks us to consider to what degree Anwar and his cohort are part of “us.” To do this, the film cannot but use a set of ethical conventions (conscience, confession, redemption) and representational conventions (cinematic, theatrical, commercial) that are themselves already considerably overwritten with a particular “us.” I think many of us sensed this as a problem with the film. And there is a queasiness there that is legitimate, it seems to me. Anwar is indeed “trapped” by a set of asymmetries of power that are themselves already part of the problem. Or that, of themselves, are simply problematic. But the dynamic of that trap (the seductions of the play-within-a-play, the bait of himself-as-movie-star that “hooks and betrays” Anwar) brings Anwar-as-monster right up out of an uncognizable alterity and then lays him in our laps, gasping like some deep sea creature momentarily made pitiable pieta in our arms!

This is an extraordinary achievement. It is also profoundly unsettling. It is very difficult to be solicited (obliged?) to contemplate such an intimacy with a person so appalling to one’s sense of the right, the just, and the decent. One can feel one has been manipulated into this position — just as much as one can feel that Anwar himself has been manipulated into this position. And in some sense, both things are absolutely true: both you as viewer and Anwar as subject have been manipulated into this conjunction/tableau. And that, of course, is part of the disconcerting propinquity or symmetry that film effects.

Some of us recoiled more violently than others from this situation. Some in the class indicted, in very strong terms, the untenable, even culpable, position of the mediator/filmmaker who did this deed.

[While looking for something else, I stumbled across this text “When less is less” by David MacDougall that was assigned in an old film seminar, and maybe it helps contribute something to the conversation summarized above?


I do think Oppenheimer is very aware of the ethical and rhetorical gestures he is using throughout this film and he’s consciously navigating every part of his approach to a deeply disturbing section of history. Although I completely respect if people still find it problematic and offensive. It’s just not being done out of ignorance. –HHN]

[I so appreciate this quote, HHN. It makes me think of deconstruction as similar to the Sora worldview in its framing of the “not there” as a present-absence rather than an ontological “not there.” It offers a means to move outside of what I find to be an ascendant mode of critique that is premised ceaselessly identifying what is not there. To be sure, this form has been incredibly valuable and necessary, particularly in identity-based movements for rights and recognition, but I think it reaches an impasse when it takes the locating-of-the-not-there as an ontological truth that is an end in itself — in other words, taking its methodology as an end. 

But deconstruction pushes one to consider how absence conditions, acts upon, and changes presence, and vice versa. Attempting to track the relationships between absence and presence in a work, tracing out absence as presence, does not foreclose judgment of the aesthetic choices conditioning those relationships, but at the same time, refuses to easily slide from the assumption that absence merits criticism. It asks instead what the work of absence/presence is.

I am trying to do that work now as I think about my uneasiness with this film, which emerges not from the re-presenting of Anwar by Anwar that pulls him into anguish (and as some reviews have contended, consequent absenting of the voices of those he killed; for me, the film compelling tracks how those absences, seemingly ontological, are present, complex, and shifting, shaping and reshaping Anwar). Rather, I’m trying to make sense of the filmmaker’s absenting of himself but simultaneous deific presence, particularly at the end where he verbally intervenes prior to Anwar’s breakdown. What does it mean to place Anwar’s breakdown against an all-seeing and –knowing camera? Manipulative or not, does it bring viewer and viewed together via a mimetic orientalism (though this has certain additional stakes, for if the subversion within that mimesis is unintelligible in the international networks of capital within which the film aspired to and succeeded at circulating, then it is at risk of reifying an orientalism — even though I don’t think representation should necessarily be conditioned by its audience… anyways, lots of questions about the stakes of aesthetics, capital, and interpretation bracketed here…)? I desire this reading of the film, yet I’m still uneasy about the chronicling of Anwar’s breakdown in a way that does not puncture the stability of Oppenheimer’s camera, and as such, the stability of the viewer’s view. For does the pitying swell of emotions that one feels towards Anwar establish intimacy or does it establish distance (backed by the asymmetry of stability versus breakdown)? Or even a distance disguised as intimacy? I’m not sure. TS ]

But I made it clear that I am deeply sympathetic to what I interpret as the underlying metaphysics/theology of this work. I do myself believe that we are all marked equally by an unfathomable darkness. Which is to say, I believe that we are all born into sin. That this comes with our “humanity.” This is a significant component, for me, of what one means by the “human.”

The near reckoning with this “fact” — by which I mean sustained attention to our shared participation in this condition — is, for me, a spiritual exercise. This same work is also, however, in my view, unproblematically secularizable as a triumph of our “humanism,” since I believe such a reckoning is a precondition of what is best in us, even in the absence of god-talk: our ability to transform pain and wrongdoing, division and violence, into peaceful communion (through “love,” “forgiveness,” “reconciliation,” or whatever other instruments/terminology one is comfortable bringing to the problem).

My challenge to those of you who may feel some resistance to some or all of what I am saying here would be this: holding off Anwar’s claim to be “one of us” (i.e., rejecting/denying the intimacy that the film works to effect) bids fair, it seems to me, to reproduce precisely the maneuver of de-humanization that marked Anwar’s relationship to his victims.


Maybe not. But this seems to me to be the danger. I would be interested in understanding better how some of you think about these questions.

Not least because I think these questions are extremely important in any effort to understand the most fundamental objectives of historical work. Why do we want to “understand” “others”? Are we willing to feel that work of understanding as nothing less than a form of “communion”? If not, what is it for?

[Isn’t there a difference between inviting Anwar to “sing the ‘we’” and, well, propping him up on the podium, handing him the baton, and appointing him ensemble conductor? My objection is simply that anyone should have to sing the dark, menacing score that the old perpetrator brings to life (or the one Oppenheimer is inducing him to bring to life). It seems to inflict yet another kind of violence to Anwar’s community in Indonesia (i.e. the re-enactors) — which is what I see to be the ethical problem of this film.

That said, we might still welcome Anwar to sing another song, to act in “communion,” as Graham writes. But granting him the power, or even just the illusion of power, to direct his own maudlin ballad, theatrically waving his hands and swaying his torso? Absolutely not. And by denying him that privilege, I don’t see how we are “reproducing… the maneuver of de-humanization,” as is suggested. It would just mean Anwar partaking in rather than directing the production of history and memory. – NB]

[[I sense from this comment that I was not sufficiently clear about what I meant.  It is Oppenheimer here who, in my view, is “singing the we” with a film that he made and that asks us to expand our sense of the “we” to include Anwar — as a broken human being. We see his broken-ness because he is forced/seduced, by means of being “empowered” with the tools of cinematic story telling, to a re-reconnoitering of memory terrain across which he has grooved a well-work track.  When he begins that process, he plans to “tell his story” — but the work of story telling in this unfamiliar and powerful idiom slows him up, and the possibilities begin to lead him and his collaborators into fantastic and monstrous reifications of their own fantasies and fears. Confronting the results, they are (or at least Anwar seems to be) genuinely wobbled.  This is never a certain thing, for us as viewers (Anwar is a hood, and as such a con-man, and possibly an actual psychopath — so he is hard to trust). But it reached, for me, into the zone of not-easily-dismissable. It is this — his reckoning with himself in at least some way, our glimpse of the (seeming) failure of his narrow and wrote self-script — that puts him among us.  All of us have our stories.  We think.  They are all false. How false they are is, arguably, an index of how damaged we are. Reckoning with this is tough stuff. 

The terrible beauty of the film, in what is coming to be my view, is that giving Anwar the power and privilege of directing his own maudlin ballad turns out to be a kind of punishment. Even as it has the effect of making him feel frighteningly familiar. 

After watching “The Look of Silence,” I am the more stunned by what I feel is a kind of formal perfection in The Act of Killing.  I find myself more and more persuaded that it is a truly great work.  – DGB]]


We took a break. My impression is that some good conversations continued into that break, and I’d be interested in hearing about those.

When we returned, we pivoted to the Vitebsky book. There is little doubt in my mind that one could fill three seminars with a discussion of this book alone. It is a remarkable achievement. I do not think we were really able to do justice to it, but I hope that in different ways you all were stimulated to reconsider our own (contemporary, historical, disciplinary) conceptualization of the relationship between the dead and the living in light of Vitebsky’s ethnography of Memory among the Sora. As I mentioned in class, I found myself moved by the juxtaposition of a Sora shaman and Joshua Oppenheimer. I don’t think that this is a trite comparison, but then again I am not sure. To play out the analogy would look like this: a Sora shaman creates the conditions of possibility for dialogues between the living and the dead; but this is exactly what Oppenheimer does in the film through his stagings of the “act” of killing. In both cases, there are social, political, legal, and economic ramifications.

We also spent some time on Vitebsky’s notion of “trans-sentience,” and what it might mean for us to take seriously the idea that our obligation as historians is to achieve something more profound and more embodied than mere “empathy” with our subjects. And is it the responsibility of the work we make (our books and articles) to convey something of our own self-loss into that which we hoped to understand? I mentioned a book that has been important to me in thinking about these questions: Out of Our Minds: Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa, by Johannes Fabian.

We are going to be continuing some of these themes next week with the Joseph Roach reading on performance and funerary cultures and funerary traditions in the circum-Atlantic world, so I’m hoping we will be able to stay with the questions we opened in this session.

Thanks for a very stimulating seminar.

[Since our last seminar and our conversation on The Act of Killing, I was struck with some of the ideas discussed about humanity, humanization and human being. I would like to add a few thoughts on this with the help of Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway:

Not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that. Some of us are not even considered fully human now, let alone at previous moments of Western social, political and scientific history. Not if by ‘human’ we mean that creature familiar to us from the Enlightenment and its legacy: ‘The Cartesian subject of the cogito, the Kantian “community of reasonable beings”, or, in more sociological terms, the subject as citizen, rights-holder, property-owner, and so on’ (Wolfe, 2010a). And yet the term enjoys widespread consensus and it maintains the re-assuring familiarity of common sense. We assert our attachment to the species as if it were a matter of fact, a given. So much so that we construct a fundamental notion of Rights around the Human. But is it so?  (Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, 2013).

I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me, of us, no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to become with many. Some of these personal microscopic biota are dangerous to the me who is writing this sentence; they are held in check for now by the measures of the coordinated symphony of all the others, human cells and not, that make the conscious me possible. I love that when “I” die, all these benign and dangerous symbionts will take over and use whatever is left of “my” body, if only for a while, since “we” are necessary to one another in real time. As a little girl, I loved to inhabit miniature worlds brimming with even more tiny real and imagined entities. I loved the play of scales in time and space that children’s toys and stories made patent for me. I did not know then that this love prepared me for meeting my companion species, who are my maker (Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 2007). -ILM.]

[[ Many thanks to Ivan for reminding us that there is a large and important literature across several academic fields that rejects the discourse of “humanism.” These critiques come from several sectors: eco-environmentalists can see in humanism a sort of thinly-veiled species narcissism; techno-futurists spot a kind of quaint nostalgia for the world that proceeded our current condition — as organic appurtenances to the vast and intricate mechanico-chemical-digital structures without which life as we know it has become impossible to imagine.

That said (and I have a soft spot for a lot of this stuff), I am not persuaded that either of these quotes really reaches to the crux of the matter that we were dealing with in class. Am I wrong?

Braidotti is certainly right to signal that we should be mindful of slack or unconsidered invocations of “the human,” which are certainly as common as any other cliché, and may have unhappy consequences (or not, depending…). But so what? Who would allege that the category of “the human” as I have invoked it, or the category of “the human” to which the tradition (the contested, live tradition) I reference has struggled to assign meaning — who would say any of that has simply slumped onto some simple-minded conformity with our “species” in a flat-footed, cladistic sense? No serious participant in that discussion/tradition would accept this equation. So the argument feels to me like it is torching a straw man. I do not know the rest of Braidotti’s text, but it would need to take me places I do not see indicated here before I would be tempted to abandon the category of the human as the salient “essentially contested concept” for collective life. I do not mean to suggest there aren’t others that are also important. There certainly are. But we have plenty to do, still, on the category of the human. Ethical questions will not be displaced from this ground for some time yet. Could they ever be?

As for the Haraway, I deeply appreciate this move to consider the non-human in our body ecologies, and recall a very affecting piece on this topic by the Irish curator Francis Mckee (at the Palais de Tokyo four or five years ago). Work like this (and Haraway’s work on cyborgs too) is certainly changing the way we think about “the human.” But I think that places it IN, not outside or beyond, the tradition I invoke.

In the work of singing the “we,” the category of the human is no less relevant than ever, as I see it. Indeed, I believe it remains fundamental. Am I wrong? If so, help me understand.

A last thought on all this:

Without wanting to be speciously polemical, I would suggest that the first “post-humanism” was called “theology.” This is sort of the line I took in my contribution to the October issue on the New Materialisms.

— DGB]]


[“Thus for Freud, as for the Western secular tradition generally, the structure of experience is based largely on the structure of the experiencing mind; while for the Sora, it is based on that of the outside world — itself also conscious — which the mind experiences” (Dialogs with the Dead, 245).

Like the Sora, Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook speaks to the dead. But her address is not just dialogic, shamanistic, dramaturgical. It is also deeply materialist: She lectures to a room of actual corpses, lays out dresses upon the lifeless body of a young girl, invites poets to sing in a morgue. Rasdjarmrearnsook animates the “conscious… outside world” in a (shockingly) literal way, not witnessed in the traditions of the Indian tribe.

No, Rasdjarmrearnsook’s dead are not necessarily “a node in an endlessly extendible social web” of a local community, as Vitebsky describes (259). She doesn’t know whom these dead people were while they lived. Nevertheless, she treats them as selves, selves outside of her own self. And perhaps selves that also constitute a more capacious, imagined “we.” (This idea also shows up in Eduardo Kohn’s book “How Forests Think,” in regards to the Runa people in Ecuador and multinaturalism. He writes about “how we might become a new kind of we, in relation to such absences….”)

