Week 9: The Feeling of the Past



We opened seminar today with a little housekeeping. Our working plan for the penultimate week of the semester will be a double session on Wednesday, December 7 — and I think the second half of that double session will be in the early evening, and will include our attending together the screening of Peter Galison’s film, Containment. I’ll firm that up in the next week. (Another possibility would be do try to do a NYC final session, so we could take in this together in the evening – right up our alley, and I am friendly with the person from Triple Canopy who is chairing the event, who invited us to meet up in advance of the gathering to talk about artistic research). Please remember that we do not have class next week (Thanksgiving vacation starts on Tuesday).

We also put some time in talking about final projects. As I said, we have a (wonderful, anonymous) “curator” lined up who has prepared for us a discrete collation of sources — a small body of materials suitable for the labor of a thoughtful historian. As we discussed back in week five, these sources are now officially available to any of us who want to take up the challenge/opportunity of thinking/writing some form of historical “exercise” from this adventitious archive. As I explained, the deal is this: our curator-archivist wishes in this case to remain anonymous until such time as we have completed our work. I think at that point there will be an occasion for a meeting of the minds on the project in some format. The catch on this is that you have to choose to do it sight-unseen — which is to say, if you want to do this exercise, let me know and I’ll send you the stuff; but receiving the stuff means you’re going to do a final project with this material. For the record, I am committed to doing one of these myself.

This is probably obvious, but the deadline for all of the final projects/papers is dean’s date.


We spent most of the first half of the seminar discussing The Affect Reader. This was a little challenging because (thank you for your honesty) relatively few of you had actually spent much time with the text. (I know it’s late in the term here, team, and everyone is a bit winded, but let’s work to stay on pace across the finish line together.)

Sympathetically speaking, I think we all sensed a kinship between the problem space of the theorists of the affective turn and the mood/tenor of our own inquiry in this class. What is, perhaps, most appealing about the scholarly labors of those who identify with affect research is the pervasive sense projected in their writings that “we” are (mostly) missing something when we do our scholarly work on humans and human situations. Our attention to language, our attention to power, our attention to structures, our attention to ideas and institutions — all of this is well and good. But are we not failing in all of this to place our hands under and around something absolutely central to lived human reality?

Call it what you will. Call it “emotion” (for sometimes the affect theorists admit of this terminology). Call it “affect” (this seems to have become the rallying terminology). Phillip Fisher called it “the passions” in this beautiful 2001 study, The Vehement Passions. One can parse analytic distinctions between these terms (and we did some of this in class), but the basic matter seems to be this: we historians and practitioners of the related humanistic and cultural studies pursuits would seem to have dealt inadequately, as a rule, with “feelings.” With the way things feel. With the way things felt in the past. With the patterns, contours, and social circumstances of feeling — all that stuff that Raymond Williams characterized back in 1954 as the “structures of feeling.”

That’s a pretty basic way of putting it, but sometimes it is a good idea to be plainspoken about matters.

I’m not sure that the same can be said for the authors of the text presented in The Affect Reader. Erp. Such a clotted volume, in my view.

I strained uncomfortably between my very deep interest in the ostensible subject of the book and my equally deep disinterest in its treatment in the book (by and large). I am prepared to believe that the failing is mine. But I was pained to the point of despondency by what felt to me like a pervasive inert-ification of the most immediate, vital, and inward of subjects, an inert-ification achieved by the book quite against its own will, I have no doubt.

Indeed, it was that earnest sense of commitment and aspiration (toward a more intimate attunement to the affective landscape) coupled with a tragically stultifying “Socratism” that gave the book, for me, an unbearable avert-your-eyes-you-don’t-want-to-see-this-happen quality. This was a tender and strongly felt reaction. Less cognitive than, if you like, “affective.” And I offer here less in the spirit of criticism than in a spirit of pity, care, and sorrow. That these authors care deeply about affect is beyond question. That they are on the side of the angels seems to me very likely. That they are not strangers to the landscapes of feeling, embodiment, and intersubjective sensibility seems to me certain. How then, can the result of so much commitment, intelligence, and diligence — so much care, and concern and study — be… this?

Ugh. I hate to be so grumpy. But this book really made me feel kind of hopeless. I’d be delighted if any of you can freshen my weary sensibility here. Postings welcome.


Speaking of postings, we were graced this week by several extremely thoughtful and inspiring pre-class posts, and we moved through them into Svetlana Boym’s striking book, The Future of Nostalgia. As the photograph of the blackboard above will document, we spent a lot of time rehearsing the argumentative armature of the book as a whole, via an analysis of the typological distinction Boym draws between “restorative” and “reflective” nostalgia. There is quite a bit of nuance to this, and we elaborated that nuance at some length. Even so, the basic antinomy remains robust, and affords, I think, quite a lot of traction for careful discernment within the general miasma of diverse nostalgia situations. I delivered myself of a very broad and somewhat reductive reading of the book as, in essence, an effort to “rehabilitate” (some form of) nostalgia — to define and defend a form of nostalgia that can resist assimilation to the truculent, atavistic nostalgias of virulent nationalism and the various associated reactionary tendencies. Boym’s reflective nostalgia, by these lights, represents her “good” nostalgia, the nostalgia of ironists, progressives, radicals, soulful visionaries, and tragic exiles. The nostalgia of the dreamers we like — not that of the dreamers we don’t.

This is too simplistic by half. By three-quarters. But it is not wholly wrong, either.

What were the best moments in the discussion? I liked the work we did on the skew concept of the “off-modern.” And I will not soon forget the idea of a historico-affective terrain defined by the triangle connecting Baudelaire’s “love at last sight,” Benjamin’s “angel of history,” and Nietzsche’s alpine forgetter (confronting the infinite return?). I knew Svetlana a bit before she died, and I could not help, in reading the closing sections of the book, feel the whole project resolving (in a pleasing and poignant way) into an acutely personal investigation. Reflective nostalgia becomes the equivalent of reading the morning paper in the imagined community of the exilic and rearward-regarding haplo-nationalists Boym gathers in the tender embrace of “diasporic intimacy.” This was, in effect, her family, in the end. (And that end came too soon).

[Re: how “acutely personal” this book feels (i.e. Boym’s conclusion: “‘I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,’” claimed Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy. I have tried to do the same with nostalgia.” (355)). After reading Boym’s chapter on Nabokov and nostalgia, I picked up “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” to discover that Nabokov’s little masterpiece shares that same wistfully distorted, personal quality. Sebastian Knight, Nabokov’s alter-ego, is a Russian émigré, Cambridge-trained novelist who has died of a heart attack at the age of 37. In the wake of his early death, his half brother (a “bogus relative,” unnamed in the text) embarks to write Knight’s biography, weaving together his own breathless impressions of their childhood spent in Russia with labyrinthine passages from Sebastian’s books and the recollections of a Swiss governess, a femme-fatale in Paris, and an English literary rival. The image of Sebastian Knight constantly shape shifts: one moment, he is an aloof literary snob, the next, sparking genius, then pathetic hack pretender, prey to fantasy and distraction. And by the end of the book, the reader is no longer even certain if Sebastian himself was ever real. Is Sebastian the figment of his half brother’s stray imagination, our narrator some mildly depraved demiurge? Or is the half brother actually Sebastian — Knight’s last book was to be a “fictious biography” (40)? Either way, the two half brothers seem to merge, constituting a new kind of whole — see this passage below, where the souls of the narrator and his subject mingle. It might begin to suggest the pleasure and salutary absurdity of scholarship like Boym’s “acutely personal” work. -NB]   



[I have to say that I loved this post, which is right on point for some of what I care about most in this class as a whole (something like a “metempsychotic” or “convergent-immersive” historical method).  And looking back from late in week 10, with Klein’s “docu-fables” in mind, Nabokov’s move here feels the more relevant, historiographically speaking.  The only moment in the post that I couldn’t quite parse was “salutary absurdity.”  NB, is that exactly what you mean?  Is it absurd, what Boym tried to do?  If so, in what way?  Help me! – DGB]

