FINAL CLASS NOTES
A double session today, so these notes on our discussion will reach across the readings originally proposed for two separate weeks.
But this concatenation of the two units worked pretty well, I thought. In particular, the material on reenactment chimed quite sonorously with our final text—Frank Ankersmit’s Sublime Historical Experience.
Jenny Thompson’s re-enactors (War Games: Inside the World of 20th Century War Reenactors) are in fact, of course, committed to the quest for a very special kind of historical “experience”—immediate, embodied, vital. Here they are on what they are after:
Neither they nor Thompson, however, seem to be able to do much “theoretical” work to explain or justify this objective/endeavor—this “nirvana” of self loss in the past, of “convergence” between then and now.
And that is where Ankersmit comes in.
Though he is empathically the last guy you can image getting dressed up in some Napoleonic garb and bivouacking out in a polder somewhere, Ankersmit really does have an extraordinarily powerful theoretical account of the character and status of an “experiential” engagement with the past. Or at least I think he does.
This was our terrain in our final session together, and as we hiked around in this territory we were able to survey some of the ground we have covered in this course this past semester (and also, here and there, catch glimpses of paths not taken—perhaps even some ways forward).
And by the end, when we were joined for a final discussion session with Peter Galison, talk turned to language and image, concepts and what resists subsumption into conceptual form. I felt we limned several of the central problems. More on that below.
We got started with our pre-class posts. And it was Taylor’s musings on the architectural sublime that launched us into Ankersmitian reflections. For me, the core of that opening discussion lay in our effort to understand (to feel?) the proposition offered by Ankersmit on page 121:
For a fair portion of class today, I felt as if just about everything could be made to hang on that second clause: “it is as if the temporal trajectory between past and present, instead of separating the two, has become the locus of their encounter.”
Can a “temporal trajectory” become the locus of an encounter?
What might this mean? Is it simply an oxymoron? Expanses of time separate persons and events. That’s the whole point. That is what time does. It comes between things, and in doing so obliges every event to sit alone in the flow—accompanied only by the instantaneous cohort of its synchronous adjacencies. That’s it. The empty, secular, linear timeline of historicism infinitely and infinitesimally disaggregates.
In that context, what can be made of the suggestion that, under certain exceptional conditions, this time that relentlessly divides (past from present, then from now, us from them) might become some sort of felicitous Elysium—a welcoming garden where an exquisite transhistorical conjunction, a time-defining paideia, a (sublime, historical) communion may occur?
I am reminded of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.
In that book, Schleiermacher basically says something along the lines of: “Look, there just is such a thing as an immediate intuition of the infinite. I’ve had it, and I suspect a lot of you, my readers, have had it too. I’m writing about that in my book here. If you haven’t had an immediate intuition of the infinite, I cannot really help you with this book of mine—you might as well just stop reading now. But for those of you who know what I’m talking about let’s take a little time together to think more about this amazing thing that we’ve experienced.”
A great deal of the history of Romanticism comes out of this move (which, recall, is a move Schleiermacher makes in the wake of the death, at Hume’s hand, of “natural theology” in its more optimistic registers)—both what is compelling and beautiful and what is silly and dangerous in the Romantic tradition.
I am hesitant to label Ankersmit a “Romantic” (since that might be heard as a kind of dismissal or tight circumscription of his position—and I do not think that either of these responses to the text is appropriate). That said, I basically take Ankersmit to be working in Schleiermacher’s vein at several points in Sublime Historical Experience. I don’t think Ankersmit assumes it to be his responsibility, in this book, to try to prove that a “temporal trajectory between past and present” can, sometimes, momentarily, cease to be a mechanism of distantiation, and instead became (however fleetingly) “the locus” of an encounter between the immediacy of the now and the absent presence of the then. He is not going to try to establish that such a thing is possible—or even tell you what it is like, really. Either you know what he’s talking about or you don’t. If you do, he has a lot of things to say about this situation: its rarity and its importance, its conditions and its dynamics. If you don’t, you should probably just go and read another book.
Although perhaps it’s a little more complicated than that. Since I think Ankersmit’s overture really does go beyond that take-it-or-leave-it gesture. Indeed, I think he would probably go so far as to say that if you are an actual historian reading his book, and you think you have never had an experience of this kind, then you are probably the unknowing victim of a kind of “selective amnesia”—an amnesia that ought to be thought of as an occupational hazard of professional historical labor. The process by which history becomes a “knowledge game” may amount to a sort of fording of the river Lethe: you leave the shore of historical experience in the small, light craft of inquiry; you row, doing history-work; you cross over to historical knowledge. But here is the thing: not only is return to the realms of historical experience very difficult, one’s actual memory of that land seems to be progressively blotted out in the course of your passage.