The voices of the dead in Rasdjarmrearnsook’s works also talk back. But only the artist can hear them. They inquire (and she repeats for us) if it is autumn, and later, if it is afternoon or evening. Rasdjarmrearnsook finishes her lecture in “The Class” (2005), asking: “Does anyone have any questions?”– NB]


[[ I did not know this work, and really appreciate learning about it.  So different, but not unrelated: John Duncan’s notorious 1980 piece Blind Date. Not for the faint of heart – DGB]]


I just wanted to stick a few things in here quickly, that feel relevant to our meeting this week.  Some of you may already have found this stuff.  First, there is a pretty interesting interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (and Werner Herzog) about The Act of Killing here. I found it helpful as I was coming out of the queasy miasma that my viewing of the film occasioned.  In the conversation, Oppenheimer adopts a position with respect to his work (and his subjects) that I think needs to be reckoned with. Second, and relatedly, there is a whole edited volume on related material: Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory, and the Performance of Violence. There are a few essays in there to which I think we should circle back in our week on performance and reenactment.



Bodily memory, the kind created by enactment, argues Paul Connerton, circumvents critical questioning. Connerton notes, “commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices” undercut one’s ability to articulately resist the perpetuation of certain beliefs. For these reasons, groups “entrust to bodily automatisms the values and categories which they are most anxious to conserve. They will know how well the past can be kept in mind by a habitual memory sedimented in the body” (102). Connerton finds the heritability of many bodily memories insidious—markers of social hierarchy, for instance. In other words, forgetting has its advantages.

The Act of Killing proposes a different understanding of somatic memory: bodily re-enactment engenders collective memory, forestalling amnesia. Ironically, Connerton credits the kind of violence—seen re-enacted in this film—as leading to his own work:

Another factor in the emergence of memory studies has been what I would call “transitional justice.” And by that I mean to say that in the 1980s and 1990s there were transformations in various countries… that had had a very difficult past, on the whole a totalitarian or authoritarian past, and had moved toward a more democratic form of government. Precisely because they had had a difficult past, they had to take up a position about it, they had to examine their memories. They had to think about what attitude they should take toward the previous perpetrators and victims of injustice (“Historical Amnesias: An Interview with Paul Connerton,” Cabinet Magazine 42 Summer 2011).

Re-enacting this violence perpetuates a memory many Indonesians would rather forget. Embodied memories, this film asserts, are easier to retrieve than purely mental memories. History, implausible and distant, can be relived. The unwanted past comes into the present through the body. Unlike Connerton’s conception of performative memory The Act of Killing resurfaces a different, pre-modern understanding of how memory sediments itself within people and places. This film reminded me of the method of loci or “memory palace.” This is a millennia-old mnemonic strategy where one imagines moving through a familiar space, sequentially depositing objects and their attendant memories so that later one might psychically relive this experience and better surface the dormant memory. Cicero recounts the perhaps apocryphal story of how the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos invented the memory palace. Dining at the house of a wealth noble, Simonides stepped outside. In his absence the roof collapsed crushing and killing all who remained. Family members could not identify the mangled bodies for burial. As Cicero writes: “[T]he story goes that Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment.”

Relived bodily memory and its relation to history calls to my mind the work of artist Mary Reid Kelley. Kelley’s work—which began as archival research in Yale’s Beinecke Library— revolves around the creation of historically situated characters. In her videos, prints, and paintings, Kelley performs historical fiction. Kelley transports herself and her stage into a living graphic memoir, educing from within the viewer a febrile, emotionally redolent historical memory. Kelley’s videos inhabit an incoherent, subjective, Dada-like space where historical facts are filtered through the idiosyncratic wordplay of her fictional characters. Despite Kelley’s constant evocation of history, her video Sadie the Saddest Sadist (2009) worked to “upend the task of historical anecdote and its intended continuity of knowledge and replace it with historical reverie” (Steven Henry Madoff, “Openings: Mary Reid Kelley,” Artforum, November 2009). Sadie the Saddest Sadists traces the tryst of Sadie, a WWI-era munitions worker, and Jack, a sailor on furlough. Kelley asserts, as does The Act of Killing, that the artifacts and experiences of the ordinary and anonymous not only warrant but demand the consideration of history.


I have been preoccupied with how framing history as ‘recovery’ implies a search-and-seizure model of inquiry. In The Weight of the Past, Michael Lambek gestures at the epistemological and ethical dangers of this orientation when he contrasts Sakalava practices of “bearing” history (as supporting, giving forth, enduring) with “‘baring’ as exposing.” For the Sakalava, he writes, approaching the past as an object to be excised or revealed “shrivels and demeans its object…” (10).

But Piers Vitebsky’s Dialogues with the Dead pushes me to think through the implications of a second, interrelated meaning of the word ‘recovery’– namely, as a return to a condition of health from a condition of illness. While comparing Sora bereavement to contemporary psychotherapy, Vitebsky notes the premium placed in psychotherapy on having “recovered from loss” (237). Psychotherapy/psychoanalysis frames death as a pastness that sends the living into a non-normal state from which they must recover. In contrast to the Sora approach, a Freudian framework is predicated on the non-existence of the dead, such that any fixation would be diagnosed as the “pathological disturbance” of melancholia (239). Psychotherapy instead prescribes mourning, a kind of historical work that distances the living from death and “returns” them to health, to normality, to the quotidian ‘before’ state. It is a kind of narrow historical work that aspires to a recovery from – as opposed to, in the first sense outlined above, a recovery of – the past.

This formulation pegs one’s orientation towards the past to a particular regime of health. It offers a vision of a “healthy” doing of history, a doing that prevents a descent into a state of illness and deviance from which there is no recovery. While the psychotherapy framework is expressly concerned with bereavement, its orientation towards the past seems more generally to slip into the epistemological presuppositions of contemporary historical inquiry. I see this especially in the idealization of norms of healthy attachment and detachment in inquiry (what would it mean, as HL has asked, to have a crush, to be obsessed, to have an “unhealthy” attachment?). It in the constitution of this norm that I think the two valences of recovery – as search-and-seizure and as mandate-to-health – might converge. Namely, within this paradigm, a “healthy” doing of history involves a detachment from one’s object of inquiry such that it becomes an object, an object to be retrieved, unmasked, exposed, revealed, demystified, denaturalized [etc etc insert other verbs associated with this type of ironic mode]. Recovery from history requires recovery of history.

In working through these valences, I’m dancing around my feeling that the epistemology of ‘recovery’ is the product of a certain biopolitics. There are many histories of biopolitics and many works that cast a critical eye on the relationship between knowledge production in disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and psychoanalysis and different biopolitical projects. But what of the biopolitics of history? Given Foucault’s emphasis on genealogy, I think less attention is paid to how historical work is entangled in making live and letting die. Inflected with a psychoanalytic investment in health, the language of historical recovery seems to evidence this entanglement; it especially gestures at the psychic dimensions of biopolitics. Historical recovery, then, is a history for life, but not at all in the Nietzschean sense.

The epistemological approach of the Sora offers a history for life, I think, that takes a body outside the tightly-regulated logics of recovery. Because death is not an ontological negation of life for the Sora, neither valence of recovery holds. The dead are not discrete historical objects to be recovered nor do their deaths place the living in the state that must be recovered from. For the Sora, there is no recovery or return to a previous ‘normality’ because the living and sonums are constantly shaping each other in a material landscape of “communal space and time” (16). The living and dead change with each other, which is not to say there are no narratives of progression. Sonums gradually transition from Experience to Ancestor, and the living often experience a withdrawal that Vitebsky deems “comparable” to the mourning process (240). Moreover, health and illness figure prominently in the Sora landscape, but not in the biopolitical sense. Vitebsky suggests that illness, which Experience sonum inflict upon the living, is part of a “linking phenomenon” (255), as opposed to an unnatural/deviant feature of living. So there is certainly overlap with mourning and melancholia (see also his discussion of suicide, 244), as well as concerns with illness. But unlike a model of recovery that demands conformity to a strict telos of health, the Sora’s dialogues with the dead are open-ended in their possibility.

Is there a “takeaway” for us here, for our engagements with the past? Vitebsky warns against assuming transposability. I think this is especially the case when one considers the very specific and comparatively egalitarian configuration of power relations that enable “feelings” to be the “ultimate arbiters in conflicts which one might otherwise be tempted to call structural” (143). So there are no pieces to take away from the Sora, no recovery to be had. That would moreover risk essentializing difference in ways that reify geopolitical divides.

Rather, I think Vitebsky’s “trans-sentience” (255) prompts reflection on the imperatives governing one’s orientation towards the past, and as I’ve tried to suggest here, the desire to recover. Even if there is no outside, I’d like to think that such reflection can make room for a different way of orienting.

I wanted to end by noting a space that I would like to orient myself towards differently. I feel quite unsure about what this “differently” even means as I type it out. Coronation Park. This is a space that I would characterize as almost the negative double image of Vitebsky’s account of the Sora community. It is located in the city of Delhi, on the outskirts, to the north (I am not ending with this park because it shares the nation-space of India with the Sora, that would make too much of the unity of the nation). To get there from where I lived a couple years ago, you had to take the metro, transferring from the violet line to the yellow line at Rajiv Chowk, which shuttled you through the multiple, conflicting, and adjacent temporalities of the city.

Coronation Park was the site of the Delhi Durbar of 1903, a grand ceremonial ritual asserting imperial power. You can watch video of it here. Following independence, governing officials were presented with the problem of dealing with the emblems of imperial power that the British left behind, including their many statues. Today, Coronation Park holds these statues, including the one of King George V that used to face India Gate, in various states of disrepair. But things look like they are on the up-and-up, perhaps due to a combination of increased imperial-nostalgia-tourism as well as urbanization of the area. Recently, the Delhi Development Authority put in a children’s park (the joke that children now play on empire is too easy).

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When I walked in this space, I remember my body turning in on itself, betraying its critical faculties as it was taken in by the decrepit grandeur. These statues seem to me everything that is not sonum. They are discrete objects referring to, yet detached from, specific people and the landscape. Their pastness is present but ossified and unchangeable. Their form makes no space for dialogue. So I’ll end here with my uncertainty and unease with this space, filled with objects projecting a past that had clearly primed itself for future recovery.

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[These essays put me in mind of these pieces, all of which might be said to deal with the binary dynamics of non-Sora-style memorialization? The second is set in a version of the South Asian context invoked by TS above. -DGB]


Just a few thoughts about the film: When it comes to trauma and death, what is the role of historians in the processes of reconciliation in a post-conflict society? Are films like the “The Act of Killing” more helpful to trigger processes of dealing or coming to terms with the past than historiographical work based on “facts”. This is also related to the questions we have been discussing in class form the very beginning: Does historical research have an outreach to society? What impact does it have on individual lives? As we don’t know the future, looking back into the past is the only way to understand the present and to plan the future. Are historians aware of that fact when researching or writing history?

Actually thoughts about reconciliation came to my mind because of today’s Yom Kippur (and the reason why I have to stay at home, because of closed child care facilities…) As far as I understand the Jewish tradition of this holiday is very much related to reconciliation.

Readings for the fifth week:

Piers Vitebsky, Dialogs with the Dead

Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember


Michael Lambek, The Weight of the Past

Layton, ed., Who Needs the Past?


The Act of Killing

Week 6: Dancing in the Necropolis



Looking at this sentence affords you no information concerning the length or character of the silent pause that preceded its formulation.

How might this matter?







See above for “blank space” – the visual analog of silence.

A fair bit of our time today was spent on The Look of Silence and the silence of looks.

It is possible that I took a five-minute break between each word here recorded. The text does not show this.

And if you look away from the page for half an hour and stare out the window after reading this word, no trace of that attentional aporia will annotate this screen.

Saying nothing about all this, but in just the right way, may be the best we can do.


One might argue that my overture above represents a “performative” gesture. Some chunk of our seminar today was indeed on silence, but another significant chunk of our discussion dealt with the category of performance and what relevance it might have to the work of historians. Might we (do we?) activate classically “performative” practices (repetition, improvisation, use of a mediating “chorus,” etc.) as we do history?

Jamie launched us with a passage from the close of Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead:


It was a passage to which we would return at the close of the seminar as well. “Texts may obscure what performance tends to reveal.” And Roach parallels this proposition with the proposition that “memory challenges history.” It isn’t perfectly clear whether Roach wants the latter to be an amplification upon the former, or perhaps merely a kind of simple apposite. We are left with a sense that memory aligns itself with performance and history with text, but it isn’t obvious that Roach wants things sorted that cleanly. The watchword seems to be “co-creation.” At any rate, a reader of Roach’s book certainly feels, I think, by page 186 that “twice-behaved behavior” or “behavior behaved for the nth time” (under conditions of consciousness of the end sequence) opens access to the past in particular ways – and demands to be reckoned with as a powerful social (and individual) technology for mediating between past and present.

We don’t really have a separate week in this class on memory, and I’m starting to feel that that this is a potentially problematic omission. There is a very large literature on this subject, it is relevant, and I don’t think that any of us knows it as well as we might. But we found ourselves standing in this territory today as we contemplated the passage above in relation to Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence. I think a number of us felt that the film forces consideration of the extent to which “historical inquiry” is even possible under conditions of pervasively saturated social memory. We went so far as to test the proposition that can be read on the photo of the blackboard above: history begins in forgetting – i.e., where there is real memory history cannot happen.

There are definitely a number of senses where this proposition is false. But I was struck by a brief moment in which I sensed the perspective from which it could be felt to be true. History can stretch its legs on the open planes of oblivion; it has trouble catching its stride on the crowded streets of collective memory.

That said, there is obviously a way in which Roach’s book seeks to break down that very distinction. Does it succeed?


Conversation about Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip was spirited. We spent a good deal of time on this luminous passage in the close of his introduction:


I think we all agreed that there was something very beautiful indeed about this metaphor. In fact, I went so far as to say that I can not think of a more charged trope for the historian’s magical/mystical ambitions. I expressed that I was particularly affected by the way the figure détourn-es a very traditional optical trope for image making (lenses, focus, reflection) by invoking the combustion power implicit in the dioptrical/catoptrical concentration of light. The result invokes a kind of “catalytic virtue” in the historian’s work — a power that goes well beyond mere representation. Lesy’s effort to invoke the triple-point of the historical masterwork (it captures a breath in the past, a moment in the archive, a glimpse of the future by a reader – and does all three of these things at once) may feel to some of you like a romantic mystification. I lapped it up like a cat on a dish of cream.

And changing key on my gustatory similes, I’ll say that there was, for me, something chewy and toothsome in the sort of fractal-like density of “meaning” Lessy activates in this passage (where he “defends” — rather poetically — his free gestures of collage and excision):


It’s obviously kind of crazy to  assert that “it’s all in there – anywhere and everywhere you look, at no matter what scale, in no matter what clipped morsel or extracted fragment.” It cannot be right, but it is definitely so beautiful that a part of me feels that it cannot be wholly wrong either. Emboldened by this commitment, Lesy can wield tape and scissors with abandon, confident he can do no damage whatsoever. (NB: Hannah, for one, thought he did plenty of damage!).