[Oh, I think my tone just wasn’t totally clear. ‘Absurdity’ is a word I wield with merriment, even joyous abandon — I’m hardly critical! (“Aplomb in the midst of irrational things” = my Whitmanian motto.) Adding ‘salutary’ to describe this kind of ‘irrationality’ is just a regrettable, ostentatious rhetorical flourish on my part! But let me see if I can work out the question: Is a refracted, personal writing of the past at all… mad? In other words, should self-investigation via history be treated with suspicion? Indeed, another Nabokov novel condemned this kind of subject-object convergence as monstrously horrific. I’m speaking of the cruel aestheticism — the “fancy prose” — of Humbert-Humbert, sensitive to everything that affects his obsession, but failing to notice the suffering of the other. It’s the ego-driven trait shared by the insufferable subjects of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: speakers who load their love-objects with their hyper self-aware verbosity and vanity. There are of course less condemning examples. Beckett called his book on Proust a “distorted steam-rolled equivalent of some aspect or confusion of aspects of myself… tied somehow on to Proust….” He is like Julian Barnes’s elderly writer in Flaubert’s Parrot, who, in researching Flaubert, ends up writing his own life story, finding “himself in the works of others.” But even when the result is moving, might it still risk reducing history to an effect of the writer’s will, to the finitude of human vanity? Perhaps that is inevitable. Maybe we should just resuscitate this romantic notion and cease banishing the historian-subject in an act of effaced self-loathing… I’m really riffing here, but what if we thought about our historical objects as soapstones we hold in our hands, molded by the grip of our fingers and lines of our palms. Certainly the less interesting thing to do would be to round off the edges into a polished, highly-stylized simulacrum of, say, a Dove soap bar. (That is properly absurd — and is kind of how I think about the project of academic writing. Un-salutary absurdity?) The challenge of this ‘convergent’ historical method perhaps then is finding the right, sensitive gasp over the material — a light-enough hold that does not crack or break the form, or disfigure it into something false and ungainly. – NB]

For me, the most affecting moment in the book was here:

Where, for a second, I sense the possibility of a kind of “affective reading” that might reasonably stand shoulder to shoulder with “close reading” as an essential capacity of the ideal historian. I aspire to a reading of the past through “shudders and gasps.”

(I imagine, for a moment, that reading rooms and archives in the world’s great libraries ultimately have to install small sound-proof cells for the research scholars – so that the fevered groans and sputterings, the mumbling and the sudden ejaculations do not make for a bedlam).


We closed on a lovely thought. Drawing on the Eve Sedgwick chapter posted by Tara, Jon reminded us of a basic fact:



Basic. But I am not sure we keep it before us clearly enough…

* * *



Writing is a corporeal activity. We work ideas through our bodies; we write through our bodies, hoping to get into the bodies of our readers.

-Elspeth Probyn, “Writing Shame,” The Affect Theory Reader, p 76

deploy instead of unveiling

add instead of subtracting

fraternize instead of denouncing

sort out instead of debunking

-Latour (quoted in Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 30)

“Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 2003)

This summer, a friend and I bought half-heated sausage butties at St. Pancras and boarded a train to Derbyshire. We were going to see Kedleston Hall, the country seat of Lord George Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899-1905. The desire for the trip emerged in my final few months in Pakistan and India, where I had seen Curzon’s handiwork. Did you know that Curzon radically changed the visitor’s experience of the Taj Mahal? Before, the Taj would gradually emerge from the trees, grow into its glory; then Curzon had all the trees cut down, rendering the Taj immediately and flatly visible. I haven’t been back to the Taj since I learned this, but I can anticipate already the nostalgia I might have for those trees were I to visit again (this nostalgia, as Boym points out in her elaboration of “restorative nostalgia” can be pernicious and flow into a nationalism that I do not have… I am thinking here of the Modi government’s claim that the Kohinoor diamond ought to be ‘returned’ to India).

Anyways, while in England a few days before brexit, I wanted to see Kedleston. The specificity of this desire is uninteresting, perhaps apart from the sense I had, despite myself, that Lord Curzon’s home held the key, some sort of key, to the imperial past. It was an impossible longing, an idea, as Boym might say, that “seduce[d] rather than convince[d]” (13). The “narrative plot” here rings of “conspiracy theory” (43) — an affective mood that I think in some ways haunts postcolonial studies. While Boym claims conspiracy theory as one of the two plots essential to restorative nostalgia, I’m suggesting here the role of conspiracy in shaping the reflective nostalgia that prompted my visit.

Part of my sense that this trip to Kedleston would be the key unlocking a conspiracy was that Kedleston has an uncanny double in Government House in Calcutta. In India in 1799, Charles Wyatt explicitly modeled Government House on Kedleston, which had been constructed in part by his uncle Samuel Wyatt in the 1750s. Arriving in India a hundred years later, Lord Curzon took great pleasure in this double of his natal place; it was as if it was built in anticipation of his arrival. Here you see the outlines of a nostalgia operating in the British production of imperial space.

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Boym writes that “…nostalgia, as a historical emotion, is a longing for that shrinking ‘space of experience’ that no longer fits the new horizon of expectations” (10). Thinking about the grafting of a Kedleston onto a Calcutta makes Boym’s formulation pulse and buzz. It doesn’t settle entirely into her distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia (41). For spaces of experience were at once an expansion and contraction in projects of empire. Creating a horizon where the sun never set involved projecting an expansion of the (British) ‘space of experience’ even as for colonial officials far from the metropole, it was a shrinking of that space.

I want to turn back from the nostalgia operating in this imperial doubling of Kedleston/Government House to the conspiracy-theory-ridden reflective nostalgia that brought me to Kedleston’s gate. Parallel to this move is a turn from the built environment to what it would mean to take the body as a “space of experience.” Boym writes that “nostalgia depends on materiality of place…” (258), even though, as she mentions in her preface, “nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but is actually a yearning for a different time” (xiv). The materiality of place that Boym focuses on in The Future of Nostalgia is primarily the urban built environment. I want to move to the body and what it does as material. I will make this move by moving inside Curzon’s Kedleston, to the basement where his “India Museum” is housed.

There is not much in the India Museum, though visitors appear to take their time there. For all, nonetheless, the main attraction is the Vicereine Curzon’s Peacock Gown. Lord Curzon’s wife wore this gown to the Delhi Durbar of 1903, that great mela of imperial might.

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The Vicereine’s Dress is a space once-inhabited, a space of experience. What is it to long for a body attached to and moving in a different time? A body that is and could never have been possible (for me), not solely because of time and the size of the Vicereine’s waist, but also because of geopolitics and race? What is it for a contemporary, so-called ‘postcolonial’ body to long for some knowledge of the imperial body’s space of experience even as it repudiates the imperial horizon of expectations?

[The contrast in bodies here is meant to be stark, crudely setting out how desiring bodies is linked to power relations. But I want to consider, also, what it is to be nostalgic for bodies as ‘spaces of experience’ in slightly more benign (or at least, less immediately nefarious) ways. Considering this raises questions about what a body is and does, including the “corporeal activity” (to use Probyn) I am doing now, sitting in Firestone with a shoulder still sore from a meningitis shot, typing into a computer that I know and that in many ways knows me. In this perhaps I differ a bit from Boym when she writes that “computers, even the most sophisticated, are notoriously lacking in affect” (354) or that “I do not know any nostalgia for a home page” (258). What is it to be nostalgic for a body and its life activity, including these exercises of writing and reading that are so often excised from the corporeal?]

…………… This whole staging of an engagement with Boym’s ‘nostalgia’ has been motivated primarily by a normative interest in how affects and ethics ought to come together in the writing and reading body. Oftentimes, affects are mapped out to provide an account of the workings of power (e.g. power relations are constitutive of XYZ affects in a body). This is an important project and I am not denigrating it; I would argue it is needed now more than ever. Nonetheless, in this frame, affects risk being taken as “keys” to a conspiracy. I have attempted to perform that here in interrogating my reflective nostalgia as a desire for “unlocking” and “demystifying” empire. I am arguing, in this convoluted way, that it is an affective effect of power to become so desirous of this very specific mode of critique that turns the world into a puzzle requiring solving, even if with great nuance (revealing!, exposing!, unlocking!, demystifying!, unveiling! etc, etc, etc).

Here is where I think we must turn to the ethics of affects in how a body orients itself to the world and within that, to reading and writing. Boym writes that “the ethical dimension of reflective longing consists in resistance to paranoic projections characteristic of nationalist nostalgia” (337). I think reflective nostalgia has its own forms of paranoic projection that must also be resisted. That is what prompted me to include the Sedgwick essay on paranoid and reparative reading at the beginning, and why it felt so obvious for a moment that Latour’s half-sentence needed to be turned into a poem.