Maybe some of that was what made it hard for us to engage too closely with the accounts of our re-enactors. I struggled myself with these accounts, though I worked hard to try to activate the principle of interpretive charity. I wanted to like the impersonators and the devotees of living history and the straight-up historical fetishists. I spent time with the costume book (not bad at all!), and even made my way through the handbook-guide for those who seek to bring history to life. I am not afraid of strange actions of resurrectionism (some of you may be aware that the banner photograph that heads our webpage depicts a key moment in a performance piece in Istanbul I participated in earlier this year—the woman is a Turkish artist who is at that moment “being” the ancient wall of the Galata neighborhood; she is talking to a metal worker outside a hardware store on the waterfront, who is a little worried about her trance-state as she wanders, seeking her old foundations). But there are SO many problems with the forms of historical animism depicted in these volumes! It is hard to recover the historical urgency out from under the miasma of reactionary politics and gender revanchism. Hard. I found myself wishing (it was Hannah who flagged this initially, I think, but others raised it) that we had spent less time on Civil War pageants and more time on religious rituals, many of which amount to highly charged instances of historical reenactment. That and/or the spate of different re-enactments that have become a subject of interest in the contemporary art world (“reenactments” of canonical exhibitions and performance art pieces—Hal Foster has written a bit about this in Bad New Days; but the book we probably should have read was Rebecca Schneider’s Performing Remains).
[A post-post-post on this: am recalling that we also took a turn into the question of what sorts of “rituals” or preconditioning circumstances might be cultivated for the purpose of facilitating the kind of immediacy of historical experience Ankersmit seems to be on about. This was a brief excursus, but one that I would like to mark out — since it is something that really interests me. My work with the “conjectural historiographical collective” called ESTAR(SER) is a lot about exactly this; I am actually doing one of these projects at the Kochi Biennial in Kerala this week, which is why we had to rearrange the end of term — for your flexibility on that, my thanks… -DGB]
We spent some time on Ankersmit’s engagement with the Baroque. If you are feeling it with Ankersmit, if you are jumping with the spirit, and getting ready to have him lead you (back?) to the promised land of some sublime historical experience, you may look up from the book around page 304/305…
…and wonder to yourself “why the hell am I deep in a technical discussion of rococo ornamentation, of all things?”
And so we worked on that.
We settled on the idea that Ankersmit is drawn to the way that rococo ornamentation can be thought of as pulling the stuff of (deep) structure up onto the (visible) surface—with the effect of making the surface “all depth” and the depth “all surface.” Such a condition seems to be both an allegory of the relationship between (deep) structuring time (the “architecture” of time, which separates) and the “all-surface” time where we can “be together” (that live and elaborated time-surface where this moment and that moment and that moment and this moment can all be folded and scrolled together like the volutes and cartouches in the vaulting symphony of a baroque amphitheater) AND SOMETHING MORE THAN AN ALLEGORY TOO.
In these sections of the text Ankersmit seems on the one hand to be offering us an allegory of the way he wants the “structural” feature of time (it is distance-maintaining architecture) to “give way” (or perhaps better “fall away”) to replaced by a wholly absorbing and intimacy-producing surface texture, AND HE SEEMS TO BE TRYING TO DO THIS AS WELL, in his treatment of these historical artifacts.
Some of you were clearly sympathetic. Even genuinely touched. Others highly skeptical.
[Or perhaps it is possible to be sympathetic and skeptical? Posing this question gets at my anxieties about Ankersmit’s text, which frames historical experience as an either/or whereas I am oriented much more towards a both/and. By this, I mean that Ankersmit seeks to obliterate the logocentrism of subject/object, but he does so by instantiating his own binary between context and experience — which to me replicates that very logocentrism. I understand the critique of how context “crushes” experience, but it results in a complete dismissal of power relations. In Ankersmit’s account, it is either historical experience or power relations (a form of context). It is unsurprising that he does not acknowledge how power relations are constitutive of his modular historian-subject-protagonist, who seems very particularly geopolitically sited and only able to apprehend experience in relation to his kin – especially when you read Ankersmit’s writing on the continuities of civilizations (367).