It cannot be right, but it reminds me a little of Mill’s disorienting confidence that the best way to ensure that the “truth comes out” in a society is to submit every proposition to the most relentless barrage of animadversion and adversarial combat. Others thought the truth might be more fragile than that. But Mill’s position basically triumphed (across science, and politics, and essentially every domain of public life – at least in what we like to think of as the “free world”). Maybe something as odd as Lesy’s theory of historical meaning will eventually sweep the field and change our relationship with our sources. In an age of increasingly pervasive text/image “postproduction,” it does not feel impossible.


There were some other things that happened across our conversation. We wrestled more with The Look of Silence. Did this film force one into propinquity with the perpetrators in a new way? Did it do this by hinting, somehow, that the terrifying view expounded repeatedly by Adi’s interlocutors (“the past is past,” “let’s put it behind us,” “forget about it”) might actually make a lot of sense. I do not think I was the only person to cringe with a sense that Adi was a kind of figure for Oedipus – in the sense that Nietzsche invokes (i.e., a symbol of the self-destructive dynamics of the delusional “will to truth”). We also talked about the multiple layers of “surrogacy” (in Roach’s rich sense) that are live in the film: Adi for Ramli; Adi also for the documentarian, Joshua, in a real way.

[Here is the link to the interview with Adi which I read from in class, which provides an alternate perspective on who is controlling whom. -HL] 

Surrogacy itself affords us what I thought was a very original and interesting way of thinking about how the dead shape the topography of the living. I hope we will return to this idea.

[Came upon this in Nagel and Wood’s discussion of Botticelli’s Portrait of Youth Holding an Icon: “Botticelli, within his artwork presents an ‘image’ – or rather, his surrogate does, the portrait’s youthful subject” (118). The relationship between surrogate and image, Nagel and Wood argue, contains the tension between substitution and performance, a move that in this painting “makes us feel this icon’s objecthood” (122). So here surrogacy disenchants the “relic” through objectification, but it also “releases in it an uncanny quality of animation” (122). Perhaps reading Nagel and Wood’s substitution/performance back onto Roach offers a way of thinking through the different things ‘surrogation’ can both disenchant and conjure, both contain and release, in ways that map onto the blurring of life/death? ]


Towards the end of the seminar I took us to page 133 of Roach:


The language of surrogacy here, read through Bataille (by way of Girard), engages problems of sacrifice and communion. I suggested we think this passage in relation to the very disturbing revelation in The Look of Silence that many of the perpetrators of the massacres in Indonesia appear to have drunk the blood of their victims. Their given rationale is both fascinating and appalling: namely, that when one is obliged to do a lot of very horrible killing the only way to avoid going crazy is a kind of homeopathic inoculation transmitted through blood communion.

I asked us to linger on this image. Not because I had any sense of what was to be done with it, but because I found it so strange and troubling and at the same time also, somehow, possessed of a dark logic that seemed important to confront.

I suppose that if I am being honest, I feel like this last 25 minutes or so of the seminar was basically kind of  a “fail.” I hold myself responsible for this. But I would be interested in understanding if others felt the same way. I think I know the question I was trying to raise, but I do not think I did a very good job of raising it, and it may be, anyway, a question on which it is difficult to make anything like “progress.” I found myself wondering after class if there can just be situations where “sitting with” a difficult question – making no headway on the problem – can be understood as valuable intellectual labor. I am enough of a shill for “productivity” in all its forms (creativity, scholarly) that I must admit that this notion of just sitting fruitlessly in collective contemplative awkwardness is very hard for me to get excited about. The more I think about it, the more I start to feel that a lot hangs on this specific issue. Dealing with this will require an excursus – so much so that perhaps I should put it in a PDF and attach it here.

So what was the question we “sat with” anyway? Well, it was something like: “what-is/what-could-be the role of ‘communion’ in the work of history?”

So what does one mean by “communion?” Obviously the term is charged, and significantly overwritten with ritual/theological implications. But I still think it is the right word to wrestle with in this context. And that is at least partly because we are working, inevitably, in relation to a set of traditions that take the symbolic registers of “communion” very seriously indeed – and understand rituals of bodily incorporation to be significantly constitutive of the social body. In these contexts, speech itself – the ability to “tell the story,” the ability to serve as a transmitter of history – can be understood to be a function of these sacramental rites/gestures of communion. It may sound like I am merely talking about Judaism and Christianity here, and of course in some sense I am — but it was impossible for me to get several very powerful pre-Christian themes out of my head this week.

For instance, recall the extraordinary passage from book 11 of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus descends to the underworld to consult Tiresias. Before he can speak, Tiresias must drink sacrificial blood from a pit prepared by Odysseus himself. It is this blood ritual that gives Tiresias his voice and enables him to serve as a barer of the prophetic tales that will afford cultural continuity.

I am again, now, writing up these notes, feeling my way around for the same void to which I encouraged us to turn our attention in seminar. I am not exactly sure what it is I am asking us to look at. I admit that.

But I still feel like there is something over there.

What makes me think this?

Well, I dunno.

Maybe something like how strange it can suddenly seem that historians are simultaneously fetishically attached to archival documentation and passionate about their imaginative and empathetic capacities, even as, for some reason, we are exceedingly abstemious, as a rule, in our relations with the matter of the past. We very seldom eat of it. We very seldom bathe in it. We very seldom permit any co-mingling of our stuff and its stuff.

We read it. We cognize it. But between the document on the page and the idea in the mind we permit no obvious sequence of dematerializations and/or rematerializations. We are fundamentally ascetic. One might go so far as to say that, in the archive, the historian presents “a body without orifices.”

Don’t get me wrong. You can do plenty of perfectly good and interesting history by going into the archive with a pencil and paper (or a laptop or even a camera) and walking out again without having guzzled a milkshake of frappéd eighteen-century correspondence. And I did feel that, somewhere about halfway into this non-/semi- conversation, there was a vague sense in the room along the lines of: “Well, what’s your problem anyway, Burnett? We’ve got lots of perfectly good tools for doing history. Why don’t we talk about some of them, instead of talking about nine-headed scavenging history monsters who eat the dead and smear their bodies with feces in preparation for going to the library?” (for the record: I did not say anything like that in class…)

I take the point. But I did say we were going to try to think our way to, and indeed (of necessity) dialectically beyond the limits of the discipline as it is currently practiced – if for no other reason than to be clear on why we do do what it is we do do – and don’t do other things that have been done by other folks at other times and places who have themselves felt very strongly about “history.”

Becalmed together on a rudderless vessel sitting in this unattractive, featureless swamp, several of you gamely rowed, throwing out some non-insane examples of historical inquiries that “co-mingled” themselves with the stuff they were after: historians of ancient music who seek to play old scores on period instruments; historians of domestic life and culture who make and eat historical food preparations. All of which was very helpful. But there also seemed to be a general consensus that keeping one’s orifices mostly sealed up in the archive was probably all to the good.

Fair enough.

Juliane did gesture toward the importance of reenactment and other “immersive” historicizing practices for archeology, and we reminded ourselves that we are going to spend some time on this sort of thing when we do our week on reenactment.

But the fact remains I can still reach dimly toward an obscurity about which I cannot say much. But that still feels significant nevertheless: we steer clear of practices of communion in our form of history; we do not “drink blood” — not of our ancestors, not of our surrogates, not of our victims (do we even have those?).


(Although perhaps I’ll actually leave the last word to Don DeLillo…)

[Bibliographical note for further reading on some of these questions: Luise White, Speaking with Vampires;  Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics – DGB]



More poetry is said to come from Wisconsin than from any other state in the Union. (4/10/1856)

In Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, the author presents us with what we would traditionally understand as unmediated primary sources, bookended by an introduction and conclusion with explicit explanatory power. Lesy recognizes that something happens in the space between the living and the dead, between the captured image or preserved newspaper clipping, and the historical narrative. He describes this process as “as much an exercise of history as it is an experiment of alchemy.” Despite the unconventional approach to storytelling, Lesy is really just doing the critical work of a historian working in our time – a well-known, yet little understood stretch of the past has been settled and sorted with a set of explanations – transition from rural to urban life, industrialization, population changes, the turn of the century and the arrival of American modernity. Lesy is not satisfied. In the story he tells, he allows the people of Black River Falls to appear through interpreters Van Schaick and the Coopers. He addresses us in the second person as well, telling us what we need to know before we begin, as though one is being led by the hand, in person, on this death trip.

In some of the photographs, however, there is laughter. There is movement, captured in the ghostly hand that was clearly aloft when the image was captured – it was alive, as its owner was. No more.

What to do with these people, then? Lesy presents us with their crisp dresses, their homes, and their horses, and tells us a story of “ten years of loss and disaster” – and then, with a pivot that made me laugh out loud at its audacity, presented us with the facts:

“Here is a different kind of information about either the state of Wisconsin, or the county of Jackson, or the town of Black River Falls between 1890 and 1910. In 1890, the median population for counties in Wisconsin was 19,121 …”

I laughed because Lesy was jolting us back into the world that seeks to explain the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in America in terms of demographics and economic shifts. “You were clearly moved by what I presented you with just now,” he seems to say, “but here! Some of you might prefer this.” The turn to a statistical explanation for the desolation of rural Wisconsin is not a mere gesture, however – it is a bringing together of modes of understanding the past that allow us to situate the chaos of suicide after suicide, tiny coffin after tiny coffin, inside of a set of political doctrines and sociological interpretations of how scholars living in this time used disease, sexual proclivities, the changing lived experience of Americans, and the emerging rural/urban dichotomy to explain reality.



Insanity – poverty

Insanity – religious


Delirious insanity


This book also reminded me of the Edith Wharton novel Ethan Frome, in its depiction of rural life, entrapment by circumstance, and desolation. The book ends with the following lines:

“There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn’t live. Well, I say it’s a pity she did . . . if [Mattie] ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ’cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”


What can we make of the fact that the cross-dressing Frank Blunt/Alice Morris has been plucked from Black River Falls by historians of sexuality? They will be part of a forthcoming exhibition, called Butch Heroes, by the artist Ria Brodell at the Gallery Kayafas in Boston.


Joseph Roach’s book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance is the only work this week that I was comfortable reading. Not because it was a conventional academic work, but because it was the only work which featured acts by people that were intended (even outside of the presence of a photographer or documentary crew) to be seen. On their own, and by way of contrast, Wisconsin Death Trip and The Look of Silence felt like profound violations. Lesy is careful to remind us that “these writings transformed what were private acts into public events” – and this had a healing quality, by allowing people to share their grief with one another. Nonetheless, by the sources’ copiousness and newsprint sterility, we are tearing back the veil on a person who has since dissolved into the earth.

A Look of Silence was filled with beautiful colours and quiet moments between loved ones, but also forced us to participate in a man’s grief (and his mother’s daily chores, and his father’s bath, and his children’s playtime, and his brother’s disembowelment) as spectator and sympathetic eye. Both this and Wisconsin Death Trip are deeply moving and crucial works, but I got the sense while sitting with both of them that I wasn’t supposed to see what I was seeing. It felt like an intrusion.

But hey …


As a counter to my own discomfort though, here is a quote from Adi Rukun from a NYT profile that ran in February, 2016:

“I honestly used Joshua to expose the terrible ongoing effects of the genocide today,” Mr. Rukun said. “I’ve apologized to Joshua for this, and I’ve apologized again for taking up his entire youth to express my mother’s pain and the horror of her stories.”

So maybe that’s all this is? Using one another to tell stories that matter to us?


The preservation of memory in performance in Roach’s book fits beautifully with the other two, less conventional texts for this week – re-enacting violence and posing for capture by a camera are both examples of what the left-behind do to make meaning. On this, Roach states: “Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure, I hypothesize, survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternatives. “

When the palimpsest that is culture along the Atlantic rim is seen through performance as enacted in New Orleans and London – Roach’s Cities of the Dead – ultimately we are left with humanity’s capacity to fill voids and smooth away all but the faintest trace. As Roach follows these various enactments of collective memory, and “unravel[s] the putative seamlessness of origins,” he allows us to hear what has been silenced out of what has been preserved (30).


Jean Barbot, detail, 1678 (from Rediker’s article below)

The idea of the circum-Atlantic reminded me of Marcus Rediker’s 2008 article, “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic Slave Trade.” In this article, Rediker investigates abolitionist claims that sharks followed slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage, to glut themselves on the captured Africans and sailors thrown overboard. In the bloody origins and interminably bloody present of the Atlantic world, the shark as terror weapon and powerful political image has a remarkable kinaesthetic imagination of its own.

This video strikes a markedly different tone, and so I will end with this.

It is of Swedish artist Jonna Jinton using the ancient practice of kulning to herd cows. Song, dance, and music are sites of precisely the sort of cultural reproduction Roach calls surrogation. Are the cows participating in this process too, a process of orature as conceived of by Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: “He is a sweet singer when everybody joins in. The sweet songs last longer, too”? (Roach, 11-12)

Cows do not have a literature against which to juxtapose orality, of course – and this is the least of the problems with this suggestion.

But how do they know to come when called, as their bovine forebears did? Perhaps the explanation is a simple one, but in the interest of preserving the magic of this video, I am not going to look it up. Please don’t tell me if you know.


Did you notice, we spent a lot of time this week looking into people’s eyes?

I will report back tomorrow, but I am praying and praying that I don’t have nightmares.


In Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Joseph Roach discusses the use of effigies and surrogation across temporal divides (the living surrogating for the dead) and, perhaps more critically for his work, across racial divides (the colonized mimicking the colonizer, and vice versa, in a bid to obviate each other’s place in a society where multiple races sometimes appear as excess). In laying the groundwork for discussing the role of surrogation in multi-racial encounters from the 17th century to the 20th, he discusses the increasing segregation of the dead from the living and the close relationship between performance and effigy. His brief discussion of the modernization of cemeteries and his chapter on theatrical funerals resonates with research I’ve done on modern cemeteries as sites of solitude, introspection, and creation of the modern self, which I am trying to work back through in Roach’s terms.