“…les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.” – Marcel Proust, Le Temps Retrouvé

“Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.” – Pablo Neruda, 20 Poemas #20

Svetlana Boym’s definition of nostalgia as the desire to “revisit time like space” (Intro), and particularly of reflective nostalgia as “perpetually deferring homecoming itself” and “temporalizing space” (ch. 5), made me think back to Sebald’s narrator’s spatial-temporal collapse in Rings of Saturn. The reflective nostalgic revels in the feeling of longing itself, in “romance with one’s own fantasy” (Intro), and yet it is the reflective nostalgic who accepts that time is relentlessly linear.


I’m interested in the blurring of lines between longing for place, longing for time past (and/or future), and other kinds of longings – particularly for fictions, their characters, and their authors. Over fall break, I visited the Brontë Parsonage in Yorkshire for Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary. It was my fourth time there, and I, like your average Brontëmaniac, felt an instant recognition with the landscape of the moors the first time I visited and have felt nostalgia for it ever since. I’ve never been a fanatic about Brontë biographical minutia, but I am fascinated by those who are, those who conflate the Brontës, their characters, the moor, the parsonage, the churchyard, Lowood School, Thornfield Hall, Wuthering Heights. (An excellent historiography of Brontë scholarship and devoted fanaticism is Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth (2001).)

I find myself asking: Doesn’t anyone have a favorite sister anymore? I don’t even like Wuthering Heights. It’s Charlotte’s bicentenary, and the extra exhibitions at the Parsonage are indiscriminately about Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Jane Eyre, Branwell Brontë, Mr. Rochester, Constantin Heger (Charlotte’s unrequited love), Heathcliff, and so on. As Svetlana Boym says, reflective nostalgia is interested in detail; specificity, however, seems more dispensable.

For the bicentenary, the Brontë Society published a book of poems called Every Sounding Line, by the Parsonage’s writer-in-residence for the year, Grace McCleen. Passages from the book were scattered around the Parsonage, seeming at once melodramatic, even twee, and trenchant. McCleen relishes Brontëana and listens for echoes across the moors and across time, but ultimately she laments the ultimate impossibility of bridging the temporal gap (which she expects to do by losing herself in the moor). This message seems bleak, like defeat, but it doesn’t read that way. It reads like triumphant bleakness, a vindication. Boym’s book clarifies why that’s the case: if the nostalgic search had an end or a resolution, then the pure unrequited love of the nostalgic pursuit would die. Instead, it is crystallized and preserved in the textual account of pilgrimage and longing. McCleen can return to the Brontës’ landscape as many times as she wants; the whiff of temporal collapse will still be there, as will the sweetness of its loss.

Here are some excerpts from the first section of McCleen’s book, “The Way to the Ruin,” on the popular trek from the parsonage to Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse said to have inspired Wuthering Heights. Ultimately, the landscape stands in for all of the associations with the Brontës’ books, their biographies, and their characters.

1. “What I see now and not only when I think of them/ but in states of vacancy, in drifting awareness, / behind other things and beneath them also; / especially before sleep, is the day that I walked to the ruin. / Or – not the day, exactly – but the land as it looked, looking back / from the ruin. As if I was the land, or it was me.”

2. “I stopped by the wall and put my cheek to it and thought / how Emily might have leaned here and touched this stone, / which had and would outlive us both. / Then I thought how unreal it was that I had now walked / where they had walked; seen their combs, their samplers, their / shoes, their home. And then how much realer it should have felt. / And of my inability to make it so.”

3. “If their spirit lived anywhere it must be here, though. / If their genii could be persuaded / to afford the mendicant a breath or a glimpse / or an echo – even if only refracted, only by remiss – / if any thing / could be summoned / or persuaded by promises, anguish or oaths / to grant a wish / it would be here; / not in the village; / not in the church – rebuilt after they were dead; / not in the house now a museum; / here, in the land.”

4. “Instead of a haunting / I was forced to admit / I was extraordinarily / alone.”

And from the second part of the book, “Discoveries,” on the nostalgia for and remembrance of things not even known to oneself:

5. “I knew them so well/ they came to seem a part of myself. / They found their way inside / me to such an extent / that even the parsonage / did not seem new, / though I had not even heard it described / or seen pictures of it before. / And to visit for the first time, / one sun-filled day in late September, / rather than an introduction, / was like finally coming home.”


[Longing for fictions. Yes. I’m wondering how longing for fictions also extends Boym’s “materiality of place.”  I think to the first time I read “But what am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland?” in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Reading the phrase quoted in Boym made me realize that the words “stereoscopic dreamland” for me are at once a time and place I am nostalgic for but are also immediately present in the words. I am nostalgic for the words that I have before me.  The space of experience and the horizon of expectations map onto each other, but they also, somehow, don’t. TS]



What is the right color for an un-called-for pre-class post?

  1. Maybe “Nostalgia” can be a more interesting concept, certainly more interesting than “Fascism”, for thinking about the recent political upheavals?
  2. As someone who suffers from nostalgia to the USSR by proxy, I would like to recommend everybody to read this book . Espeically for those of us who had to leave their countries in order to come here. My friend gave it to me as a farewell gift, and asked me to read it on the flight from Israel to America. I could not think of a better gift.





“In other words, what concerns me is not solely the inner space of an individual psyche but the interrelationship between individual and collective remembrance. A psychiatrist won’t quite know what to do with nostalgia; an experimental art therapist might be of more help.” (41)

A couple of years ago I had my first foray into Eastern Europe by way of a brief and tidy solo trip to Kiev researching private art collections.

It was a singularly disorienting voyage into questionable depths.

I, unfortunately, had no idea what I was doing. I had never interviewed anyone before and I had never encountered the multitudinous levels of beaurocratic red tape required for any form of access, past or present. Emails, letters, phone calls, mixed translations and broken English. While still trying to make sense of what the contours of contemporary research would look like (or for that matter research in general). I was also painfully, acutely, aware of the panic and horror on my professor’s face when I suggested the Ukraine as my desired place of travel. Why not Western Europe? Greece (the origin of the generous funding structure of the seminar)? Or even perhaps Korea? Japan?

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to explore other critical and important global economies, he was just personally worried about sending a young female student off foraging for material in territories with a questionably stable government.

It was understandable. I wasn’t so sure of it myself.

And a year or two later the 2014 protests ousted Viktor Yanukovych.

Precarious and suspect governance aside, the weather was also abysmal. Grey and drab, with schizophrenic precipitation. I was the only one who had to pack away a down coat during spring break. I also didn’t have enough research money left over for proper meals. Instead I subsisted on a steady diet of pre-prepared meals that I would select by the timeless and very un-complex system of pointing and nodding towards the delicacy of choice under the sneeze glass of the deli in the underground grocery story near my hotel. I was limited to what was available at the end of the day, and it was… not pretty.

I had also diligently promised my professor. Given my own unease, poor public lighting and the peculiar niche of urban wilderness my hotel was situated, this meant that when the sun set (5pm or 6pm) I was off to my tiny 12’ x 12’ hotel room. (It didn’t occur to me, with my meager means, to travel by taxi or car.)

And yet I’m nostalgic for it. Why?

Because in the eerie claustrophobic lighting of my less than stellar room, I remember reading Security Territories and Population for the first time. I remember moving through these unrelentingly foreign spaces and minds by day, where topographies of governance and foreign collective memory pressed at me constantly, and retreating back to my small insular space at night. And in this constant expansion and compression I could find my own “mechanisms of consciousness.” (351)





[I’ve been thinking a lot about the proposition I made (which some rejected) that reflective nostalgics by Boym’s definition accept the fundamental linearity of time, even if they are interested in an emotional experience of it that feels folded (or circular or some other shape). I came across this article by architect Juhani Pallasmaa, The Space of Time – Mental Time in Architecture, which I think is a very honest assessment of architecture’s relationship to time. He recognizes that architecture is fundamentally to do with the past and the present (or, more reasonably, the very recent past), whereas architects in modernist mode want architecture to face forward and be built for the future. Perhaps most notably for this class (and most damning of modernism, which Boym also critiques), he points out that “we have even changed our bodily position in relation to the flow of time. The Greeks understood that the future came from behind their backs and the past receded away in front of their eyes. We have turned our faces towards the future and past is disappearing behind our backs.”