So to be sympathetic and skeptical, I ask: what about experience and power? I think it is possible to formulate an account of historical experience that does attend to the subject-position of the historian and the power relations that ‘make’ the object. And I think one might do so by turning to the literatures/theorizing on “minoritarian” experience that are ignored by Ankersmit’s work. After reading Sublime Historical Experience, I returned to Kristeva’s essay, “Approaching Abjection,” attached here (as an aside, I do have my issues with the essential maternal that emerges in Kristeva’s work). Her writings on the abject makes both the self/object and experience/context binary combust, draws you to the “place where meaning collapses” (2). That collapse, that undoing, is at once a threatening moment that is quickly reconstituted into the boundary line of difference, the foundational exclusion of making an ‘I’ that turns into many more and many dangerous exclusions, and is also “edged with the sublime” (7). Here, pleasurable dissolution and violent exclusion are linked, experience and power entangled in such a way that they cannot be isolated and named as such. TS]
The problem must be left to the reader, I think.
But for my part, I am sympathetic.
What about the sublime? What does any of this have to do with the sublime?
This led to a full-on recap of Kant’s account of the sublime in the Third Critique, and specifically the “double nature” of a judgement of the sublime. The aesthetic response that is a judgement of the sublime consists, for Kant, of a double recognition: on the one hand, one is brought close enough to something that vastly excels oneself (usually in scale or power) to conceive of one’s minority before the great forces of the universe; but at the same time (or perhaps in the immediate train of this initial recognition) one experiences an awareness of one’s transcendent nature (as a free subject endowed with reason and will, etc.)—which makes one infinitely greater than the greatness of whatever tidal wave or alpine gorge has momentarily dwarfed one’s consciousness. Voila! The spine tingle of sublimity: you, brute monstrosity of nature, are indeed vast…but (shiver, shiver, terror-giggle) I am vaster!
Can this “duplicity” of the sublime be mapped onto the double nature of time itself (as both the fearsome separator of all things, and the space wherein we find room to sit down and have truck with any other moment)?
For a moment, I can just about feel it…
And for me, that moment of feeling was perhaps nearest when we turned to Jon’s very powerful final reflection in his pre-class post. His evocation of Arendt’s account of her historical and political peripateia in 1943 gave us a scene with which to conjure. She describes all thought changing. Suddenly. There is a sense that she has seen the impossible. Or, given that it is impossible, she has not (yet) really seen it. So now it is necessary to start again. To learn to see what has been “seen.” The encounter with this altering alterity seemingly annihilates everything. Except of course it does not. One keeps thinking. And so thought thinks what seemed impossible. And thought proves, in this, to have been “transcendent” in relation to what seemed, for a moment, poised to engulf or negate it.
This has the structure of the sublime. And it presses us against that strange inflection point where thought becomes new: the really hard problem is never how to see what can be seen or understand what can be understood; the really hard problem is to see what cannot be seen, to understand what cannot be understood. In this sense, one can feel, for a moment, that Wittgenstein got it exactly wrong: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must speak—though this means babbling desperately (until the words come, until it makes sense).
Time is where the babble becomes sense.
And those rare and ecstatic moments when we hear the babble and the sense at the same time, the moments we hear both at once—that would be, I think, my definition of the historical sublime.
We never really moved off these questions. This was where we were. Even when Galison arrived and we took a turn into his work with William Kentridge and his own documentary practice. The question was language—its scope and range, its power and limits. Peter pointed out that the proposition “there is no ‘experience’ that is not prefigured by language—no experience ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’ of the linguistic” (a position he claimed to hold, and that I claimed to reject) does not imply that all experiences can be “reduced” to language, or even expressed linguistically.
This is obviously correct, and a very important clarification. (And Peter seems to situate his own visual and collaborative-artistic work in that space beyond what can be “captured” or “expressed” in language).
But under the clarification lies the original proposition. Where do you stand on it? And what are the implications of that stance for the work you want to do as a historian? For the work that history can do?
I think in important ways, this has been our (silent) subject this term.
More work to be done.
Thank you for a very engaging semester.
Here is to defend reenactment as a position rather than a practice. Roth’s book does much to entertain reenactment as something requiring careful definition; bringing-out from a confusing background of related disciplines, ranging from museum curation to cinematic style and acting methodology. These are three categories that the reenactors she interviews by turns reject, considering themselves instead as conduits for information about the past, spontaneously converted into ‘lived experience’. As such there are varied, though equally lukewarm, reactions to Roth’s suggestion that reenactment shares anything with the disciplines mentioned above. I wonder how much the tone of this ‘DIY’ textbook echoes the voices emergent from this subculture, populated by members fiercely proud of its amateurism. One man in its pages can depict an astonishing nine human emotions, dutifully picked apart by Roth, who does her best to entertain that sadness always entails a certain scrunching-up of the eyes, etc. This is what reenactment the practice looks like. I think it’s best we briefly remove the term from the possession of that man, fascinating though he is, and think about it more as a state that can be instigated by a variety of practices, rather than a trait defining one.
