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