Generally, the article makes a strong argument for the fundamental relationship of architecture to the questions about time we’ve been dealing with in this class. For instance: “Architecture, also, creates its own altered reality, in which perceptions and experiences of space, duration and gravity are transformed. Architecture projects specific horizons of perception and understanding. Buildings also condition our reading of time; like the cinematic or literary arts, they can speed up, slow down, halt and reverse time. Great buildings are not mere temporal symbols or metaphors, they are museums and stores of time. As we enter a great building, its particular silence and mode of time guide our experiences and emotions. In fact, the depth of cultural time is measured and expressed primarily by architectural constructions. Just imagine how shallow and scaleless our sense of history would be without the image of the Egyptian pyramids in our minds.”


* * *

Readings for the Ninth Week:

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia


Gregg and Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader


Week 10: Trauma and Oblivion


Many threads today. Many strands. And while I cannot say that I left class with a sense of our having twisted the many strands of our reading and conversation into a tidy rope (equal to supporting our weighty obligations as historians or permitting us to climb towards our high ambition to transcend, if only for a moment, work-a-day historical conventions), there was for me a very definite nexus — a moment that felt to me like a dense little tangle of our themes.

I am thinking of that moment where the gravity and diligence of our earnest effort to attend closely on what might fairly, I think, be called the “primal scene” of modern trauma studies — the collapse of an Auschwitz survivor giving testimony at the Eichmann trial — suddenly exploded (dissolved?) into the glitch-kitsch of our shared twenty-first century information carnival, that twilight zone where the dream of the universal archive regards itself in the fun house mirror of an all-night, all-right global bazaar we call the internet.

How did it happen? Well, first we were trying to understand (with Carolyn Dean) what we might do with the eruption of silence — the unspeakable itself placed before us — in Yehiel De-Nur’s inert body, through whom neither reason nor emotion could pass.



What was (what is) the “witness status” of this absence? In what ways might this moment of self-undoing help us think about the relationship between individual and collective memory (as invoked by Paul Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting)?

So much in all of this! After all, De-Nur, just before standing up and losing consciousness, had been invoking the many eyes that he felt upon him continuously in the wake of the camps — the eyes, we presume of all those who did not survive. The collective was thus, in some sense, present in his individual memory. The collective (or at least a collective) attended on his remembering.

So much to think about. Such an intense moement. Everything in play. Everything at stake.

Well, we reasonably wondered, what did De-Nur himself say about this moment of his collapse? Several of us had seen an allusion to his own later discussion of the collapse on the Wikipedia page that sketches his fascinating (and strange) biography. We opened the page from the display monitor on the screen at the front of the room.

And there was the (remarkable) account: apparently De-Nur had told Mike Wallace in an interview that he had collapsed upon suddenly becoming cognizant that the monstrous killer in the dock was in fact really nothing other than a simple human being, and in this sense, no different from himself — with the implication that he himself, the victim, might really just as easily have been himself the sinister architect of the destruction of European Jewry.

Here is the quote from the web:


Fascinating. Extraordinary. Hard to bear. Shades here of the redemptive (?), secularized (?) “harrowing humanism” that we identified in Oppenheimer’s Act of Killing. Much to think about here.

And then, in a moment of idle click-curiosity I popped open the reference on the Wikipedia page, and then followed the hyperlink. And what popped up but:


Um. Well, some sort of Christian self-help book that I had definitely never heard of and that had (despite its claim to being a bestseller) a rather questionable air, in my view, as a source text on holocaust memory. Certainly room for concern that the “redemptive” hue of De-Nur’s account had been, well, touched up.  Or even painted-on.


Why did this moment feel so significant? After all, it’s quite possible that De-Nur actually did say those things. And it’s also possible that pastor Getz’s book is perfectly reputable (he is also the author of Rich in Every Way: Everything God Says About Money and Possessions, which offers “102 supracultural principles” for handling wealth).

We didn’t do the follow up.

The moment right to that point seemed to want to be held as such — as something to be reckoned with.

I think the reason it felt so significant (to me, anyway) was certainly the sudden juxtaposition of “high” and “low.” But is this even right? No. Not really. It was really more the simple immediacy of the register shift — he jump-cut effect that abounds in the algorithmic search spaces and worm-hole ontologies of the web.

Things in that world (which is our world) so often feel folded, shuffled, and recombined. The giddy pleasure of the ALL at our fingertips cannot but erupt into mad laughter at the bizarre juxtapositions and odd fellow propinquities with which this plenum is liberally laced.

We had flipped from one world to another. And though it is uncommon to have that happen on the blackboard in a graduate seminar in history at Princeton, it is the most common thing in the world in all of our daily lives.

And so this was part of what made the moment feel significant, for me, anyway.

It was almost as if fate had suddenly “voted” for Norman Klein over Paul Ricoeur.

Klein.  With his ellipses and shrugs.  His stunned silences.  His “docufables” and invented memories. All of it haunted by solipsism (if of a rather noble and other-regarding-or-anyway-wish-I-could-really sort [btw, I have to confess I really developed a quiet love for this text]).  Here is just an exemplary snippet:



Ricoeur – Klein / Klein – Ricoeur.  We had already spent a moment on this pairing/antinomy. On the one hand, these were two philosophically-inflected works dealing with history, memory, and forgetting. At certain moments it seemed as if they might fit together like two puzzle pieces. But at the same time could two works be more different? Could two works more completely instantiate incommensurable cosmologies? On the one hand, the magnificent, measured, ruminative, omniscient, and responsible thought-world of Ricoeur (prolix, immersive, tireless, focused). And on the other hand, the demotic-shambolic blatancy of Klein (digressive, polysemic, A.D.D., street-level). On the one hand, the magnificence of the continental philosophical tradition in all its rigor and soulful urgency. On the other, the shattered fragments of critical bricolage left to the hustler-sage. On the one hand, EUROPE (from a Nazi prisoner of war camp to the École Normale Supérieurez). On the other, AMERICA (from immigrant Brooklyn in the 1950s to a taco truck somewhere on Alvarado south of Sunset). On the one hand, the world before the internet. On the other, the world of the internet.

One could feel, for a moment between two worlds. Or perhaps, one could feel like a bi-national, carrying passports for each.

But, in the end, we really do live, increasingly, in Klein’s world.

Loving Ricoeur deeply as I do, when I clicked on that footnote and opened into some weird google books info page about an Evangelical Christian self-help book, I felt a little of Baudelaire’s “love at last sight,” felt for a moment as if I were regarding the thick tome of Memory, History, and Forgetting before me on the desk like the ghost of Persephone, pulled away from me as I looked back over my shoulder.

But that was nothing compared with what came next.

The floor beneath us had not yet truly opened.

That yawning chasm-experience would require Jon noting helpfully/critically/semi-sheepishly that the actual video of De-Nur’s testimony that we had been watching had actually been posted by an internet persona with a rather scarifying goth-Valkyrie handle whose YouTube channel gave ample evidence of his commitment to the wholesale denial of the holocaust as such!

Indeed, that weird moment in the (charismatic, black-and-white) trial footage where suddenly a Buck Rogers polychrome carton flashes a rocket ship and the banner headline PLANET AUSCHWITZ (which I presume most of us let pass, because the internet is weird and one learns to let certain things go by) was in fact promotional material for his broader indictment of the whole “holocaust thing,” which s/he seems to regard as some sort of marginal pseudo-subject along the lines of ufology or moxibustion.

And then… you’re supposed to go back to page 456 of Ricoeur?

But how?


Maybe I am exaggerating, but I really find/found the whole thing very difficult. Though I should be clear:  there is no argument I see that makes Ricoeur’s discourse — his analysis, his perspective, his tools — incapable of handling the conditions, people, and source-problems I am describing. Not at all. Ricoeur has a lot to say about the reliability of witnesses. About the authentication of the documentary basis for historical inquiry, etc.

Intellectually speaking, I don’t see any reason to treat the work as somehow “superseded” by the conditions of the internet and/or the rabbit-holes we suddenly found ourselves contemplating.

But there is a mood thing. A climate. And something didn’t feel right.