Roach’s definition of performance is embedded in his definition of effigy: “Effigy’s similarity to performance should be clear enough: it fills by means of surrogation a vacancy created by the absence of the original” (36). (This definition allows him later to discuss a host of performances—rituals, parades, slave auctions—as being fundamentally intertwined with thoughts about death and continuity, even when these are not explicitly addressed.) Performance is defined by substitution. He writes explicitly about the performance of burial rites, where it is often easy to identify the substitution of the surrogate body for the decaying body. But he does not write about the new kinds of performances that came about because of the physical separation of the dead from the living. Today in the West we increasingly seem to accept this separation, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, regular visits were made to the newly introduced cemeteries, both specifically to visit loved ones and more generally to stroll around and contemplate life and death. (An excellent book on this topic is Richard Etlin’s Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in 18th-Century Paris.) Roach writes that “modernity itself might be understood as a new way of handling (and thinking about) the dead” (48), yet the relationship of the modern self to the dead as seen through the cemeteries is more complicated than simply turning a blind eye.

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is generally considered the prototype for the modern (“segregated”) cemetery. It was trumpeted as a garden of the dead and, like public gardens at the time, from the beginning attracted visitors who wanted to people-watch (both the living and the dead). Augustus Pugin published several picturesque views of the cemetery in his Paris and its Environs (1833). One view, for instance, shows lovers in front of one of the most popular graves in the cemetery, that of Abelard and Heloise. The lovers recreate the romance of Abelard and Heloise’s story, but not the tragedy; as Roach points out, the creation of a memorial facilitates selective amnesia more than the maintenance of an oral tradition might. In Pugin’s engraving of the lovers, the performance act is clear: the living lovers are substituted for the dead. Several others of Pugin’s plates point to the grief voyeurism which was so titillating to tourists at Père Lachaise. In the case of grief voyeurism, the viewing itself begins to be part of the performance, as visitors expound on the sadness of the scene before them. The more celebrated affinity is perhaps between viewer and mourner than between mourner and dead.


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[I’m very interested in prints like this. They seem to distance the memory of the dead and allow for their inclusion within a domestic space, where pain is transmuted into memory. In its new guise as a sanitized memory, these images help bracket the pain of death away from daily routine.  Eventually unwanted reminders of the dead will fade, much as the ephemeral lithographs that contain these memories.] BL

One of the most prominent spectacles at the cemetery, alluded to by Roach when he talks about the hierarchical segregation among the dead themselves, was the mass burial of bodies in the fosses communes (common trenches). Two thirds of burials at Père Lachaise were in the trenches, and this mass burial horrified and fascinated bourgeois visitors. In the 18th century, when talks of a suburban cemetery began, some wanted to make it a democratic burial ground, but as Municipal Council member Quatremère de Quincy told the General Counsel, “No doubt death equalizes all men, but it is precisely the injustice of this leveling that should be rectified.” The result was a cemetery which accurately reflected—even exaggerated—social inequality among the living. Although two-thirds of Paris’s population would be buried this way, visitors consistently insisted on the extreme destitution of those buried in the trenches, melodramatizing their desolation (usually conflating financial destitution with friendlessness). The participants in the mass burials become performers who are presumably unaware of (or don’t care about) their audience. What is the substitution here? I read this previously as the substitution of the sentimentalized poor body for the bourgeois tourist body, allowing the tourist to displace anxieties about his own inevitable analogous performance. However, Roach prompts me to reconsider this when he writes about Betterton and his contemporaries, “[Actors’ roles] gather in the memory of audiences, like ghosts, as each new interpretation of a role sustains or upsets expectations derived from the previous ones. This is the sense in which audiences may come to regard the performers as an eccentric but meticulous curator of cultural memory, a medium for speaking with the dead” (78). This suggests the possibility that the (willing) viewer of a performance seeks continuity (with the mourner and with the dead, consciously or unconsciously) rather than distraction—a less cynical and more nuanced reading than my initial one.

Historian Jules Michelet was a regular cemetery flâneur as a young man and became a more purposeful visitor when his close friend, Paul Benoist Poinsot, died. He wrote extensively in his journals about visits to the cemetery, including the disinterment of his friend and, later, his father. Both Poinsot and the older Michelet were buried not in the common trenches, but in temporary individual plots from which they were exhumed after a period of ten or fifteen years (a cooling-off period which calls to mind the Sora afterlife). In both cases, Michelet viewed the decayed body (as was typical), reporting, for instance, that his friend’s bones had all come apart, including the fingers, but the head was intact with its beautiful white teeth, attesting to his friend’s good character. Upon the exhumation of his father, he found the opposite: the head was destroyed, but the flesh was mummified neatly, which integrity he also took as proof of moral superiority in life.

These particular experiences of communing with the dead clearly molded Michelet as a historian: as we read in Metahistory, Michelet wrote of his role as “exhum[ing] [the dead] for a second life” (Metahistory 159). Just after this part which White quotes, Michelet goes on to say that his goal is to create “une cité commune entre les vivants et les morts” (a common city for the living and the dead). While Michelet’s acts of ventriloquism themselves may amount to a traditional form/performance of history, his strolls around Père Lachaise and his direct communion with the bodies of the dead suggest that his primary experience of the dead may have been more what we have been calling Dionysian. (Wisconsin Death Trip appears as an attempt to manifest that same fascination/attraction/repulsion to the dead in a less traditional, more immediate way.)

By the end of the 19th century, cemetery-goers at Père Lachaise were extremely self-conscious of the performative implications simply of being in the cemetery. They continually imagined an audience to their own wanderings (I’m happy to talk about this more, but I’m getting a little long-winded here, so let me know if you’re interested in the many accounts of people-watching and self-consciousness in PLC), and their viewing itself was performative. Writing about Mr. Spectator’s performative acts of charity towards young prostitutes in Covent Garden, Roach writes, “Through the eyes of Mr. Spectator, the pedestrians behold as spectacle the performance of everyday life in a behavioral vortex, the staging of ceremonial practices within the architectural setting of a place marked by custom for those purposes” (90). The modern cemetery, in the 19th century at least, was a place marked for those purposes.

Roach allows as how “theatrical interments in 18th-century England… functioned as a prototype for tombs dedicated to the Unknown Soldier, those cenotaphs of the nominated double” (105). The actor is a stand-in for the present individual, as well as the past (allowing the conflation of the two in one body). Actors’ graves were some of the most beloved and visited in Père Lachaise. In the late 19th century, the actress Sarah Bernhardt designed and regularly visited her own grave, dressed in full mourning and in tears. Her grave was called out by journalists and tourists as being remote and secluded, but she was evidently performing for an audience; the seclusion is just part of the performance. Ostensibly curating what would be seen of her after death, she also used the cemetery as a living theater where she could draw attention to herself.


This last image is a press photograph of a woman mourning at Père Lachaise. Because it’s a press photo, it is explicitly staged. The woman in it is real, a living person, and unreal, acting a part. She is a self-made fiction, underscored by her gaze, directed down at her own body. The closeness of the frame, the inward-turned gaze, the obscuring of identity, and the positioning of her back to the camera, mirroring the reader’s likely posture, all contribute to her strength as a surrogate for the reader as well as a surrogate for the dead—a conduit from the viewer to the tomb.

Roach calls the cemetery essentially modern in its segregation of the living and the dead. While Père Lachaise, the quintessential modern cemetery, encouraged the communion of living and dead, it amplified the segregation of individual dead bodies (from each other) and the segregation of individual living bodies (from each other) in public imagination. It heightened the individual’s awareness of performance (both his and others’); at the same time the audience is invisible or imagined and therefore cannot act back on the performer except in the performer’s imagination. This calls to mind the echo-chamber of modern collective memory among dwindling collectives, as discussed by Wulf Kansteiner in his essay in Manifestos for History. As the audience dwindles, is modern performance impoverished or simply changed? Can collectivity be rescued from the echo-chamber, if we all inhabit analogous echo-chambers? As for the performance of communing with the dead, is it, or was it ever, more than the rehearsal for the reversal of roles that will come when the successor/ surrogate body becomes the succeeded body?


[And, in the vein of your last question RR, what happens to surrogation when former pathways to succession – already fraught and often interrupted – are explicitly foreclosed? I’m thinking here of colonial/European South Asian cemeteries (which I think Roach invites us into, opens up further still the space of the “circum-atlantic” when he discusses, on page 54, how the Surat tombs of the 17th/18th centuries came to inform Vanbrugh’s proposals for segregating the dead). In Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan (1825), Emma Roberts notes the “dreary character of the European burial-places in British India.” Over the 19th century, the colonial state could and did intervene in the rendering of cemetery landscapes, tombs, and monuments more suitable to the reproduction of imperial rule.

The postcolony, however, throws the imperial relationship between surrogation and succession out of joint. And as a result you see the emergence of organizations like the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, which was founded in the 70s, to deal with the “desolation and disrepair” of European graveyards, which, unlike in Emma Roberts’ time, cannot make a compelling claim on postcolonial governance.

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There is a desire in this above statement for surrogation, but there is no possibility of realizing succession “as it had been in former times,” no possibility of imperial reproduction. It seems that surrogation in this context involves a policing of // defense against other interactions with these spaces impelled by class and marginality like using the cemetery as a latrine, a home, other doings that make me wonder relationships to these spaces that are not necessarily premised on conscious intention. I read these unseemly uses of the cemetery as appearing to BACSA a “monstrous doubling” (to draw on Roach drawing on Girard) of the performance of memory through its very non-recognition…    TS]

[[I would be very interested to hear more about pre-colonial cemeteries/ burial practice/ visitation of the dead in this context. There were of course unscripted uses of PLC as well (as a place for illicit assignations, or perhaps most infamously, the rubbing of Victor Noir’s life-size effigy as a fertility talisman). But these were quickly incorporated into the script, as late 19th-century French literature is full of romances set there. See, for instance, Les Amants du Père Lachaise (1869), in which the heroine falls in love with the bust of a deceased young war hero. To her surprise (but not total disbelief) the dead hero begins a relationship with her by means of letters left at his tomb, in which he professes his idealized, pure love, corporeal interaction being out of the question. It turns out he’s actually alive and has been hiding out in the tomb, and when they end up together at the end of the book, their relationship somehow retains that air of perfection because of his association with the higher plane. I wonder if this is a difference between the literary and oratory tradition that Roach discusses? In the resolutely literary culture of France, marginal uses are incorporated into the tradition and made non-threatening. As I was reading, I wanted Roach to go into more detail about the use of pre-colonial tombs or about the Afro-Catholic funeral (61-63), to understand better the role of monuments/ place-making/ visitation in orature. In the case of the Afro-Catholic funeral in particular, the one-to-one surrogation reading (the loudest mourner is the surrogate who replaces the dead) feels insistently colonial/literary, and I wonder what it misses out. For instance, the Sora relationship to the dead as described by Vitebsky did not seem as easily to fit into Western literary conventions. Instead of one-to-one correspondences, the nuances of an everyday continuum/ gradient between dead and living might help us to think about the dead (history) in a different way (not focusing only on the dramatic shamanistic act, which does perhaps attract a Western narrative approach).

I’m so glad you mention Emma Roberts, because I was thinking of her too while I was reading this—in particular her explanation of the English (mis)understanding of the “jungle” in India. She writes,

“The term jungle is very ill understood by European readers, who generally associate it with uninhabited forests and almost impenetrable thickets, whereas all the desert and uncultivated parts of India, whether covered with wood or merely suffered to run waste, are styled jungles; and jungle-wallah is a term indiscriminately applied to a wild cat or to a gentleman who has been quartered for a considerable period in some desolate part of the country. Persons who are attached to very small stations in remote places, or who reside in solitary houses, surrounded only by habitations of the natives, are said to be living in the jungles.” (46)


(Illustrations from John Webber’s Views in the South Seas, 1808)

When I read the Roberts, side by side with pictorial representation of various colonial landscapes (Indian as well as “West Indian” and “East Indian”), I started to see everywhere a persistent (and not subtle) surrogation of native peoples for vegetation and of the “noble savage” for the “desolate” Englishman stationed far from home—and I kept thinking about that throughout the Roach (for instance, when he talks about the reinvention of Native Americans as “ideal characters” by Euro-Americans (188)). This reading of surrogation is satisfying in the way mediated history is satisfying (or in the way The Look of Silence is more palatable than The Act of Killing – cf. HL’s post below), and it is meaningful especially in understanding what the literary tradition made of colonial and post-colonial encounters, but it also feeds right back into that tradition…. -RR]]

For a project so concerned with quotation, with getting out of the way to let documents speak for themselves, Wisconsin Death Trip is an ostentatiously curated book.  Some of the author-editor’s juxtapositions work well, like the inclusion of relevant extracts from fiction by Glenway Wescott and others.  And yet most of the time, whenever I felt the author’s presence in the work, it was with a sense of annoyance that he wouldn’t follow his own recommendation and get out of the way.  This feeling became particularly strong against the book’s use of collage.  What on Earth was added to the meaning, the affective quality, or the artistic value of one of these austere photos by chopping it up or flipping it with a mirror image?  How could manipulating the images fail to detract from their power?  I felt this acutely in the image of a large group of children which was duplicated over itself in such a way that not every face remained visible.  My desire to see those faces was strong enough to provoke anger.

In a similarly perverse way, the organization of the text excerpts by chronology paradoxically disorganizes it, creating an impression of jumbled and disconnected scraps of paper and disrupting any conventional narrative through-line.  The occasional character who emerges through this confusion does so by sheer eye-catching oddity, as with the notorious window-smasher, who “uses cocaine liberally on such occasions, saying it quiets her nerves.”  What does it mean for the project that the only characters who are able to retain coherence, other than the ones like the photographer and the opera-singer who get narrative discourses of their own, are people who seem unusual?

The fictionalized voices of the town gossip and the town historian invite discussion, but I’m not sure what I think of them. I would be interested to know what others felt about their inclusion, and what they added or did not add to the project.

My irritation with my aggressively mediated experience in Wisconsin Death Trip met its appropriate counterpart in my sense of relief at the mediated experience of watching The Look of Silence.  Unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence features a main character who stands between the viewer and the perpetrators of mass murder, mediating the horror of the experience.  It was astonishing to me how much easier it was to watch and listen to the stories of the murderers when intercut with calmly disturbed reaction shots from Adi.  That one change made this movie infinitely less threatening to my own sense of equilibrium than the last.   