I’d like to challenge the idea that reenactment is worth considering as a quirky subsection of modern museums, and consider its immersive properties in another light.
To march ruthlessly over dedicated reenactors everywhere, I can’t help but feel studying ‘reenactment’ as a confined cultural phenomenon leaves little for the ambitious historian to consider. Rather, as a position, or an intention that can be present in many forms, be it the religious, political or dramatic events where reenactment of whatever kind can be said to be taking place, the term poses a more interesting quarry. If we were to instead look at reenactment as a fixed criteria, demanding public attendance, arrangement in partnership with some local or national historical association, a certain provenance of instruments used – as Roth does – then we end up having to entertain a practice that does not consider reenactment as a problem to be worked out, but rather a tangible endpoint to be achieved. Notably, some reenactors Roth interviews, when asked about how they go about reenacting, answer as if she’s concerned with historical veracity rather than genuine immersion. This seems to be an original sin of what I’ll start to call practical reenactment: a permanent sense that the former is all that can achieve the latter. The result, reading Roth’s book and recalling South Park’s ‘1864’ episode, is volunteers repeating historical facts in historical costume, sometimes, if you’re lucky, in historical accents. But in the special space cordoned-off by these three things, a genuine sense of history reanimated seldom arrives.
Yet it forms the large majority of what practical reenactment is. I should add here that my aim here isn’t to suggest that this kind of reenacting isn’t intellectual enough for ‘us’. Incidentally, my main problem with the reenactment Roth describes is that it’s so possessed with critics jumping down its throat on ethics and veracity that it ends up like a ghost train, where every surprise is cushioned for liability on both those counts, when it could be Hannibal Lecter. Basically, I don’t feel Roth does reenactment justice by considering it as a vocation, with fixed parameters and methods, rather than a unique experience that can come into play in a variety of ways, though mostly away from the amateuristic world we imagine when we say ‘historical reenactors’.
Third and final reference to Steve McQueen: I’ll refer you above to my post on his feeling like actors on 12 Years a Slave were ‘dancing with ghosts’. The cast and crew travelled to Louisiana and played slavery, in the short, intense and largely choreographed scenes permitted by filming; in that sense, pretty much the opposite of the full-time, improvisational reenactors interviewed by Roth. The film’s ‘choreography’ was not aiming to recreate past events exactly, blow-by-blow, as that is of course unknowable. What is replicable, however, is the weather, the landscape, the clothes and the cadences of past actors. What comes with that is their politics, their way of life. All in confinement, without audiences to ask questions. The Big Houses on river bends still exist down-south, sitting as prominently as before, making possible the experience of sitting across from it transported to another time, another role. Frantic explanation, constantly removing audiences from such immersion, is where reenactors fail to reenact.
The above is not to bastardise reenactment as a vocation, but to call for care in how we handle the highly dismissable encounters offered by Roth when thinking about reenactment as an idea. Nor is it to suggest film, or the great Steve McQueen himself, are only capable of instigating reenactment as something felt. No-one involved in an exercise touching on this need be a professional, either. I suppose my suggestion in how we handle ‘reenactment’ would be to give the formal imaginings of our heads proper credence in what is an imaginative exercise. As schmaltzy and mystical as this sounds, the hokeyness on display in Roth’s book gives good reason to discount historical veracity, even our ethical instincts, from a process that demands total immersion from its participants.
In the end, reenactment demands a sensitivity to acting, despite the shrugging-off it receives from Roth’s subjects. There are many methods, of course, but most converge on the same idea that to act is to receive contrived information as fact, and to proceed through a script in this state of reaction, as we do in life. In costume, in location, in character, there is much potential to rhyme with the past, but this is a spell broken when a reenactor’s only conscious consideration is to display it.
There are several different directions that a discussion of this idea of reanimation and re-enactment could go in. And I realized after reading the books assigned these terms seem more ambiguous than ever. Particularly given some of the thoughts from “The Act of Killing” undoubtedly circulating.