Maybe climate really is the right metaphor. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an elephant in any circumstance. The elephant is a big, beautiful creature with a large brain and an extraordinary capacity for social behavior. There would still be something very strange about seeing that elephant step ashore at McMurdo Base in Antarctica. Klein looks like a seal. He can get by in these parts. Ricoeur? I’m not so sure. I am worried. Can we lead that creature to a greenhouse or something?

But all of this is, of course, quite stupid. Ricoeur isn’t going anywhere. Universities provide a distinctive microclimate for the maintenance of exotic flora and fauna. That’s the whole idea. And we did our duty as tenders of that garden. Or we did our best anyway. For nearly three hours. We talked about a number of important themes and features of the text.

A survey of the image of the board (supra) will offer an inventory of our coverage. A full résumé of all that conversation-territory is beyond me. But I will pin up here the aforementioned page 456, the pivot to the extraordinary epilogue on “Difficult Forgiveness”:



I think most of us had felt challenged, as historians, by the invocation of something like an ethical “duty” to forget, but it was difficult not to be moved (or difficult for me not to feel moved, anyway) by the idea that a “happy” (or “correct”?) forgetting must serve as the hinge between justice and amnesty. One senses Ricoeur endeavoring to construct a post-theological and post-metaphysical (and therefore essentially historical) theory of mercy. I cannot say I really get it. But the very idea of it can just about bring a tear to my eye.

No less moving, I think, was the end of Part II, p. 280, upon which we lingered:



“The present image of an absent thing.” This is what we are after. This is what we do/make. If one follows Ricoeur in his careful parsing of the past into “not being any longer” and “having been,” and then closely regards the peculiar status of that which claims to “take the place” or “stand for” something that is past (in this double sense), one can, I believe, experience something of the vertigo that should attend a properly felt reading of the last sentence on page 280.

[A last thought about all of this — about the class as a whole.  It occurred to me after I wrote all of this up.  The remarkable, deranging “This Is Your Life, Hanna Kohner” (which jumps to my top ten list of amazing discoveries in this class [thank you, Jon]) can perhaps be thought of as a kind of exquisite conjunction of Ricoeur and Klein, no?  Here is LA managing to remember the holocaust — via a theatricality of remembrance that is something very close to a total erasure.  It can perhaps be thought of as something like the Hollywood edition of Memory, History, Forgetting.  Incredible.  Anguishing.  At the same time, bizarrely magnificent.  And I mean Hanna Kohner.  For she is “giving witness” in a very real way. And doing so via silence — a silence that could not be more different from De-Nur’s.  But I am not sure it is less affecting.  Or less effective.  She swallows at 9.42 in our video.  Watch it frame by frame.  It is almost impossible to bear.  Here is a still from 9.45:




There was other stuff that happened in our discussion, too. It was interesting to turn the Carolyn Dean piece on some of the moments in Tense Past that exemplify her concerns for what we might call the general “discursive/articulate” biases of commentators and theorists of trauma. And, of course, we had a series (again!) of really superb pre-class posts to get us thinking about all of these questions, both discursively and in other modalities. I am thinking here of Tayor’s images in particular.

And that leads to images. I was very struck by the early part of Ricoeur’s “Memory” section, in particular his discussion of the classical tradition and the eikōn form of our individual memories. Memory as an “image.” An image of a thing/situation/person/action that once was and is no longer. This is the “degree zero” of the historical problem. And I found Ricoeur’s phenomenological approach refreshing and rich. So I went ahead and proposed an exercise.


It went like this: Close your eyes. Call up a “memory.” Anything you like. With the eyes closed, examine this “memory” for seven minutes in the phenomenological mode. Which is to say, attend on it with the sensitive precision of a truly human empiricism (not an empiricism that posits, or permits itself to be contaminated by, any transcendent and/or “objectifying” cant). Attend on it in the hopes of ascertaining how it “presents” or “offers” or “indicates” or “discloses” or “contains” the… well, the memory. A medieval scholastic might have said something like “regard the memory with the ‘mind’s eye.’” What is “there” before the faculty that does the attending?

This was totally optional. Anyone who did not want to do it was free to take the break early. And free to do so once we put our heads down. No shame.

Everyone stayed.

We took notes after.

And then took our break.

And after? We talked about it a bit, but we basically ran out of time.


Documentation, anyone? Optional (and anonymity totally fine).


1)  As fortune would have it, I drove past a fresh (and seemingly fatal) car accident on I-95 en route to our session on “Trauma and Oblivion.” A small car had been torn open, and the driver, a woman of middle age, lay unconscious and bloodied in the rain, unattended, still hung in her seatbelt.  It was very horrible. I chose to work with this “memory image.” There is much to say about the content of the image, on which I have continued to work now for several days.  But I will restrict myself to what I felt I learned about the process of examining the memory as a memory in class. I will restrict myself to two thoughts:

A.  I was struck by the difficulty of escaping from two relations to the memory image:  first, a “forensic” orientation (“were the headlights on?” “what color was her hair?”) — which is the proof-matrix of the “witness” in a juridical setting; and, second, a “psychoanalytic” orientation (“why did you recall the broken axle of the car? what is disclosed by your mind’s having preserved that?”).  Neither of these modes were what I was seeking in the exercise.  But they were nearly impossible to avoid.

B. When I did briefly get clear of those discourses, I found myself becoming aware of two things: first, I had been driving forward as I looked at her, but have no idea what was in front of me (strange to think about, in the context of driving); and, second, I have no idea what was “behind” me (behind my head) as I, driving forward and looking left, regarded her.


2)  I could not make any image come to me.  I wondered whether I have any “images” at all in my memory.  After five minutes of looking for an image in my mind with my eyes closed, I was no longer perfectly certain I knew what an “image” was.


3)  So much “space” between the visible elements of the picture I see in my head.  I am not aware of these missing zones until I really start looking at the memory.


4) I could not extricate the specific memory from thinking about memory itself. The phrase ‘memory palace’ thrummed in the blackout of closed eyes and I felt as though approaching the memory was negotiating a series of rooms. I don’t think I wanted to think about it that way; it would be nice to forget ‘memory palace’ altogether.


5) I had difficulty evoking any particular memory when asked to do so. Rather than to focus on one particular thing, my mind kept skipping around, jumping from one image to the next, going from vague recollections of olfactory or visual experiences of my childhood to more recent, and more vivid, impressions of my recent past, which were nevertheless just as ephemeral and just as hard to capture. After a couple of minutes I gave up, and started thinking about the difficulties I had experienced during this exercise. My problem seems to have been the lack of an “anchor”, of a stable image or sensory experience which I could use as a fundament for a sustained reconstruction of memory. Thinking about DGB’s experience during this exercise, it might be that memory relies upon immediacy- a sense of urgency in the present- in order to be made fruitful. Without any such pressing urgency, my attempts at recollection were futile.


6)  I chose to investigate a (happy) memory which has resisted narrativization more than most in my life, one which I have been unable to contain neatly in a narrative frame. And yet despite or because of its resistant quality, this memory has retained a freshness in my mind, and a physicality, which some otherwise similar memories have lost. During our exercise I found it surprisingly easy to re-embody the self that had lived this memory: to smell, to feel, to taste.

I’ve become increasingly curious during the course of this class about the active role narrativization/emplotment plays in memory and in history.  On the one hand, turning a memory into a story and emplotting it in a larger explanatory framework, placing it within a context, often preserves a memory that would otherwise be lost.  As a verbal and non-visual thinker, most of the most secure memories I have of childhood are ones whose story I’ve told and retold, solidifying it in my mind.  And yet it was palpable to me during our exercise how much I have lost in retelling.

I often think about an exchange that Laura Ingalls Wilder had with her daughter/editor/collaborator Rose Wilder Lane, in which Rose explained why some things that were included in Laura’s recent draft, including fear of rape and an apparently extreme reaction to an attempted and unwanted kiss, as well as more innocuous details, couldn’t be left in the book, despite being true.


(The whole thing is very much worth reading.  See also the New Yorker.)

There’s obvious poliitical content to Rose’s judgment of what was and was not a plausible story to tell about fear and sexual assault, but underneath that, there’s a real truth.  What can work in a story, even the kind of “non-fictional” story that almost invisibly underpins a work of academic history, is not identical, or even necessarily closely related to, what can happen in life.