[I share some of your reservations regarding Wisconsin Death Trip. I also wondered what Lesy gained by manipulating these photographs. Nevertheless, art historian Geoffrey Batchen argues that this very type of manipulation allows a photograph to transcend its own historicity and advance toward a personal, emotional, and present moment. The photograph, Batchen explains, must undergo a physical transformation; this act pulls the photograph “out of the past and into the present” (Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance 94). I am not sure, however, if this understanding of photographic manipulation undermines or furthers Lesy’s intentions. At any rate, the intersections between history and photography are many and have been enumerated by quite a few scholars. I’m resisting the compulsion to include a number of these insights. Instead, I am only including two sentences from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida:

A paradox: the same century invented History and Photography. But History is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and the Photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony; so that everything, today, prepares our race for this impotence: to be no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically: the age of the Photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions, in short, of impatiences, of everything which denies ripening (93-94).] BL

A lot of the emotion expressed in our last class devolved on Joshua Oppenheimer, whose presence in The Act of Killing is so unavoidable.  How could he make this movie?  How was it ethical to interact in this way with killers?  How was it permissible to ask the questions he asked?  Who was more in control, Oppenheimer or Anwar, and which would be worse?  For me, at least, all of the sharp edges of these questions become comfortably dull as soon as someone steps on screen with whom I can identify without qualms.

The creation of a character is highly audience-protective.  Is this a bad thing?  What are the virtues of mediation?

I suppose some of the Socratic or Ironic appeal of the current mode of history is that it mediates so heavily between the reader and the source, putting history at a delightfully comfortable distance and always keeping it “in context,” i.e. in a firmly bounded frame on the wall to be regarded.  And yet the other part of its appeal must be in the artifice of being unmediated, of the author “getting out of the way” and letting the sources speak.  The theoretically unimpeachable belief that this getting-out-of-the-way is inadequate and incomplete never quite erases its appeal.

If historians are empowered to arbitrate between the dead and the living, to make a frame through which the past can be seen, the nature of the frame itself is always of paramount importance.  A Dionysian mode hopes to dissolve the frame altogether. But the two Oppenheimer films and Wisconsin Death Trip between them show the perils of attempting to break down that frame, and the deep discomfort that comes from the ways that attempt can fail.

I want to bring this into conversation with the idea of surrogation in Cities of the Dead, but I can’t quite make it work for myself yet.


In the spirit of the Roach book, is this the latest outcome of cirum-Atlantic performance?


[I appreciated this, which I did not know. If we are going to reach into popular music this week, the figure who belongs in the conversation beyond any other, I think, is the deeply troubling and remarkable Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. All the themes are there: surrogacy, necromancy, satirizing and apocalyptic riffs on circum-Atlantic slave theater, violent mummery, the drinking of “spine wine” from skulls — even excrement and selfhood (e.g., the immortal “Constipation Blues”).  Screamin’ Jay  was the original zombie bard: he was in fact run out of several venues during his career by irate crowds shocked by his rising from a coffin to begin his shows.  And all of this was in like 1952 [!]. Here below is one of the most controversial recordings.  It is hard to watch in certain ways (civil rights activists were dismayed by Jay’s routines, for reasons that will be obvious), but it belongs in the conversation, I think.  I wish I could find something better from the film archive of his performances, but I cannot:



Readings for the Sixth Week:

Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance

Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip (photos) (preface)


Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead


The Look of Silence


Week 7: Rebirth and Folds in Time


Sitting here now, “organizing my thoughts” as I prepare to write up an account of our seminar today, I find myself more conscious than I would otherwise probably be of my reflexive resort to a chronological reconstruction of our discussion. We just spent a better part of three hours reflecting on the distortions, rigidity, and troubling ideological implications of this leap to linear, sequential, unidirectional reconstructions of lived temporality. And in the wake of that conversation, I do indeed feel a little estranged from one of my most native habits of mind.

So I am sitting here, thinking about how I might resist (a least experimentally, at least heuristically) my tremendous appetite for lining up my words in some simulacral representation/reproduction of a portion of the past that I please myself to conceive as having occurred.

So I am still sitting here.

What else might one do with “what happened”?

Let’s see…

 * * *

I broke my chalk at one point during seminar today. I did it intentionally. I held it crossways using the three middle fingers of my right hand (middle finger over piece of chalk the other two fingers under it — as a boy I used to hold my pencil that way because if one bent one’s fingers down it made a face, the fingernails of the pointer and ring fingers serving as eyes and the pendulous middle finger a dangling nose). I broke it by straightening the three fingers and bringing them into the same plane, snapping the piece of chalk in the middle. When did I do this?

I don’t remember when I did it.

I did it when Ryan pointed out that anachronism is a special case of the anachronic.

I did it when I looked at Hannah’s clock (the one she brought in to class today and put on the desk in front of her) for the second time and realized It was not running.

I did it when Ohad said he wasn’t sure he wanted to do a week on race and gender in this seminar.

I did it when I remembered that my mother (who gets around by wheelchair) was on an airplane back from Boston at that very moment.

I did it when Jamie said he felt we needed separate classes on the body and gender.

None of these accounts is in fact accurate. In fact, I planned from the start of class to break the chalk at the first moment someone in the class said a word that sounded like “Rawlings” – the name of my sixth-grade social studies teacher (and football coach) who once threw a piece of chalk at me in class.

* * *

What I notice, experimenting with the above gestures in the direction of time-play, is the implicit “forensics” that attend close on the heels of each proposition. What are the stakes of my having broken the chalk in one or the other of these moments? There is an irresistible temptation to assign meaning to the act based on its position in time.

We got to exactly this point in seminar. I think it was Disha who underscored the question of “meaning” in relation to sequence. But others also touched on the same theme. If “position in time” amounts to a primary index of signification then the shape of time matters a great deal.

I feel stumped, though. I don’t feel that I am making any real progress in writing “against” the time signature of historicism — the “spine-time” of the timeline; the omnipotent configurator of all things; the void that can hold everything, organize everything.


In a sort obvious way, our seminar had a circular shape, temporally speaking: we began on the question of reordering the syllabus in the second half of the term, and we ended in the same place. (NB: we ultimately agreed to move the “Body/Blood/Genes” week to right after the break, and to push the “Reenactment and Impersonation” week to week 11; and to share responsibility for making sure questions of gender, race, and class are well engaged week-to-week).

What happened in between the two movements of that conversation?

Basically, we worked to get handle on Nagel and Wood’s idea of the anachronic. Our “way in” on this was the work to establish whether in fact the category of the anachronic amounted to anything other than the sort of no-harm-no-foul synonym for anachronism. I stumped for the position that it is indeed something more (though I am not sure all of you were ultimately persuaded on this).  Maybe the simplest way to put this would be to say that “anachronism” is a special kind of “time-trouble” that arises in the context of a commitment to historicizing architecture of the timeline.  Anachronism is out-of-place-ness (either willed or naïve) with respect to this conjoint and linear temporal frame. The “anachronic” is a more expansive neologism, since it is meant to gather (as I understand it) all manner of time-trouble: a frozen moment intended to depict proleptic retrospection, for instance; a time compression in which many historical temporalities are rearranged in a scene notionally set in a past as it might be imagined by a figure in the future; a situation in which an object’s relationship to the past (its power to invoke that past; its ability to convey a link to the past) hinges on temporal or formal indeterminacies — which may not even be understood, to those engaging with the object, as such.   All of these are real “situations” in the time life of people and things.  But we have not, to my knowledge, had a ready term by which to gather them.  And anachonic strikes me as a felicitous coinage.

I would go so far as to argue that the Serres/Latour volume this week offered an exquisite instance of the anachronic (even though Serres did not have the term available, and therefore recurred to the language of “anachronism”—which is clearly inadequate to his own example):


Anachronic Renaissance wants to show how much of this sort of time-trouble percolated through the period known as the Renaissance. And I was persuaded.  A period predicated on the “rebirth” of “antiquity” is, when one thinks about it for even a moment, a period working some pretty funky time dynamics.  The era is not my specialty, so I am not in a position to say who noticed what aspects of all the time-strangeness that plays out in the canonical works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  But there seems to be a fair bit of consensus in the review literature that Nagel and Wood have opened some new territory with this analysis.

I will not attempt a synopsis of the best bits of the book, or even of our conversation.  But it is worth underscoring that Nagel and Wood are particularly interested, as art historians, in art works — and their distinctive temporal posture (what they call the “chronotopology of art making” p. 34).  I found their invocation of this very affecting.  And impressive.  Simultaneously clear and profound:


Central, of course, is their notion of a “substitutional” logic of the (art) work, as against (or, perhaps better, “in relation to”) a “performative”/authorial conception of the (art) work.  The former is exemplified by the Ship of Theseus, the latter by the gesture of a painter’s signature and date in the corner of a canvas.  The “continuous-creation” of maintenance (the durability of the object in the form of a “structural object”) elides the moment, the agent, and the act of “the” maker.  It may efface that moment.  It may make it transcendent. But at any rate, it does not allow for the particular pinning-to-time-and-person that characterize the emergent “modern”/historicist notion of authorship.  Nagel and Wood go out of there way to underline that they are NOT saying that a kind of pre-modern/cultic substitution-logic “gives way” across the Renaissance to a more easily recognizable notion of the authorial performance. They do, though, to me, seem to be a little bit saying this, and it also seems to be basically real and true and right.  But even if it is right, it’s not the really interesting thing, and this is what they are keen to assert.  The interesting thing is that the work of art, across the Renaissance, can be understood as the space where substitution logics and authorial performance logics met and circled each other — pawing, playing, and sometimes actually wrestling.  This is what their many short chapters richly document.  The book clearly demonstrates that going to a Renaissance painting or sculpture or architecture with these questions in mind yields many subtle and pleasing insights.

Can we activate any of this?  As non-art-historians?  Hard to say.  Jamie seemed grumpy. It may have been the jet-lag (see his pre-class post below), but it may also have been a sort of basic intuition that history as such cannot really work with these tools.  He invoked the basic problem of narrative.  In the end, if historians are going to write narratives, there questions, he seemed to be saying, are going to be narratological.  The time-tools of narrative are important, for sure, but we need to go to other texts for help thinking about those (Hayden White, etc.).  Is this what Jamie was thinking?  Dunno.  But it seemed like that.  Maybe he will put in his own thoughts here.

For my part, pressing the joys of non-linearity, I spent a certain amount of time trying to activate Serres’ idea of a temporal “manifold,” his riffing on the time/weather dyad of the French word temps.  What if time is turbulent?  How might we understand a car not as a pinprick innovation on the timline of history circa 1900, but rather as a strange nexus (see blackboard above, or detail here) in the tangled time-skein: Neolithic wheels; eighteenth-century leaf-springs; Victorian thermodynamics, etc.


I like this sort of thing.  But I am not sure I succeeded in selling, say, Jenne, on the power of the proposition — or even its coherence.

[I’m really sympathetic to (what I perceive as) the move Serres is trying to make here. The notion of “rupture” seems to come in part from Chaos theory, which was itself a rupture in a seemingly linear and progressive accumulation of knowledge about the world. I am really interested in historical moments like these, and it’s so rare to find a document that captures the pause after the rupture, in which Serres considers the implications of a new theory.

This reminds me of a passage in Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps, in which Poincare considers the rupture of non-Euclidean geometry, but comes to a slightly different conclusion:fullsizerender-1

In Poincare’s view, choosing how to represent space should involve making the most convenient choice. The frame of reference doesn’t really matter. Is he right about this? Is anything lost when we reduce these different geometries (or conceptions of time) to flip sides of the same thing?

DGB, would it be possible to get a citation for when Serres outlines explicitly his theory of time? I’d be interested in looking at its mathematical implications. Ohad mentioned that what he found important about Serres’s theory is that it reveals that there is no a priori temporal significance. But I think if we’re going to take Serres seriously, we need to look anachronically at what his theory does to time. -JPO]

But we did something particular and practical this week, by having an assignment in advance of our meeting — an assignment that pushed us in the direction of trying to do something with these ideas.  A report follows…



We agreed that we wanted to do some more experiments in the seminar, so I circulated the following in advance of class for this week:


About midway through the seminar we broke up into groups of two, and set to the task of doing a selection of these exercises. Write ups below.




Here is the prompt we worked with:

I want to propose to take 15 minutes to write a short letter to our elementary school teachers. The letters should be either written in pencil on ruled paper and in block letters, or with pen in cursive writing.

Take time to think back to your earliest days of learning how to read and write, of your first experiences at school and of your teachers’ lessons, be they good or bad.

After having written to your teacher, please come up to the blackboard and write up your own and your teachers’ name, drawing the letters as carefully as possible.



Here are our experiences with it:



AB and I wrote our letters on notebook paper while sitting at a table on campus. It has been a very long time since I have bent my head over an assignment next to a classmate doing the same. This was the first physical sensation of moving through time that this exercise engendered – the act transported me to a time outside of my own, but one that is still part of the present, insofar as my bodily memory conjured it up readily, and without regard for what year it was or how long ago I last engaged in a similar activity. I tried hard to adhere to the conventions I had been taught in school, specifically the cursive writing known as the Palmer method (for more on the evolution of handwriting as taught in schools, see Tamara Plakins Thornton’s Handwriting in America, from Yale University Press, 1997). This meant that I occasionally made errors, as the muscle memory of how I write now conflicted with my desire to adhere to AB’s suggestion that we try to recall how we wrote and communicated when we were children. I wrote this letter to my fourth grade teacher, and asked the kinds of questions that now seem banal, but which were the main functions of the letters I wrote to my grandparents growing up. I wrote it as myself today, though – which meant telling my former teacher where I was now studying, but not in sentences more complex than I wrote out when I was eight. I was stuck in between selves – and this letter, as much as it made me cringe reading it back, records my discomfort, nostalgia, and the kinds of memory and non-linear temporality locked in these rote acts.