There are several types of incisions we can make into the conversation on re-enactment from Thompson’s book alone. We could discuss the curious status of ownership and historical authenticity (which she forefronts in her discussion) that touch on questions of collaboration and the mediation and modulation of historical interpretation. We find this in ruminations on the Fars and in McCalm and Pickering’s collected volume of reenactments as “the creation of contestations of public history” and forms of “democratic history” and “performative anti-history.”
But the question I had on my mind throughout these readings was what is this doing to history?
There were curious details I kept coming back to within Thompson’s book. There is the fact that these 20th century war reenactments had no primary fidelity to particular spatial terrains, Vietnam War reenactments and WWII reenactments could be conducted in regions and conditions vastly different from where it was actually fought. There is the prefacing of visual authenticity where the photograph as the arbiter and ultimate source of authenticity, as well as the curious use of the term “impressions.” (I’m also quite fond of account of the soldier who photographed and reproduced himself in a historically realistic fashion only to find that same photo he took of himself being passed off as historically authentic at a flea market.) There is the fact that the “event’s open-ended structure allows for a kind of reenactment of reenaction” where people die, live again, and then die once more ad nauseam until some sort of pause has been collaboratively established.
When all of these cohered for me at the end of the book, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that these reenactments become excisions of time where, removed from other contexts of the war, these battle reenactments become free-floating constructs that can double themselves endlessly. To put it in another way (although I still debate about framing it in such a way) these circumscriptions and elisions of history formed puzzling reproducible snapshots.
Yet I hesitate with framing it in this way because it seems a slippery slope to fall down (and I’m also slightly resistant to any path of thought that could end with Beaudrillard’s simulations). I’m just not sure we can ignore this curious collapse of history into a particular field of aesthetics and representations, although I don’t quite know what to do with it.
Ankersmit suggests that aesthetic and sensory experiences allow historians to directly access the past (at least when compared to our dry and distant encounters with academic texts). I want to argue that these experiences only seem to be immediate: sensory experiences, like texts, are only meaningful within a historical context. I will use sound and painting to help make my case.
A few years ago, certain noises—the ubiquitous vibrating smartphone or the distinctive ding accompanying a new email—had little significance. Context, however, has transformed these sounds into almost universally recognized codes. So, we might ask, can sensory experience be removed from its context and profitably examined? Likewise, is it advisable for the historian to reconstruct the real sounds of the past (as attempted by Thompson’s war reenactors)? Putting aside the question of whether or not this is feasible, if someone did somehow reconstitute a sonic past, wouldn’t we still hear this past with present-day ears? In the same way that the hum of a vibrating smart phone would mean little to Abraham Lincoln, the soundscape of the Civil War loses much of its meaning for the uninitiated twenty-first-century ear. Isolating sonic vibrations from both the other senses and a social matrix misses this point and suggests that sound signifies in non-arbitrary ways.
We can also see this point if we think about another medium — painting. My encounter with the art of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, for example, differs dramatically from the experience of the artist’s initial audience. Once unpalatably abstract, Whistler’s paintings now seem positively restrained. John Ruskin, the most important art critic of his age, famously accused the artist of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” On the level of the intellect, I can understand why Ruskin was aggrieved, but I can never experience Whistler’s paintings as a shock: They can never seem stunningly abstract to me when I can see a Rothko hanging in an adjacent gallery. It is only through Ruskin’s words and the words of others, that I can begin to give meaning to Whistler’s paintings and the world that they occupied.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (c. 1875)
Mark Rothko’s No. 8 (1964)
All spatial and temporal demarcations have momentarily been lifted; it is as if the temporal trajectory between past and present, instead of separating the two, has become the locus of their encounter. Historical experience pulls the faces of the past and present together in a short but ecstatic kiss. Historical experience is, in this way, a “surface” phenomenon: it takes place on the surface or interface where the historian and the past meet each other. (121)
In reading Ankersmit this week, I was struck by the author’s notion of the sublime historical experience as a phenomenon which escapes textural description. Ankersmit states that this sublime experience is a kind of deep immersion in an object, surface, subject, or specific environment; to truly understand the past, we (and most importantly historians) must seek a deep, corporeal, instinctual connection to history’s traces and remnants.