7. I posted my dream exercise (anachronically, since it pertains to Ankersmit) in week 12! -JPO

8. When I close my eyes to remember, I don’t see, instead I hear: usually my own voice. My words narrate the past. Perhaps because of this, I used our time in class to ruminate over a sonic memory: the last time I talked on the phone with my mother. Until last Friday we had been fighting. Or at least not talking. Then I called her and we reconciled. The emotional redolence of this conversation failed, however, to burn an image into my mind’s eye. Nevertheless, I know that as we talked I was lying in bed, looking at my ceiling. I am now typing, sitting on the same bed. Soon, I will use my phone to catch an image of the ceiling. Presumably, the same image that my mind failed to capture. – BLimg_6778


In June of 2015, I prepared to leave my long-term residence in Hong Kong for graduate school. In the midst of packing and the usual farewell to friends, however, I felt a sudden urge to document my surroundings. That the environment I had come to know during the past two years of work––the city streets, buildings, landscape––would all disappear in a matter of days threw me into a kind of panic. I struggled with how I could record the city and, more importantly, archive my own intimate relationship with these once-foreign settings.

After an extended period of deliberation, I set out to photograph a series of spaces within Hong Kong that I felt were personally significant. For me, this significance was not a matter of environmental beauty or daily proximity, but rather that each space had been the setting for some kind of personally transformative event during my stay within the city. At the time, I didn’t fully understand why this empirical record seemed so urgent, particularly when many of these locales were surprisingly banal––the upper deck of a passenger ferry, a nondescript park bench, or the interior of an office kitchen, for example. Yet, upon completing the project, there was undeniably an emotional charge within the photographs. Each depicts a largely unremarkable space without occupants, and only gestures at the highly specific (and now phantom) events which transpired within the chosen environment.

In reading Ricoeur this week, I was struck by the author’s notion of trace, a term which can be segmented into three principal types. As Ricoeur writes, “as early as the commentary on the texts of Plato and Aristotle that I invoked the metaphor of the wax imprint, I proposed distinguishing three sorts of traces: the written trace, which has become the documentary trace on the plane of the historiographical operation; the physical trace, which can be termed impression rather than imprint, impression in the sense of an affection left in us by a marking––or as we say striking––event; finally, the cerebral, cortical trace which the neurosciences deal with” (415).

Where both the written trace and cerebral trace arguably have much to do with a somewhat empirical, and non-experiential record of history and events, the physical trace “is entirely different. It is much more deeply concealed. One speaks of it only retrospectively on the basis of precise experiences which have as their model the recognition of images of the past. These experiences make us think, after the fact, that many memories, perhaps among the precious, childhood memories, have not been definitively erased but simply rendered inaccessible, unavailable, which makes us stay that one forgets less than one thinks or fears” (416).

In looking back at this photographic documentation, and having wrestled with Ricoeur for the better part of two weeks, it seems clear that I, in photographing a highly specific sequence of spaces in Hong Kong, was attempting to preserve discrete keys to Ricoeur’s idea of the physical trace. The photographs, in other words, were not important insofar as they serve as objective records. Rather, the photographs serve as points of entry––with their precise framing, lighting, and composition––to my own intangible experiences within each setting; the unflinching detail contained within each photograph only aims to heighten the efficacy and potency of this access.

As Ricoeur succinctly writes, “the key experience, we have just said, is that of recognition. I speak of it as a minor miracle. It is indeed in the moment of recognition that the present image is held to be faithful to the initial affection, to the shock of the event. Where the neurosciences speak simply of reactivating traces, the phenomenologist, being instructed by lived experience, will speak of a persistence of the original impression” (416). In this way, the photographs would allow me to relive highly specific events within each space, ensuring a reproducible and infallible access to these delicate and prized memories, without the risk of these remembrances falling into oblivion.

Yet in reading Antze and Lambek’s Tense Past, in addition to Klein’s The History of Forgetting, it became obvious that there were many spaces within Hong Kong that I actively chose not to document. It is not that these undocumented spaces were all unimportant, or were not worthy of photographic record; rather, the sequence of images I collected was as much a collective fiction as documentary fact. While there was undoubtedly an urge to capture the specific, unaltered details of certain spaces, the compilation itself is fictive, imaginary, illusory; key moments––painful, undesirable, and uncertain memories, particularly events that I desired to leave behind––were inconspicuously left out of the final sequence of images, instead relegated to the “endless abyss” (413) of my own forgetting.

Paul Antze is particularly explicit regarding this editing of one’s own history. In his essay “Telling Stories, Making Selves,” Antze again references Ricoeur, but this time connecting memory to the construction of one’s identity. “Ricoeur argues that we know ourselves as distinct from others and as continuous over time only through a process he calls emplotment, a perpetual weaving and reweaving of past and present events into characters, motives, situations, actions. In effect we are characters in a story that we keep revising as our lives unfold” (6). It had never occurred to me that this compilation of photographs was a means for me to construct an identity, to somehow summarize my time in Hong Kong––but yet, upon further reflection, it is precisely that.

Ultimately bound into a book and arranged in chronological order of experience, the images now reflect moments that I consider constitutive of my own identity. Those episodes and events deemed unacceptable, however, for a myriad of reasons, were left on the cutting room floor. As Antze and Lambek write in the preface to Tense Past, “forgetting here is as much an active process as remembering; both require effort and energy. Identity of any kind requires steering a course between holding on and letting go. Identity is not composed of a fixed set of memories but lies in the dialectical, ceaseless activity of remembering and forgetting, assimilating and discarding” (xxix).

The collection of images, thus, is both a chance for preservation and for deliberate abandon. As per Klein’s relay of Kafka’s quotation, “we photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds” (16), to free recollections from the inaccuracy and corruptibility of memory. In this sense, while the final compendium serves as both personal archive and access to Ricoeur’s notion of the physical trace, it oscillates between a record of unflinching accuracy and complete fiction. It weaves together a collection of keys to discrete physical traces into a new, alternate history, a desired sequence of events specific to my experience within Hong Kong.







– TC

I wanted to provide some context for, and reflections on, the film clips below:

Clip 1: This scene is an interview from the French documentarist Claude Lanzmann’s eight-hour-long 1985 documentary Shoah (Hebrew for “catastrophe” and the Holocaust). Jan Karski, a Pole, was an underground courier for the Polish government in exile, based in London. In 1942, he was given the dangerous opportunity to write an eyewitness report of the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to death camps such as Treblinka. He voluntarily entered, putting himself at risk as a spy. For this and other acts has been hailed as a Polish resistance hero. He later became a professor of international studies at Georgetown.

The early minutes of Lanzmann’s interview with Karski include shots of communist-era apartment blocks in contemporary Warsaw, which were built over the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. At its peak, the ghetto contained 400,000 Jews in 1.3 square miles—cramming 30% of the population of Warsaw into 2.5% of its area, and making it the largest ghetto in Europe by both size and population. Yet of this large area surrounded by high walls in the center of the city, only two small sections of the original wall remain today, in the courtyard of an unsuspecting apartment complex, which I visited last year. In the picture below, you see the wall fragment decorated with flowers as a memorial site. I particularly like that the hubristically-named communist-era Palace of Culture is visible in the background. Virtually all the other traces of the ghetto were destroyed when the last inhabitants of the ghetto staged an uprising against the Germans, who crushed the uprising with a systematic demolition of the entire ghetto through fire-bombing and shelling. The fate of the ghetto mirrors that of Warsaw as a whole: About 90% of the city was in ruins by the end of the war. When Soviet troops captured a devastated Warsaw in January, 1945, only about 174,000 people (11,500 of them Jews) were left in the city, less than 6% of the prewar population of nearly 3 million. This systematic destruction pales in historical comparison to the systematic destruction of the Jews. Yet the fact that we are left with so few tokens or footholds for memory today perhaps explains much of the marginalization of the Holocaust in Poland since the end of the war, as is seen in the adage still invoked by Poland’s right-wing government today: “3 million Poles, 3 million Jews.” This invokes a false equivalence of Nazi extermination, for the respective death rates by the end of the war were something like 10% for Poles to over 90% for Jews.