I had more or less the same experience of DKJ. The whole point of the exercise was, after all, to try to merge different points in time; our present as Ph.D. students with the beginnings of our “academic career”, a time in which the biggest challenges we faced were legible handwriting and intelligible sentence structure. I wrote in German, since that was the language I had to write in while in elementary school, and tried to remember what kind of cursive handwriting I was using. Much like DKJ, the muscle memory of my current handwriting posed considerable hindrances, and you will notice several mistakes in my writing which I had to cross out (including the word Princeton). Unlike DKJ I did not try to remember what kind of sentences I would have used in fourth grade, concentrating instead on the mechanics of writing. Nonetheless the hand I ultimately wrote in was neither here nor there. It was not the handwriting I had learned in school, and at the same time it wasn’t my current handwriting (which you can see in the Post-Scriptum to the letter). The result was a hand which was outside of time altogether.
Unfortunately we did not act out the last part of the prompt, which would have had us walk up to the chalkboard to write our name on the board. As such the disruption in linear time we achieved, if one may say so, was  confined to the limits of a ruled notebook page rather than to be ripple through the entire classroom, as I had originally intended. DKJ points out the strange feeling she had having to sit next to a classmate while writing, something we seldom do as students. Having to write while up on display for the whole class to see, is something that we do even less frequently as students, but which interestingly enough will become normal further onwards in our careers (one need only take a look at the pictures of the chalkboard that have been posted on this blog). This conflation of past, present and future, acted out within the physical space of the classroom and using the body and its movement (the act of writing, the act of walking up to the chalkboard) as a point of encounter, might be something to think about once we get to talk about reenactment.


“Paradoxically,” Nagel and Wood write in Anachronic Renaissance, “the substitutional relation of one structure to the next, copy to copy, lost force as it was more accurately rendered. The principle of substitution began to crumble under the weight of excess precision” (168). It became such that “the exact copy is a monstrous parody of the substitutional imperative” (281). Contemporary technological capacities for replication make this last sentence resonate; today, faithful replication has no magic, no possibility of collapsing time and sucking a body in.

But, taking some inspiration from the possibility of mutation in the replication of DNA/RNA, we wonder whether explicitly inserting the monstrous into the process of replication, might throw the temporal telos of replication and succession out of joint for even just a moment? We specifically wonder whether this might do something with respect to inhabiting the times of a poem. Here are three different monstrous doublings, mutations, with the first stanza of Meena Alexander’s “Birthplace with Buried Stones.” The first is a direct typed transcription of the poem (not copy-pasted). The second is a writing out of the poem by hand. For the third, we work through the poem’s exploration of absence/presence by absenting the invocations of absence; what sorts of jolts in experience might result from making absent a presence you know to be constitutive of a thing (in this case, a poem)? And what sort of other mutative jolts of presence might we imagine in our engagements with poem time?

“Birthplace with Buried Stones” –Meena Alexander


A. Typed Transcription

In the absence of reliable ghosts I made aria,

Coughing into emptiness, and it came

A west wind from the plains with its arbitrary arsenal:

Torn sails from the Ganga river,

Bits of spurned silk,

Strips of jute to be fashioned into lines,

What words stake – sentence and make-believe,

A lyric summoning.

B. Handwritten Transcription

reliable ghosts.jpg

C. Absenting Presence




GROUP THREE (EXERCISE):On forcing involuntary memory.jpg

This exercise is about trying to recreate the feeling of involuntary memory voluntarily. It has a few parts, because I thought some people might already have experienced the first thing I propose, which is essentially trying to recreate and exploit the sensation you have when you wake up and don’t know where you are.

ILM said he had not tried this before, so he would do this take-home exercise before trying the latter part. Interestingly to me, the first thing he asked was to which previous home he should try to displace himself, which prompted a conversation about how this exercise might be about prioritizing spatial memories. Some—for instance, a long-term childhood home—might persist throughout one’s life, while others might fade. I can call up the feeling of being in the space of my childhood bedroom and all of the apartments I’ve lived in for more than a year. However, although I remember in good detail what my dorm rooms from college looked like, I don’t have what I would call spatial recall of them.

I propose 1a and 1b before the main exercise here because I have found that they work for me to invoke a sense of temporal displacement (explicitly, the displacement feels more temporal than spatial). I’m generally a bit skeptical of the idea that we can experience non-linear time in any direct way (even if we can understand and make use of it), so I wanted to start with the one instance I could think of in which I’ve actually felt something like that. The “Experiment” I proposed is an attempt to generalize this instance. Because it was rainy yesterday, it was a good time for me to try to use smell and sound cues to displace myself back to Cambridge, where I lived for five years and where are the public spaces of which I’m probably most likely to have spatial recall. I can somewhat effectively imagine myself back there because I have detailed memories of it, but I don’t have any feeling of spatial or temporal shifting when I do that. My guess is that the visual cues are so dominant when walking around in public space that it’s much harder to recreate the feeling of being in those spaces at some specific point in time without accessing the right visual information (whether that means being in that same space, or some other appropriate configuration of visual cues).


Ryan proposed this at-home exercise:

“At night before falling asleep, keep your eyes closed and realize that you can easily imagine yourself to be lying in bed in your previous bedroom(s). This may be facilitated by aural as well as tactile continuity –for instance, if you sleep with a fan on, or to any other reproducible white noise. Orient yourself mentally in each of your old bedrooms in succession. This will likely produce a singular sense of body with a multiplied sense of place –i.e., I feel myself to be in multiple spaces if not at once, then at least in rapid succession which causes a sense of displacement because of its physical impossibility”

When I did it, I tried to remember my teenage bedroom, full of posters, flyers, records, books, and photographs of contexts that I wanted to be part of or places that I wanted to be at that time. Immediately, it made me think in the work of artists like Christian Marclay and the reconfiguration of certain elements, in the re-appropriation of disconnected realities, which confronted with one another gain in symbolic readings, as in his “Body Mix” (1991-1992) series. They consist of a series of collages where the juxtaposition of recognisable record covers representative of a certain style or setting create a new body. Thus a record of classical music in the style of Herbert von Karajan, which could invoke a certain white supremacy due to the political connections of the Austrian conductor, is superimposed with a record by Parliament Funkadelic, known for its commitment to civil rights and its association with the Black Panthers. In this case, as in the bedroom experience proposed by Ryan, the work acted as a parliament that gives room to diverse temporalities and hybrid realities. A work that multiply the original interpretations of each record, of each context, in order to resuscitate them in a space where other readings are possible, where debates could happen.




See also: Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ (excerpt)



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This is the exercise Hannah had outlined:Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 3.30.53 PM.png

There are many touching temporal fluctuations in this exercise on time, a winding, unwinding and silence.

However, as Hannah pointed out when we sat down to discuss it, this exercise was a point of access to nonlinear time only for her. Since I had never met her grandfather and was not embedded with those memories and haunting associations, the winding of the clock was just a winding of a clock for me.

But we wondered about the idea of access to nonlinear time or to be more specific, the individuality and simultaneity of experiencing non-linear time. To access non-linear time, the common path is that the past, present (and perhaps an exercise can be conceived with the future?) needs to be juxtaposed side by side or layered one on top of the other.

The disjunctive non-linear time of Hannah’s exercise was the transportation of Hannah’s past in simultaneous existence with the present–day world. But that node of the past only comes into existence inside of her and for her. As I’m writing this and reading what others have posted before us, I’m struck by DKJ’s shared experience with AB and the strange sensation of sitting side by side with a classmate, heads craned over the same exercise. They undoubtedly have different nodes of recall and nostalgia yet emerged in some form of shared temporally disjunctive experience, which was the miniature ripple that AB intended.

Interestingly enough, Hannah’s winding of the clock is not the performance of a gesture she made time and time again but instead the memory of the body of her grandfather, what I imagine as the twist of the arm, the flick of the wrist and the steady tick of the clock. It is the grafting of Hannah’s gesture onto her grandfather as a moment of recall, one that I can understand but not experience.

As I ruminated on both cases, I tried to imagine the individuality and simultaneity of sharing of non-linear time as somehow the dissolution and complication of edges. I’m sure some of this has to do with the particularity of these types of non-linear folds that exist within memory and bodily experience and yet… And yet, I can’t help but wonder if, somehow, this folding of time might have something to do with the folding of people. Not in an unsettlingly smooth and seamless stitching but instead, in the way of the complicated dissonance of the Dionysian.




Here was our “Protocol”:


And so we walked to the Art Museum (somewhat arbitrarily, but in keeping with the spirit of the class and our mood), and, without knowledge of the protocol as yet, NB chose this:


Which is pretty big.  Here’s a detail:


It is  EDMUND DE WAAL, BREATHTURN, I, 2013. But that isn’t all that important for our purposes.

So we did the exercise.  And we each wrote up some notes.  NB’s are below, and mine (DGB) follow hers.






Group six brief:

Go to Princeton Art Museum, and find an object on display (contemporary, historical, etc.) After reading any supplemental information provided and observing the object closely, contemplate the history of the object based only on information available (and any background knowledge you may have). Write a short narrative describing this object and its history based on your experience at the museum. This narrative should call into question the collapse of time from the object’s inception to its current state of display in the Museum.
Object 1:


Donald Judd, Untitled (88-31 Bernstein), 1988

I chose to examine this work precisely because it attempts to be immaterial, exhibiting no marks of workmanship or authorship, no physical or visual record of production. Judd here attempts to produce pure, perfect form, and in this way (arguably) attempts to evade direct references to history, time, memory, and age in his work. Each of the ten boxes which have been produced are, in principle, completely identical and interchangeable; their form gives no indication of mounting hardware, installation methodology, or manufacturing process. Judd aims to represent pure space; with all marks of its construction hidden, we are left with a seemingly ahistorical artifact.

At the same time, however, the above strategies strangely project a viewer’s attention back onto their environment. In addition to the literally reflective surface of each of the ten boxes, Judd’s wall piece attempts to make manifest the spatial qualities of its display space, playing on the interrelation between art, viewer, and (in this instance) gallery. As one moves around Judd’s sculpture, the identical boxes (and the space captured in-between each unit) appears to shift; a seemingly inert, hermetic object somehow comes to life, and the viewer begins to understand the artwork’s surrounding environment as an integral component to the physical artifact itself.

But it is not just the gallery space which is implicated in this dialogue. With further thought, Judd’s piece connects the space of artistic production and assembly (his studio in Marfa, Texas) with the space of artistic reception (in the case, the Princeton University Art Museum). This seemingly inert series of boxes, precisely due to the emphasis on the assemblage’s environs, creates a linkage between two locales: one imagined, one immediate; one tied to the late twentieth century, the other tied continuously to the present. The boxes, in this sense, are a mediating device between Judd’s own workspace and the gallery, affording a temporal, spatial, and narrative collapse through the most abstract of forms.

We can imagine Judd and his assistants producing this precise work in a strange vacuum, without knowledge of where Untitled (88-31 Bernstein) will ultimately reside, without a precise understanding of the context in which the sculpture will be displayed. There is a strange tension between the extreme specificity involved in the artwork’s production and the completely unknown context for its future display; similarly, this tension extends between the exact moment of the artwork’s production, in a highly specific setting, and the generalized, potentially unending lifespan of its display and storage.

For these two linked settings and points in time to connect through the most abstract of artworks is a highly compelling understanding of space, time, and history; though some may argue that Judd’s Untitled series is merely concerned with ideological space, I would argue that it presents a highly compelling relation between different instantiations of space and time, linking the environmental past of Judd and his craft with the fleeting experience of the viewer.

– TC

Object 2:


Being asked to go to the Princeton Art-Museum, I had decided to go back to my favorite painting presented there. RETURNING to this painting was the first, among many, time-folds I had experienced in the art-museum that day. The painting, Untitled by Ad Reinhardt (American, 1913-1976), is – as you can hardly see from the picture – not much more than a canvass painted black. I was fascinated by it, since the first time I saw it, trying to run away from a visiting friend, and earning few minutes of silence in the art-museum. Since then I took each and every visitor I had to this museum, and showed them this painting. I don’t know why exactly. I am usually not an enthusiastic art fan, on the contrary, I find art boring most times, but for some reason this painting captured my imagination.

In a sense, this painting is too abstract to be considered as anachronic in the sense that Nagel and Wood described their Renaissance paintings. This black-ness could have been produced whenever, it does not carry on itself the signs of its time. Its presentation, on the other hand, tells us another story. It is obvious that such a painting could have been presented in a museum only in the last couple of decades, and it is modern – as modern as it gets. So, why have I decided to talk about this painting in relation to our discussion on time folds? I will try to explain, but I suspect that my words would be meaningless, unless you will make the effort to go to the museum and look at this painting yourself. This painting contains a time-fold in itself, it incorporates time, in a sense. While it appears as uniformly black at first sight, it unfolds with time. As long as you look at it, you discover more and more differences among the uniform black. In the first time you look at this picture, it is rather surprising, that while you are trying to stare at the abyss of nothingness, represented by the uniformity of the blackness, this nothingness takes a form of something, of a difference. But, after the first experience it becomes even more interesting – because you are expecting it to happen, you are waiting for this effect to kick-in. Untitled is not a representation but an experience, an experience in time, and in a sense an experience of time as the pre-condition for change, time as the generator of differences.

This experience is not, however, the only time-related experience embodied in this art-work. Look at the caption, it contains a quote of Reinhardt describing his painting as the “last painting… anyone can make.” THE END OF HISTORY – Oil on canvas. I cannot look at this painting without thinking of G.W.F Hegel’s famous criticism of Spinoza’s conception of the Absolute – or, maybe it was on Schelling’s Naturphilosophie – which is like “the night in which all cows are black”. This is, I think to myself each time, the perfect representation of these nocturnal black beasts. But then again, this uniformity dissolves into the multitude, and it is just a matter of time.




BL: Last week I dreamt about my uncle and his manifesto. I have at least a dozen uncles living in rural Minnesota. None have written a manifesto.

Unable to make sense of my dream, it seemed appropriate to hand the task of its interpretation over to Jon.

How, I wondered, would someone reconstructing this event? How would they extend the narrative of my vaguely remembered dreaming into historical time?

JC: When I sat down with Ben to do this thought experiment, he provided me with little to no context, and indeed could not provide more; as so often in dreams, he had forgotten the rest. Which uncle? (No set historical subject.) What kind of manifesto—political, aesthetic, etc.? (No delimitation to a certain genre or context.) If the manifesto hadn’t really materialized yet, and was only a dream, could such a dream count as history, as something that happened? More important than the dream’s content, its past, I decided, was the dream’s proleptic potentiality.


I tried to recreate my experience at La Monte Young and Mariane Zazeela’s “Dream House” in New York, an ideal environment to float these questions. I drew some inspiration from Freud’s supra-historical (in Nietzsche’s sense, sans all forgetting)  line, “Nothing that is mentally our own can ever be lost,” and was led to return to the basics of what sources were available to me: What is a manifesto? I decided: An articulation of the way one thinks the world should be. Barring context, Ben’s uncle’s manifesto was to be more than a mission statement for a particular program. Not knowing its content, the idea of a manifesto itself functioned proleptically, through dream-work, to produce something in the future, namely our reflection that was to come. Hence the dreamed manifesto initially without content acquired the effect of anticipating its own insertion into historical time; this putting-into-time is effectively the labor of all dream-work. One takes the dream out of the hypothetical or the forgotten and puts it into historical discourse.

I realized that resisting this labor and instead remaining in dream space may open up archaic dimensions for thinking history anachronically, for thinking “what has happened” without regard only for where it fits into context. The fact that we don’t even expect dreams to occur at a single point in a linear time-context the way we expect history to may shed light onto our professional biases with regard to the latter.




Following the ‘anachronic’ model of time, and aiming to investigate whether it essentially departs from or merely concertinas (and would therefore rely on) the idiom of linear time, our exercise was each to reassemble a diary kept between certain years. Five excerpts would be taken from the diary at random, and spoken to a listener familiar only with the origin (i.e. ‘Berlin, 1930-1946’). I was intrigued to see how our impressions of the period – as historians working by mapping out time linearly, visually in our heads – would function in reception of these jumbled-up entries; that is, what kind of assumptions I’d make as I listened to Jamie’s selection from his text.

Whether these were spoken to a listener or just read didn’t strike me as especially important at first, but listening to Jamie’s tape I realised his delivery would of course prove an immediate point of interest. What he chose to stress – an unavoidable part of reading something aloud for the first time – opened the exercise up to involve the person preparing the text, i.e. the person who delivered it. So at-play here wasn’t just how I reacted to an anachronic diary, but of course how the conductor of the exercise presented it. I suspect Jamie had read the diary he chose[1] ‘through’, linearly, more than he had as I now received it[2]. And yet in delivery an overriding impression of the work became clear; one that was distinct from how it ‘works’ linearly, in fact instead dependent on the anachronic ‘essential’ Nagel describes emerging from non-linear time. There were lines to do with plans disrupted, things being broken-up, terminations, endings, suicides, that found distinct uniformity in the piece. This was something to do with Jamie’s delivery, but mostly I think about the structure to entries he sounded like he noticed in each: the writer had plans that fell apart that day, strikingly enough to write about. That four movements in this ended with a fifth entry contemplating suicide gave the disjointed, anachronic formation of this diary a definite, essential shape to do with the themes just outlined. We receive these reading a diary linearly, but something of this exercise felt like a concentrated dose. In delivery, these entries, made haphazard by the exercise, are forced into meaning in performance and reception.

What bearing this has on essayistic history I’m not sure. I jump to the essay form because its rearrangement of text by argument via footnoting – in other words an argument that proceeds dictating a rearranged text – seems like the closest analogue to this exercise found in disciplinary history. What took the place of an argument here were the impressions of a performer and their audience, as the normal boundaries of a text were collapsed and rearranged. This result doesn’t seem exactly Dionysian, just because the boundaries existent in the text continue to work as a constant irony to the performance; they are discarded elsewhere, but the performance relies on this being known rather than forgotten. The new versions, the ones emergent in the text’s random rearrangement, feel spontaneously created. So, maybe ‘nonlinearising’ a diary in performance is a kind of anti-Apollonian exercise, in that form is reconstructing a story already told, or at least given shape in a book cited by historians.

That said, the impressions made on me by this attempt to transpose of nonlinear time in performance (though not to suggest insodoing that anachronic time should be described as ‘random’) ultimately felt singular to the performance, as its constructor/animator, or for that matter unconnected to a pre-existing sense of what time is.


1) This exercise was nonlinear time depicted by rearranging an account understood to be ‘linear’ in completion, but for that it did not feel like a concertinaing.

2) ‘Feel’ because I think it’s perfectly possible to see the significant of a pre-existent ‘linear’ in the ‘nonlinear’, but only out of its transmission.

3) Which is to say that in creating a performative exercise to settle a question launched from a Socratic point of view, we leave that question in unsteady hands.

4) There is witnessing, and there is describing after-the-fact.

5) The reasons behind this exercise’s failure to handle the question scientifically are maybe down to something in its nature, in the kind of concentration or posture demanded of the viewer/performer, who should not concern themselves with adopting an ironic stance on what’s before them. In this understanding, the immediacy of theatre should momentarily erase mental architecture constitutive of that posture, if it is to be successful.

6) Extracting a meaningful solution to the question of whether nonlinear chronology can meaningfully exist without constant, undermining reference to a linear forebear has been unsuccessful here. At least in this exercise, I’ve felt that my experience as a performer and my aims as an ever-post-emptive historian have been difficult to properly combine.

Back to the oil and water question with the perhaps (still perhaps) opposing disciplines of history and performance. I look forward to giving some time to this question, w/r/t the different experiences of the class, next week.

[1] an Ottoman soldier’s diary in Palestine, written early 20C.

[2] This wouldn’t always be the case. Passages from all over a book might be prescribed in a new order, sometime even to create a certain impression on a student, as Children of Pride, my chosen text for Jamie, certainly was at undergrad.





“Follow the flight pattern of a fly. Doesn’t time sometimes flow according to the breaks and bends that this flight seems to follow or invent?”  Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, p.64-5

This is more literally true than Michel Serres may have known. The human eye does not pass smoothly over the world when one looks around; instead, it jumps in constant tiny starts called saccades, which are easy to see when gazing into someone else’s eyes, and impossible to perceive in oneself. The brain takes the jerky movements of the eye and knits them together in order to create a smooth panning image. To do this, it must distort time.

Perhaps historical perception also moves in saccades. I find it striking that certain periods of time—often, but not always, wars—are constantly lingered over in popular culture, while others fade from view. In the world of popular paperback romance novels, there are certain five to fifteen year periods in which literally tens of thousands of books are set, and others in which there is almost nothing. Books set in the years 1800-1815 account for an enormous proportion of total historical romance output, while the number of books set in the years 1815-1830 can be rounded down to zero. What makes certain time periods so arresting to the imagination? How do we distort time in collective memory? What do we skip over, without noticing any gap?


Einstein’s Dreams is constantly preoccupied with how people’s behavior might change under various conditions of time distortion. In most of the dreams, people tend to fall into two categories; one that wishes to preserve, to linger, to conserve, and another that wishes to rush headlong into life. This strikes me as an incredibly twentieth-century duality, this opposition between progressivism and conservatism, this anxiety that we will miss something either by moving past it or by never getting to it in the first place.

So for me, the great strength of Anachronic Renaissance is its avoidance of dualism. The authors argue that Renaissance art was both/and: both an image which, like a saint’s relic, was unsubstitutable and unique, and a substitution for many cultural referents in the historical past, and perhaps future.

They also argue that self-consciousness of distance from the past constituted the necessary grounds for exploration of it, as “the differentness of the past made repetition an option.” As an orientalist trying to avoid Orientalism, I was very drawn to the suggestion that awareness of difference with the past also became grounds for the dismissal of other cultures and ethnic groups, as “the two remotenesses, temporal and spatial, were confused,” and they were relegated to being people of the past, being backwards, other in time as well as in space.


I once attended a paper presentation at a linguistics conference on gesture and time. Literate language users tend to use a lateral axis to create a timeline in gesture as they speak about complex time events, and the direction of that timeline tends to map onto the direction in which their native language is read, so that Arabic readers gesture left to right, and English speakers, right to left. Less commonly, however, speakers may also map their gesture in the same way that speech maps them, i.e. sagitally, from forward to backward. Here is a link to a paper on the topic.

This paper’s author had investigated gestures made during speech by a student population in Spain made up of Moroccans and native Spaniards, and discovered that while Spanish speakers tended to place the future in front of them, Moroccans placed the future at their backs, and the past in front of them. As I remember it, he concluded that this was due to Morocco being a “past-oriented culture.” I wish to note my respect for this linguist, and intend no personal judgement in pointing out how jarring this was to the ear of a reader of Edward Said.


One topic which is left largely unexplored in Anachronic Renaissance is the nature of religious time. The authors tend to elide historical referents and religious referents without much distinction. Is this valid? Or does the nature of time in the religious consciousness, which is always both immanent in the here-and-now, and profoundly of the past and future, differ from its nature in the secular consciousness of Einstein’s Dreams? To me, this is the major lacuna in this week’s texts, although Serres and Latour come the closest to addressing it. How are we to understand time with God?



A thought exercise (stolen, but from where, I can’t remember):

A fire is spreading across the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In front of you is the $45-million “Madonna and Child” by Renaissance master Duccio di Buoninsegnao and, beside it, a museum guard. As you might guess, time is running out and you can only save one. Which will it be?

Perhaps the answer is obvious to you. But I wonder if it is less or more so after reading Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s “Anachronic Renaissance.” Does the fact that this painting is a “token” associated with a lost original (the living and breathing Madonna herself) cause you hesitation, either way? (Maybe you can experience some temporal instability yourself in that hesitation, like that felt in a Botticelli portrait or a Benedetto da Maiano epitaph?)

But back to the question: Do you rescue the painting or the guard?

The case for the guard seems easy to make. According to Nagel and Wood, Renaissance art is a chain of replicas, of infinite renewal and imitation. Like an arrow or index finger pointing back, the painting links together the succession of ‘nows’ to that lost past: the absent original, the once breathing Madonna and Baby Jesus. (Were others reminded of Joseph Roach’s “Cities of the Dead” in this discussion of image as “surrogate”?) And so the solution is clear. We can save the guard and rest assured that after the Duccio is burnt to a crisp, another artist will create an “anachronic” substitute. Aura be damned!

But what about the case for saving the painting? Does art’s substitutional quality mean it itself possesses some divine, magical power? Do we save a piece of Madonna by fetching the painting? Do paintings… look back at us? Have Nagel and Wood twisted not only temporal, but ontological categories?

In the end, the decision might come down to a matter of our personal sympathies: Are you more swayed by Nagel and Wood’s idea of “substitution” or their idea of “performance” in art? As I understand it, the “substitional” mode, typical of medieval times, sought to erase human authorship. Too much artistic intervention (restoration, over-painting) was suspect precisely because it pushed us further and further away from the original, the object of devotion. So, artists worked within a “substitional machine” that understood the Duccio, as an object dated from 1300, to possess a spark of the divine.

When the Renaissance dawns, however, artists perform repetitions, and are allowed space to play with conventions of substitution: by inserting incongruous fashion pieces or mismatched architectural elements. And when the artist became an imaginative “restorer” of the past, these two categories — “substitution” and “performance” — collapsed.

I’ve been wondering if artists (and historians) today work in this Renaissance mode and came up with an example of a really moving work by Ragnar Kjartansson, which showed at the New Museum a couple years back.

Enter the gallery and you met a band of a dozen or so hipster troubadours playing a three-minute lovesick ballad, over and over on loop. Despondent, sprawled across rumpled mattresses, slouched on threadbare chairs, they acted oblivious to visitors as they sang. Well, mostly oblivious. Their eyes sometimes followed you as you walked around their musty den of beer bottles and kicked-off shoes. And those looks of longing seemed totally in keeping with the depressed Young Werther act — an act that was also a feat of endurance. The performance went on daily for two months straight, museum opening to museum closing. In total, they sang the same mournful, polyphonic composition some 6,000 times.

The origin of that song? Kjartansson lifted the lyrics from lines in Iceland’s first feature film, made in 1977 and starring Kjartansson’s mom. His mother played a housewife, and in one scene fanaticizes about Kjartansson’s to-be father, who played a plumber in the movie. “Take me here by the dishwasher,” she says in the fantasy sequence, which would become a song lyric, and the work’s title.

The endless singing certainly seems to enact a symbolic substitution, with an “unbroken chain back to the origin.” And here that origin is, well, the origin of life: “Take me….” Art quite literally becomes a model of reproduction, an endless “imitation of itself.” Thinking back on the Duccio dilemma, maybe the distinction between the painting and the person feels less clear, both products of endless acts of… love.




I am worried that this post will devolve swiftly into platitudes. I began this week optimistic for the new tools/methods which considering time could bring to history. It was, potentially, a way to break through the linear narrative structure which is associated with much of the discipline’s aporia. I leave this week a little disappointed. I see no way to connect the achievements of ‘Anachronic Renaissance’ to method. I am sympathetic to the aims of Serres, especially in the ways that he frames them in these conversations, and believe that his ideas on comparison in particular can be put to use in historical frameworks. Is comparison the job of the historian? I am less sure of this. I am left, then, with ‘Einstein’s Dreams’ which offers different conceptions of time as a structure underlying life. This becomes clearer as the book segues from the physical times of the first half to the more socially constructed timescapes of the second. How do we proceed from here? Do we content ourselves with acknowledging that time is a structure? That timescapes change from context to context and must be interrogated as part of ‘solid historical inquiry’? Does time become akin to all other historical structures that we could contemplate or, depending on our methodology, not contemplate? Undoubtedly as part of a jetlag-induced myopia, I am left asking, ‘what is the point of time?’



Readings for Week Seven:

Nagel and Wood, Anachronic Renaissance

Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams


Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time

Week 8: Blood, Body, Genes


The problems before us in our reading for today fit tightly with our themes in this class.  Is the genome being re-interpreted as an “archive”?  Do we thereby carry something of our history in our bodies?  What does in “feel like” to “see” where one “comes from” — by looking at a little bit of spit. 

Here is Nadia Abu El-Haj, writing compellingly on this new bio-political and existential condition:



But the 9th of November 2016 was a difficult day. We confronted from the outset of our class today the question of whether our obligation lay in the immediate work at hand (a discussion of Abu El-Haj’s The Genealogical Science) or with the political circumstances we collectively confront the morning after a surprising and, for many of us, deeply disturbing presidential election. Better to bracket the fear, sorrow, confusion, and/or anger? Better to fill ourselves with some history? Or better to push ordinary business to the side and attempt some kind of conversation about what has just happened in this country.

I hedged a bit.

I figured most of us had probably been talking about little else all day (and probably much of last night), so maybe better to just focus on “What is / What was.”

But in the end it felt impossible not to take a little time with what so clearly hung so heavy on all our minds. So we did.

It was affecting. Several of people in the room struggled to hold back tears. At least one person made explicit that it felt nearly impossible to engage in the (exquisite, slightly otherworldly) ratiocination of professional historical inquiry in the wake of what felt (to her) like a barbaric belch of white supremacy and naked misogyny. We tried a bit of conversation about the problems themselves as we understood them: what about class? What about racism? What about changing social and familial structures? What about the resentment of lower-middle class white American men over fifty without college educations living in rural and suburban regions of the heartland?

It cannot be said that we made any progress, but we aired a clutch of relevant subjects. We moved to talking about what could be done. We could we do? What should we each be doing? Quit grad school? Become a political activist? Enter the sphere of politics as an actual politician? Do some sort of academic work that more directly engages the future of the republic?

I tried a couple of contributions along the lines of consolation and/or self-salvage: if the demographics suggesting that American voters with four year college educations were much less inclined to vote for Donald Trump than Americans without benefit of such an education, could we hope that by giving our lives to teaching in colleges and universities (and writing the material to be taught there) we are contributing to a program of meaningful and ameliorative service to the republic? Need we despair? Perhaps shifting demographics alone will gradually rectify the problem: older white males (who seem to have had contributed very significantly to Trump’s victory) cannot be considered a growth demographic. Time will take care of us.

None of this felt satisfying. None of it felt adequate to the condition of the room, to the mood. We circled back. Were there links to be drawn between our reading this week and this morning’s newspaper? There were. Tara underlined that Abu El-Haj’s book can be understood as an exploration of the bio-political elaborations and paradoxes of identity politics. And, of course, identity politics categories may be exactly what have so significantly wrong-footed many analysts of this election cycle. (Did Democrats take the African-American vote for granted? Did Hillary Clinton take poor white votes for granted? Has the obsession with identity politics obscured or distorted class dynamics?) And of course as Jenne reminded us it is a book about the politics of epistemology, and about the place of certain forms of knowledge in the constitution of political communities. Questions of epistemology and policy should be very much on our minds the morning after our statistical instruments for knowing ourselves have proven so imprecise and misleading.

We resolved to roll up our sleeves and work with our text. But even as we did so I sensed again the question (a tacit question?) hanging in the air. As if baited by a piñata perhaps only I was jerking up and down over our heads, I could not resist taking a swing.

The question?

Is it okay to be doing the kind of thing we are doing when there are so many urgent things that call for our attention in this country and beyond.

So I tried to answer that. Or I tried to articulate my own answer to that for you and before you – I meant it as an encouragement and a gesture of fortification in our commitment to a particular kind of enterprise. Thinking back now, however, I feel it was perhaps both extravagant and unnecessary. The basic reality may simply be that we were just all still too close to something that feels a little too upsetting to do much of anything besides sit around together and look a little shell shocked. So in retrospect I think my enthusiasm/passion/desperation was all basically not-really-what-the-situation-called-for.

But anyway, in the interest of laying stuff down that happens, I will say here some version of what I said there.

What I said is that ours is, primarily, thought-work. Ours is the work of thought. We do not really solve problems. We do not heal the sick. We do not protect people from getting their doors kicked down. We do not ensure that they have enough to eat. We think about things, and we produce works that contain and reflect that thinking. We attend on the thinking of others. And we encourage participation in thought-work by creating and sustaining spaces for thinking and for the sharing and transformation of thought.

I do not mean to suggest that some of this thought-work cannot have “effects” in the world. It can, and it does. But our work – my work, I am now speaking for myself, speaking to and of my own orientation to the work I do – is thought-work. And thought-work is important. In many different times and in many different places people (even hungry people, even oppressed and threatened people) have found sustenance, succor, consolation, even a reason for living itself in the private and the shared activity of thinking. Escapism? I am not in a position to say. Maybe. But sometimes escape may be necessary?

What I can say is that the work of good and beautiful thinking creates an entire climate of feeling. It amounts to a form of life available to all and inextricable from what makes us the creatures we are.

We (and here again, I mean me and anybody else who wants to come along with me in the way I think about these questions) are custodians and servants of this form of life.

I cannot really tell what you all made of this peroration. I reached down relatively deep to find an accounting that I believe merits close consideration – an accounting that cannot easily be dismissed even when the shouting in the street is very loud indeed.

But it certainly can be dismissed. And under certain circumstances, perhaps, must be. When exactly? I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure no covering law or analytic can be devised that will resolve this matter for us.


We pivoted to the book – and to the article. And we did so via our two pre-class posts. Jamie’s? A slightly unsettling (flippant?) inhabitation of the idiom of an internet chat-room self-seeker feeling his/her way through the woozy worlds of dilapidate gene theory and new-age astrology. His pastiche of somatic citizenship in the demotic patois felt broadly satirical to me. But why the ironizing? I wasn’t sure. Are we to feel a condescending pity for those whose flights of fancy flit so lightly? Is popular genetic anthropology in connection with genealogy and ancestry-studies merely a kind of cash cow horoscope casting perpetrated upon middlebrow family historians? I myself was not persuaded that this was the take-away from this week’s reading. But I am also not persuaded that it was the take-away from Jamie’s pre-class post.

I am not persuaded that it was my take-away from my piece either. It is at this point that I think it may be helpful to think outside of the academy and remind ourselves that much of what we talk about rarely escapes the esteemed, circular, marble walls of the ivory tower. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of Science and Technology Studies. In my reading, this is something that Abu El-Haj wishes to underline. While she and I and we may be trained to look cynically at genes, to treat them as an ‘archive’ in need of narration, her ethnography illustrates that they constitute ‘fact’ to a great many people. Scientific fact. Proper fact. This ‘fact’ has enormous influence in identity formation. It implies a power relationship by which ‘science’ is able to tell you WHAT YOU ARE. As Serres elucidates in the early parts of his conversations with Latour, he has become increasingly troubled by the ethical problems of science. For him, this was a result of growing up in the shadow of Hiroshima, but he moves on to discuss the environmental impacts of science hinting at Anthropocene debates when he suggests that there are ethical implications to the ever-increasing population of the planet, facilitated by science.

To this, I wish to add the ethical concerns raised by science straying into the realms of identity. This is, of course, not new. Psychological practice was, for many years based on a big book telling you what went on in your head. We know of Foucault’s intervention here. Yet, genetic research and, more importantly, its inherent consumability is a novel phenomenon. Thomas’s article makes clear that she believes there is a role for the historian in shaping this consumption and, certainly, its narrativisation. I am less sure. If we start writing Mongol history to help interpret genome results, if we start examining the history of the Ashkenazi Jews using genetic data gathered from paying customers, if we restructure our discipline in tandem with a project so invested in mechanisms of identity formation and codification, we must also consider our involvement in a system that, as Abu El-Haj shows, is commodifying the very genetic material INSIDE our bodies. There are, as Abu El-Haj puts it, ‘no firewalls here’. Horoscopes are altogether more frivolous and easily dismissed. My blood-type I can disregard as irrelevant. Does being born on a Tuesday make me more graceful, I like to think so but on balance that might be my unrelated natural poise. If I took one of these genetic tests and it repudiated my current sense of rootedness in a damp North-Atlantic past could I throw it off so easily? I remain unconvinced. JP

Ohad, by contrast, wielded the scalpel on his own breast. Rather than staying in “key” as a critically rigorous practitioner of philosophically informed Science and Technology Studies (which would have meant drafting a think piece about what a good book Abu El-Haj has written), Ohad brought to the surface—and then bravely invited contemplation of—his own very complicated (and personal) feelings as he confronted a book that cut close to his (Israeli, Jewish) bones. I admired the courage. What does it yield?

Well, it helpfully opened for us a small, bright window on to the explosive political (and military) conflicts at stake in Abu El-Haj’s study. We took some time to review the thorny dynamics by which genetic studies (like those at issue in this book) become part of elaborate and well-funded initiatives to build and extend Jewish settlements in the West Bank and elsewhere in Palestine/Israel.

In this context, Ivan alluded to “social construction” of notions like a Jewish “gene.” And this led to an excursus into the history of the idea of “social construction,” together with a review of what is sometimes called the second turn in the field of sociology of science: the symmetry turn association with the later work of Bruno Latour (whereby we have been asked to consider whether it makes sense to treat scientific facts as more “social” than the social science that ostensibly reveals their social bases).

What about the social construction of nature implied by the Anthropocene? Nature, by these lights, is very definitely being recast as a social phenomenon, but not quite in the sense intended by Berger and Luckman in their 1966 classic The Social Construction of Reality. So what happened when we turned our eyes and heads to Julia Adeney Thomas’s article (History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value)? The scale of millennia and microorganisms seemed, I think, sharply discordant with the immediacy of national politics as they lay still heavy upon us. Incommensurable. There was mostly silence.

We shall have to see what happens Donald Trump makes his appointments to the EPA. Problems of scale and value indeed…


From Ancestry.com, my own “ethnicity” estimate (based on genetic comparison from spitting into a tube) to show what these results actually look like. My results are rather specific because more regional data is available for Europeans. How is this report more or less legible than one that might simply read “100% East Asian”? -Anonymous


This anonymous (and generous) posting puts me in mind of that moment in our conversation when we mused for a moment on the remarkable coincidence (?) that the genetic ancestry “results” take the form of geographical “probability clouds” — a format perfectly suited to the “neoliberal” choice-craft of selfhood that seems to be emergent at the nexus of identity politics and consumer-freedom-oriented discourses of the individual.  Contemplating the consilience, one need not be a card-carrying paranoiac to have a moment of chin-scratching suspicion.   -DGB



As I strode into a classroom at the University of Chicago two years ago, two fellow students looked me critically up and down and pronounced that I must be Type B. Type B at what I asked, feeling initially elated that I had managed to cast off the influence of my domineering Type A mother. Alas it was not to be for they were referring to my blood type. Type B blood type. They couldn’t decide if I was negative or positive. Having done some research since I am now fairly sure that it’s negative (one of the rarest blood types there is!).

B-. For some reason I had made it through to the tender age of 35 without knowing until there it was, pronounced upon me. It makes sense of course. As they told me, Type B blood has a propensity to be slightly colder than other types because it has a lower density in the veins. This meant that I was predisposed to be rather cold in my human interactions and while they couldn’t remember what the lower density meant, I am fairly sure that it’s why I am so graceful and light on my feet. That, and being born on a Tuesday. Tuesday’s child is full of grace etc. Why B-? Well negative blood signs (and I worked this bit out on my own) have a tendency to accentuate the characteristics while the positive blood types minimize them. Positive tends towards homogeneity, negative towards difference. I, clearly, tended toward difference because only a strong B- bent could have minimized the influence of the Aries moon in my star chart. I am quite clearly not an Aries.

Gemini, Libra Rising, Tuesday’s Child, B-, JP

* * *

Okay, I couldn’t decide whether or not I should publish this thing. It is rather personal, and not exactly the book-report that you would have expected to read in an history seminar. This is very not professional, actually it is the opposite of a professional report.

While reading the book I had experienced two very harsh sentiments towards it: I was very curious and very angry, and maybe also a little bit frightened. The normal thing to do here was to purse my curiousness and to try to explain to you why I think this book is an excellent book, and a good exemplar for a good STS study. I can do that, and will probably do it in class. On the other hand, each and every one of you can, I suppose, do the same (and in a better English). Therefore, I had decided that I will dedicate this blog-post to the perspective that only I, as far as I know, can contribute to our discussion – the perspective of an Israeli-Jew who reads a book about Israel and about being Jewish written by a Palestinian (half-Palestinian, actually). I have to say that at this point I hope that my take on identity-politics here, would take the shape of reduction-ad-absurdum, and redeem us from the burden of the Gender/Race thing altogether. But I am not very optimistic about it.

Nadia Abu El-Haj, is certainly not the first Palestinian author I have read. I had read some of Edward Said’s books, which I found very tedious but usually also persuasive, and very not intimidating (I found his auto-biography excellent, by the way). My favorite book written by a Palestinian is actually a novel, translated into English as The Secret Life of Saeed the Passoptimist by Emile Habibi – a sharp and very funny satire on the Israeli military-regime in the 1950s and 1960s. A really terrific book.  I never felt the way I felt reading Abu El-Haj’s book when I read  a book written by a Palestinian. I did feel similar – in a sense – when I read books written by Nazi authors, though.


The only thing that I am saying is that while reading this book I felt a similar feeling to the one I usually have when I read Nazi, or famous anti-Semite, books. And the question I had to ask myself is – WHY?

I found several themes in the book very persuasive. First and foremost, the double inversion of the category of race: from a category that was usually imposed by others to a category which is mainly self-imposed (even though she did give us some precedents for this practice), and from a category that is being used in order to learn from biology about the right social and cultural roles of certain groups, into a research tool that only to reaffirms certain cultural beliefs. The focus on the role of the biological as the reality that can support historical argument, which are being mobilized for political purposes, was not new for me, but was certainly an important contribution.

So, why do I find myself so intimidated from this book? Was it because it exposed some embarrassing things about Jewish racism? I don’t think so, having spent years and years in the far left of Israeli politics, nothing of this sort can surprise me. Is it because the author is Palestinian? As I said before I find it hard to believe. Is it because of the juxtaposition of these two facts: discussion about “race” in the Jewish context written by a Palestinian? This sounds more plausible to me. But why? First, I think that the book had lost me with the quote of Shlomo Sand at the first page – a historian that charlatan will be a compliment for him, and he is nothing but a populist. But more than that, I think that something of the objective tone of the book made it more intimidating for me. A person – the author – who I don’t know, but forced, for some reason, to think that she sees me as her enemy, dissect my culture and heritage (even if some perverse parts of it, that I will be glad to criticize myself) into little pieces with the same lancet that I use to dissect others, for political purposes that are pretty clear from the book (at least to my eyes) but they are by no means the logical conclusion from its findings.

When identity politics enters the game it will not always be a cosmopolitan play-ground where everybody, who are both equal and different, are smiling at each other and playing together. Identity politics sometimes entails wars, that can obstruct us from doing other things which, in my view, are no less important and more pertinent to the intellectual sphere. I am not proud with what I wrote here, on the contrary I am so embarrassed that I could not upload it on time, but maybe it is an example of what happens when you mobilize your identity into the intellectual game. Maybe be this is what Graham thought about when he came up with this Dionysian history?  — ORS

* * *

Readings for the eighth week:

Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology

Julia Adeney Thomas, History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value, American Historical Review, 119, 2014