As an example of the communicative and visceral potential hidden within an otherwise static or inert object, Ankersmit moves to the realm of architectural design, where he speaks of the so-called “musical” power of the baroque style. Here, he quotes Spengler:
In the facades of palaces and churches straight lines of a still sensory palpability gradually become more and more unreal. The clear determinations of the Florentine-Roman arrangement of columns and stories are now replaced by the “infinitesimal” elements of swinging and flowing structures, of volutes and cartouches. The construction disappears in the fullness of the decoration––of the “functional,” in the mathematical sense of the word; columns and pilasters, placed together in groups or in bundles, travel without a resting point, in front of the beholder’s eye, over the facade’s surface, now moving toward and then away from each other; the surfaces of walls, ceilings, and stories dissolve in a flood of stucco and ornament, disappear and fall apart in a colorful explosion of light. This light, however, playing over the world of the ripe Baroque––from Bernini around 1650 to the Rococo of Dresden, Vienna, and Paris––has become a purely music element. The Zwinger of Dresden is a Symphony. Together with mathematics, eighteenth-century architecture developed into a world of forms of an essentially musical character. (310)
The perception of and immersion within this overwhelming musicality, in Ankersmit’s view, holds the key to an experience of form and surface outside of strictly rational perception. To interpret the figuratively symphonic character of a historical artifact, through the mediating membrane of surface, is to engage with historical evidence in a Dionesian sense, to lose oneself within the intangible qualities of an otherwise inert record or artifact.
Ankersmit’s description of architectural euphony brought to mind one of the most powerful engagements I’ve had with the built environment, particularly in relation to the historical sublime. In 2010, on a class study-abroad excursion to Beijing, I had the opportunity to visit the Beijing National Stadium, a structure completed shortly in advance of the 2008 Olympic games. On television, the structure appeared as a gleaming, newly-minted icon; every television camera captured the stadium overflowing with visitors from around the world, with each square inch of occupiable surface crowded with tourists, athletes, and other paraphernalia.
Upon entering the olympic site in 2010, however, this atmosphere of exuberance had changed completely. Gone were the crowds of olympians and spectators; the entire structure, and its surrounding pedestrian square, was completely deserted. The Birds Nest itself seemed to have aged beyond repair in only two years––the once-gleaming steel facade was now blackened and corroded by Beijing’s notoriously polluted air. But beyond these physical traces of decay and desertion, the overwhelming effect was one of indescribable sadness: this monstrous complex, designed for a specific instance and moment in time, had completely ceased to be of use after the Olympic games, and was now a kind of impossible monument, a surreal relic awaiting its eventual demise.
Surprisingly, the incredible emptiness and decay of the Olympic complex only heightened my visceral connection to the architectural environment. The surface condition of the National Stadium, combined with the knowledge of the complex’s past use and atmosphere, merged together to produce a deeply moving, arguably sublime experience of an otherwise empty, compromised artifact. In moving around the Olympic site for over an hour, it was impossible to suppress the emotional resonances created by this abject state of abandonment. The spectacular construction, momentary euphoria, and slow decline of the site and its visitors were all encapsulated within the vast emptiness now shrouding the structure. In this instant, I began to lose myself in the architectural object––I momentarily engaged with this environment on a deeply personal level, allowing the symphonic overlapping of space, time, history, event, and surface to overwhelm my senses and my thoughts.
It is difficult now to think of the stadium without thinking of this powerful experience. I can only imagine this engagement is what Ankersmit speaks of when he writes that “historians should learn to trust their most private and most intimate feelings on those rare occasions when what Huizinga called ‘the grace of historical experience’ is given to them. They should realize that the best, the most sophisticated, and the most finely tuned instrument that they have at their disposal for understanding the past is themselves and their own experience” (67). The immense power of my experience in the stadium was far beyond what any text, drawing, or image could convey––the environment, in that moment, relayed a story far more affecting and personal than I could have otherwise imagined.
“Don’t great thoughts become clear through great experiences? Don’t we moderns say: Here are the circumstances that finally made me understand such and such a saying in Pascal or Montaigne? Aren’t the great texts great precisely because of their capacity to interact with the events and experiences that shed light on them and which they guide?” —Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings
A classical problem in intellectual history is the difficulty of accounting for changes over time in the views of a thinker or intellectual milieu. It almost never happens that a new truth emerges in a Eureka! moment and this truth is accepted in a straightforward, purely rational way. New truths gain traction and are adopted through persuasion, which is a necessary experience supplementary to any self-evident truth-content. To return to Sedgwick: “knowledge does rather than simply is.” Grappling with this problem, I wanted to dive into Ankersmit’s notion of “intellectual experience,” which is rooted in his thesis that “our minds can function as a receptacle of experience no less than our eyes, ears, or fingers” (7). Beyond the so-called history of the senses, Ankersmit implores us to see intellectual activity as itself sensual, erasing the assumed distinction therein between thought and sensation. Critiquing both the reductionist tendencies of the mind sciences and philosophical preoccupation with “real” objects of experience in the world, Ankersmit proposes that the objects in the “third world”—including ideas and sublimes—”are no less potential objects of (intellectual) experience than the objects of sensory experience constituting the daily reality we find around ourselves” (7). Many philosophers consider intellectual history inherently reductive because it merely “explains away” thoughts by reference to context and biography: Of course so and so believes in timeless universals—she’s German! Of course he’s a misanthrope, he had a terrible childhood! Ankersmit opens a route for taking intellectual experience seriously in a way that avoids such reductiveness by encouraging us to return to the moment of thinking itself.
I now dare to bring into our seminar another source from my own work that first led me to recognize the centrality of historical experience to philosophical reflection. At several points in a captivating 1964 interview, the German political theorist Hannah Arendt is asked to explain the emergence of her political consciousness from her previously purely philosophical inclinations. She answers that though anyone who read the newspapers in one sense “knew” of the Nazi threat by 1933, and even many years before that, it required a certain experience for this knowledge to “sink in”—following Sedgwick, I would insist here, for knowledge to start its“doing,” which in this case is politics. Arendt is asked (starting at 8:41, question at 10:52), “Is there a definite event in your memory that dates your turn to political events?” She responds that this turning point was the burning of the Reichstag on February 27, 1933: “What began then was monstrous. But it has since been overshadowed by later events. It was an immediate shock for me. From that moment on I felt [gefühlt] responsible. I was no longer of the opinion one can be a bystander.” Here we are brought with Arendt to a lieu de mémoire (site of memory, a phrase of the French historian Pierre Nora adopted by both Ricoeur and Ankersmit). Ankersmit thus writes that the shift away from language toward experience described in his book “probably reflects a more general shift in our contemporary culture; one could describe it as a moving away from comprehensive systems of meaning to meaning as bound to specific situations and events” (1). Numerous thinkers have thus posited “after Auschwitz” (a place, after all) as a point of historical rupture after which it became incontestable that human life must be organized otherwise. Images saturate one’s mind in both these cases: the magnificent Reichstag in flames, the almost unimaginable topography of extermination.
Arendt looks up and meditates on the question for some long seconds, pursuing the memory of that past intellectual experience. Her conclusion echoes Ankersmit’s claim that “How we feel about the past is no less important than what we know about it” (10). It was not a new set of facts but a shocking intellectual experience (not a trauma, for Arendt is clear to emphasize her political agency) that led Arendt to feel responsible. What stimulated Arendt’s long career of probing analysis into the mechanisms of totalitarianism was not a fact but a feeling.
Later in the interview, Arendt is asked about her relationship to the German language after over two decades of writing primarily in English. Going beyond her writing practices, she says (39:27–42:05) that the decisive moment when her relationship to the German language changed was the day she heard about Auschwitz:
“1933 was not the decisive year. At least not for me. The decisive day was when we heard about Auschwitz. In 1943. At first we didn’t believe it. My husband and I said the Nazis were capable of anything. We didn’t believe it because militarily it was unnecessary… My husband said, don’t be gullible, don’t believe all you hear. But six months later we did believe it. We had the proof. That was the real shock. Before that, we said, well, one has enemies. That is natural. Why shouldn’t people have enemies? But this was different. It was as if an abyss had opened. We had the idea that amends could be made for everything else. Amends can be made for almost anything at some point in politics. But not for this. This ought never to have happened. I don’t just mean the number of victims. I mean what happened to the corpses. I need not go into detail. That should never have happened. Something happened to which we can never reconcile ourselves.”
We might describe Arendt’s recollections here as an Ankersmittian “sublime experience of rupture” (13). Arendt’s passion and intensity in this interview seem to me inseparable from the truth-content of her claims. The point would not thenceforth be to analyze her remarks as “rhetoric,” but to insist, with Ankersmit, on the centrality of these feelings and personal investments to Arendt’s intellectual experience and even philosophical truth. In this case with Arendt, the interview form brings these commitments out in a way that is much more difficult to see in texts. Indeed, Ankersmit insists on “the incompatibility of language and experience,” for,
“No compromise is possible between language and experience, and the triumphs of one are inevitably the defeats of the other. They are truly each other’s mortal enemies. Where you have language, experience is not, and vice versa. We have language in order not to have experience and to avoid the fears and terrors that are typically provoked by experience; language is the shield protecting us against the terrors of a direct contact with the world as conveyed by experience.” (11)
The art and other media such as opera Ankersmit pursues in his tome are surely more profound vehicles for sublime historical experience than text because they press further against our dependence on language; the interview, on the other hand, ultimately remains comfortably within it. The challenge I would pose for “we historians” is how to recover from texts (presumably much of our source material) this sublime often much more palpable in other media. The point would not be to synthesize it in an assimilating intellectual grasp, but to encounter sublime alterity in the past: “The experience of the past is not the experience of where it smugly fits a particular historian’s own memories, expectations, and practical certainties but precisely where it defies all our intuitions about what the world is like. Only here may we encounter the past itself in its uncompromising and radical strangeness, that is, in its “sublimity”… (68).
This recognition of alterity is all the more important, I would suggest, at moments like those in Arendt’s recollections, when “the collective past may…require us to repudiate part of the past; that is, to dissociate part of our historical past from our collective self and from our collective historical identity” (317–18). Hence we must also remain wary of our hunger for sublime historical experience: “We may overeat of the past, and this may cause a kind of intellectual indigestion…” (340).
The act of self-induced memory recollection, our exercise from week 10, seems in every way opposed to Frank Ankersmit’s “sublime historical experience.” The latter is spontaneous and not pursued. In willing back our memories, we do not dissolve the subject and object in experience, as Ankersmit would have it. Instead, we seem to objectify our subjecthood and examine it from afar. But, in both situations we face the same challenge, which ironically, for Ankersmit, is not the problem but the answer: the dissolution of subject and object.
Ankersmit’s discussion of rococo ornamentation seems a good metaphor for the difficulty of generating good historical writing from sublime historical experience. Historicizing requires the reification of the boundary between of subject and object: we can only hope to determine what an object represented then in suspending what it represents to us now. But, just as the trompe l’oeil frame in Meissonier’s engraving “becomes part of both the line demarcating the plane of the engraving itself and of the architecture depicted in the engraving,” according to Ankersmit, “[t]he levels of the represented and of its representation are deliberately confused here” (Ankersmit 298-299). Such is the case in sublime historical experience. But the goal of history is ultimately to dissociate the representation and the represented, in texts, images, and even in sublime historical experiences. But, in a moment of sublime historical experience, or even in the early stages of more conventional research, we have to imagine ourselves as strange baroque viewers who cannot distinguish between the framing within the image and the frames we’ve chosen to hang them in.
The challenges of memory recollection are similar. My memory, from early childhood, came to me in an already dissociated form; a narrative paired with an still image of a three-year-old child in a striped shirt (was he really wearing this shirt or was it imported from the many Hanna Andersson catalogs I looked at in this phase? I don’t know). According to the narrative, this strange boy poked me, and it did not square with my preschool conception of what constituted good behavior. I sought his mother to seek his proper punishment, and she totally dismissed me. I was shocked. I initially interpreted this memory as representing the moment in which I realized justice was only an ideal.
Except, this interpretation does not square with my other relatively few memories of this period, all of which involve me orchestrating (relatively innocuous) sabotage of my preschool and classmates. Assuring my classmates that they would not get in trouble, I used them as pawns in my plans. Sinks were clogged with paper towels and soap, nails were colored on with green marker, etc. But I have no memory of ever being punished. Why was I exempt from justice?
My other memories (the context, if you will) seem to make impossible my initial interpretation. Clearly, I transcended my own framework of justice. And this memory is so far gone, that by now the my framing of the memory has been fused to it, and, as Montaigne says of transcendent friendship “effaced the seams that bind it.”
Dissolution is the challenge, not the answer. That is why presumably why Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps, did not end with his observation of synchronized clocks in a train station, which he instead followed with robust archival research to confirm, and perhaps complicate, his instinct.
We face the dissolution of represented and (our) representation in much more mundane capacities. If we imagine our secondary, fused frame as comprising our unconscious assumptions about what is and what was, then the sublime is inevitable, every time we look at a historic document. The impenetrability of the past (which Ankersmit rails against using some very bad analogies from physics) results from this very dissolution, and therefore seems to make inevitable the sublime. So, Frank Ankersmit, have you merely re-presented to us our most fundamental and mundane challenges, and dressed them up in a new frame?
– Readings for Weeks Eleven and Twelve –
Thompson, War Games: Inside the World of 20th-Century War Reenactors
McCalman and Pickering, eds., Historical Reenactment
Anderson, Time Machines: The World of Living History
Roth, Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation
Shukla, Costume: Performing Identities through Dress
Horowitz, Confederates in the Attic
Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave (we will watch the Mike Figgis documentary)
Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience