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:
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 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)