Lanzmann’s Shoah has long been praised as a mode of Holocaust representation for its unwillingness to recreate the past in the style of famously gaudy Hollywood films like Schindler’s List. Lanzmann includes only interviews, and many hours of Shoah are shot in green, grassy fields on the now-inconspicuous sites of former concentration camps and killing centers. His filmic strategy highlights the limitations of accessing the past: We cannot know how it really was, for we are left not even with ruins—which were by and large erased by the Nazis in 1945—but only with memory traces of ruins. I wrote an essay about my own visit to Auschwitz some years ago (drawing upon Kugelmass’s cynical essay in Tense Past on concentration camp tourism and rituals of performative victimhood), in which I grappled with this issue: When one visits Auschwitz today, one walks upon manicured lawns and neatly swept paths lined by flowers, not the knee-deep mud and filth described vividly by survivors. Because Auschwitz was an experience, not just a place, we cannot return to it today. To take this argument to its extreme, as Lanzmann does, the Holocaust is thus necessarily lost to oblivion. A recent controversy in which the Auschwitz Museum erected outdoor showers to cool overheated guests speaks to the power of forgetting despite the very best of intentions.


Clip 2: This scene is a clip from the 1960–61 trial of Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer and the mastermind behind the massive logistical operations entailed in the Holocaust. After Eichmann was kidnapped by Israeli police in Argentina, his trial was conducted in Israel and televised worldwide in what Hannah Arendt famously called a “show trial” and a mockery of justice, though she agreed with the verdict that Eichmann be hanged for crimes against humanity. Hundreds of survivors testified in what became one of the first mass public recognitions of the genocide of European Jewry. Yahiel De-Nur was a survivor of Auschwitz who wrote about his experience under the pseudonym Ka-Tzetnik 135633, which stood for KZ (Konzentrationslager) and the prisoner number tattooed on his arm.

Carolyn Dean’s article on erasure in Holocaust testimony speaks directly on the moments of repression, stumbling, interruption, and uncontrollable emotion in Karski’s testimony. These blockages in traumatic testimony are brought to their apotheosis when De-Nur faints while delivering part of his testimony. Dean’s argument is that these stumblings and outbursts have equal testimonial power with respect to the experience of the Holocaust as the profound spiritual and philosophical narratives we celebrate from survivors such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Dean prompts us to rethink the fact that historians have tended to discount testimony they perceive as excessively emotional and hence less valuable in favor of stoic, profound accounts, which are often geared toward satisfying our desire for heroic tales of redemption that uphold our sense of 1) human dignity in the midst of suffering and 2) the absolute innocence of victims (even if this means problematically negating their agency). For this reason historians have tended to prefer male testimonies, which bias the literature in favor of narratives of stoic resistance and insightful contemplation in lieu of traumatized responses. Yet if it is the experience of trauma we are after, both kinds of testimony have much to tell us. As Dean concludes: “When they write the history of emotional traumas, it is crucial that historians become conscious of their own affective responses to victims and recognize that pursuing one kind of truth may well lead to the neglect of the very voices they seek to recuperate” (409).

Clip 3: I included this American television episode, broadcast in May 1953, as the perfect foil to the palpably traumatic testimonies above. Hanna Kohner was by some accounts the first Holocaust survivor living in the US whose story became widely known in this country. Yet here Hanna is hardly allowed to tell her own story. To situate this show historically, the discourse then available to discussing and imagining her experience are by today’s standards grossly inadequate to representing her trauma. The conditions of speakability are such that are such victim’s voice is not yet valued or heard. Bear in mind that the very term “Holocaust,” signifying a discrete genocide apart from the rest of the suffering of WWII, was not popularly used until the 1970s; there is not yet even a name for what Hanna endured, something most viewers had likely heard of but could not yet imagine for themselves as we can today. Hanna is urged by the postwar “American Dream” spirit of the television show she finds herself on to forget her trauma and cover it up with happy smiles. Most problematically to my mind, the show entirely elides American complicity in this era and casts American forces as Hanna’s liberators. No mention is made of the restrictive quotas that limited immigration to the U.S. for Jews in Hanna’s exact position. In 1938, there were over 300,000 visa applications from persecuted European Jews for 27,000 visas, a number which was not increased. The fate of the ship St. Louis further suggests American responsibility for the fate of many thousands of Jews that could have been saved: In 1939 the U.S. refused to let this ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees dock in Florida, directing it back to the European continent, where 254 of its passengers were eventually murdered.

These lines sent chills down my spine: “On May 7, 1945: V for Victory as the camp is liberated by General Patton and his American army, a day you and your fellow prisoners at Mauthausen will never forget! Hanna, the nightmare you lived for seven years is at an end as an American army truck rolls to stop before the prison gates….Out of the darkness of terror and despair a new life has been born, a new world for you. Hanna Kohner, this is your life.” Hardly a passing mention is made of the fact that most of Hanna’s family, including her parents, were murdered—though one can see this in Hanna’s pained expression at several moments. Nor is it mentioned that she had to have an illicit abortion in Auschwitz in order to save herself from the gas chamber, after which she had eight miscarriages before having a daughter. The narrative we are fed is nothing but a sanitized shell of what is no doubt a deeply traumatized life.

I see the ending of this show as a dystopic-capitalistic spin on the book of Job, where Job’s family is exterminated in a cruel test of faith by God, but, owing to Job’s faith, God luckily makes everything well again by giving Job a new family with twice as many children (and much more beautiful ones) as before, twice as much gold, twice as many sheep, and a blessing to boot. “The never-to-be-forgotten tragic experiences of your life, Hanna, have been tempered by the happiness you’ve found here in America,” the host says. But how many charm bracelets, jeweled lipsticks, and Hollywood parties would it take for Hanna to forget? – JC

One particular interest in reading Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is the conception of how memory could be ideologized and embodied. In page 85 he writes:

“Memory can be ideologized through the resources of the variations offered by the work of narrative configuration. And, as the characters of the narrative are emplotted at the same time the story is told, the narrative configuration contributes to modeling the identity of the protagonists of the action as it molds the contours of the action itself. The narrative, Hannah Arendt reminds us, recounts the “who of action.” It is, more precisely, the selective function of the narrative that opens to manipulation the opportunity and the means of a clever strategy, consisting from the outset in a strategy of forgetting as much as in a strategy of remembering. We will account for this in the thematic study reserved for forgetting. However, it is on the level where ideology operates as a discourse justifying power, domination, that the resources of manipulation provided by narrative are mobilized. Domination, we have understood, is not limited to physical constraint. Even the tyrant needs a rhetorician, a sophist, to broadcast his enterprise of seduction and intimidation in the form of words. The narrative imposed in this way then becomes the privileged instrument of this twofold operation. Even the surplus value that ideology adds to the belief offered by the governed in responding to the claim of legitimacy made by the governing body presents a narrative texture: stories of founding events, of glory and humiliation, feed the discourse of flattery or of fear. It thus becomes possible to account for the express abuses of memory on the level of the effect of distortion belonging to the phenomenal level of ideology”.

With this idea in mind, I turn to Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future and how she described the remembering and forgetting of actions, events, notions and knowledge that nobody expected at the time they happened. Remember and forgetting could only be understood in some other temporalities, especially in the future, building up other histories, other bodies and other genealogies:

“…the treasure was lost not because of historical circumstances and the adversity of reality but because no tradition had foreseen its appearance or its reality, because no testament had willed it for the future. The loss, at any rate, perhaps inevitable in terms of political reality, was consummated by oblivion, by a failure of memory, which befell not only the heirs but, as it were, the actors, the witnesses, those who for a fleeting moment had held the treasure in the palms of their hands, in short, the living themselves”. (pp. 5-6).

In other words, memory is always a political action. The past and the present are not enough. In order to reconstruct memory, oblivion, and history it’s not only essential to look for the past events but their projection into the future; not only in the possible subjects that were the protagonists, but the future bodies that could narrate unexpected or unwanted stories. “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again,” Benjamin wrote. In this sense, I thought of Félix González-Torres, self-described as a  “Latino –Cuban- immigrant and person of color, queer, HIV positive, intellectual, a feminist, and an unapologetic leftist.” His work denounced anti-immigration positions and the racialized immigrant body as an infectious agent (until the mid-eighties, AIDS/HIV patients were pigeonholed as “homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts”). González-Torres tried to tell this history in installations like Untitled, (North), 1993, where the flickering light strings symbolized the status of queer lives in the middle of an epidemic crisis: an army of ghosts trying to recover their own history and tell a possible future. -ILM


 Félix González-Torres, Untitled(North), 1993.



So let our three-masted ship sail! (Ricoeur, xvii)

This may be too utilitarian an approach to something like Ricoeur, but since it was my first time reading it, and I had been warned that it would be a difficult book, I approached it like I would a manual. DGB often asks us to “roll up our sleeves” – I like this metaphor because (NLRB rulings and the politics of graduate student labour aside) history-doing is work. That is to say, considering knowledge production in the historical mode, and sitting down to do it is creative and difficult work, in a mundane sense in terms of time and energy spent, but in another, older sense as well. The figure of “the historian” is invoked repeatedly in the books we have read, and most strikingly for me, in Memory, History, Forgetting. We can, and do, historicize this figure, and place them in conversation with others in a genealogy of thought, whereby linear time and the progressive accumulation of knowledge allows us a kinship and shared purpose with those who have spent time in our guild (allow me, for a moment, the romance of a guild of historians stretching backwards and forwards through time, despite what we know about the professionalization of the field and the corporate university in our neoliberal present).


This illustration from a fourteenth-century manuscript shows Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna.  
Artist: Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, Berlin/Staatliche Museen 
Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 1233

And so “the historian” does their work, and Ricoeur, in Part II, delves into the epistemology of history-doing, in three phases: the documentary phase, the explanatory phase, and the phase of representation or inscription. It is with the last phase that I would like to spend some time, as my preoccupation in our seminar has been this very problem: history, if we can limit it for a moment, as circumscribed (!) it as something enacted by the task and medium of writing. Ricoeur helps us with this.

“Writing, in effect, is the threshold of language that historical knowing has already crossed, in distancing itself from memory to undertake the threefold adventure of archival research, explanation, and representation” (Ricoeur, 138).


[add to dictionary – neologism accommodated – threshold of language breached]

Writing takes up space. Writing by people in power takes up even more. It can drown out the din of the past, and allow us to listen, placated, to a strain of music that rises above the cacophony. In Multidirectional Memory (thank you, JC!) Michael Rothberg argues that for a particular context, today’s multicultural society, competitive memory as a contest between remembrance of the Holocaust and of colonial/racial violence is fundamentally flawed. He argues that collective memory need not be competitive, part of a “zero-sum struggle over scarce resources” but could be multidirectional, “subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive…” (3).

Here, he is talking of public commemorations, commentators, and citizens – people who experience “collective memory” but who may not necessarily write about it.

I attended a talk yesterday about the aftermath of the First World War, in which the author of a book on the losing states made arguments for the significance of his contribution and the centrality of his argument in comparative terms. More people died in the civil wars and unrest that followed Armistice Day in central and eastern Europe than the war dead of Britain, France, and the United States, he said. More Finns died as a proportion of their population in the Finnish Civil War in three short months than in the trenches. There was no escalation in quantitative or qualitative terms of violence in the colonial sphere after the Armistice, whereas in the losing states of the First World War, there was. I am not faulting the author for putting it in these terms, but I am just curious about the claim to significance made this way. Collective/competitive memory indeed.

(Aside: if you would like to see a draft of a truly bizarre paper I wrote during my undergrad for a politics course that required quantitative methods, I have linked it here: national-identity. See the methods section and appendix for the graphs of values I assigned representations of national identity in newspapers covering WWI commemorations. I got an A-minus.)

The peculiarity of a subject of study, and the strength of one’s prose, and the provocative thrust of one’s argument – these are the markers of success as a professional historian. But what of the eikon then? What of the “present image of an absent thing?” (Ricoeur, 139).

I did not expect Ricoeur to be so straightforward as this in answering questions I have had all semester:

“The assertive vehemence of the historian’s representation as standing for the past is authorized by nothing other than the positivity of the “having been” intended across the negativity of the “being no longer” (280).

What a tidy solution!

And yet:

“Here, we have to admit, the epistemology of historiographical operation reaches its internal limit in running against the borders of an ontology of historical being” (280).

More work lies ahead.




I’ll deal briefly with the secondary reading for this week, as we have plenty on Ricoeur above, and then turn to how I think the presentation of trauma could be altered in documentary, especially to serve the agenda of this class.

As Jon has told us, Rothberg and Dean adopt distinct approaches to collective memory, respectively dealing with Holocaust trauma and how it’s registered with eyes on postcolonial conflict and public expectations tied in with gender. Also, whereas Rothberg mainly takes aim at the notion of finite public space, where sectional memories jostle for ‘preeminence’, Dean looks at the nuts and bolts of extracting oral testimony. What reading these together illuminated for me, however, was how to manage ‘memory’ in the space between these two conceptual scales. Between individual testimonies, and the archives they together form.

One such in-between is the constituent role that interview has in testimony. Here I’d like to make a leap into broadcast interviews. Those conducting them often wish to background themselves in the end product, staying behind the camera and cutting beyond their own interjections. This is often done with the best, audience-focused intentions – ‘I’m not interesting to the viewer’; ‘Putting me in this isn’t credible’ – but this is a norm in documentary film that fundamentally obscures trauma and recall as purely introspective phenomena, rather than processes that are specifically social. So in-place of what we might see passing between interviewer and interviewee, contained together in the same shot, a bland hermeneutic of personal drama can Polyfilla ‘what’s going on’ where a close-up is concerned. This is instead of presenting the interview along with the subject.

In Shoah we are invited to see Jan Karski’s testimony in dramatic terms. He reattempts a description of the ghetto, after he is unable to follow himself into the story first time round. Before walking out down the corridor, we are to understand he’s incapacitated by self-reflection, unable to talk anymore. We are invited to consider the past taking a physical hold of him. We are shown the ramp to his second round with this personal demon, as he walks down the corridor back towards the chair. In this, the interviewer is seen benignly sipping coffee. The camera crew is deleted.

By turns we think of ourselves rather than the crew as a subject’s audience, with, at-best, the interviewer shown as our embodiment at the scene, sometimes asking things we want to know but otherwise, like us, just sat listening. The close-up provides an illusory sense that this is a performance of sorts by Karski, rather than a reaction to a question that is also battling against the alien structures of a film set. The abysmal gaze of cameras. The unnatural, leveling flush of lights. As a result, interviews with survivors and perpetrators are seductive because we are shown something like the past animating people in the present, as subjects variously cringe around recollections of a traumatic event. This is seldom a trauma in which the documentary is shown to participate, and usually a drama where the past is conjured up, but its true conjurors – the documentary team – are hidden from view.

In a class considering history by other forms, I think we should take Karski’s interview as typical of how trauma and memory is presented in filmed interviews. To turn for the second time to Steve McQueen: I wonder if the kind of shot we see in Hunger between Bobby Sands and the Priest might put these things in light of a present moment, rather than a mythology of the past revisiting someone, as it were, ‘unconjured’. The purpose of this aesthetic would not be to expose some iniquity in the interview, so much as the fact of the interview itself. I’ve always felt that we are often shown a subject speaking to us, and left to imagine what the ‘interview’ was like. If we are to imagine what an ‘alternative’ history of trauma or memory would look like, I would suggest this is one way in which we could examine their social dimensions, having imagined them previously as interior, visible only through the translucence of someone’s behaviour. In this fallacy, traditional forms like Lanzmann’s participate by showing us only the solitary, haunted individual. – JTD



Readings for the Tenth Class:

Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting 

[This is a very demanding book — Jon, Disha, and Ivan propose focusing on: Part III, ch. 3, on forgetting and oblivion (pp. 412–456); Part II, on history, the archive, mentalities/experience, representation (pp. 133–280); and Part I, ch. 2 and 3, on personal and collective memory (pp. 56–132).  But it should be underscored that if you have no exposure to Husserl and the phenomenological tradition, this is going to be really hard.  Here is what I would say: we are not philosophers; work with the book, and come in with some sense of what is going on — we need to be ready to work with it together.  The real test isn’t “mastery” — it is the ability to do something good. -DGB]

Antze and Lambek, eds., Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory


Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory

Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (ch. 1 here)

Carolyn Dean, “Erasures and Emotions in Writing Holocaust Trauma,” in Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective, ed. Biess and Gross.

Film clips:

Jan Karski in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) (10 mins)

Yehiel De-Nur at the Eichmann Trial (1961) (10 mins)

“This Is Your Life, Hanna Kohner” (1953) (25 mins)

Week 11: Reenactment and Impersonation AND Week 12: Sublimity, Immediacy, Experience



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.

Reichstag fire

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 –

Week 11

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)

Week 12

Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience