JAAP DEN HOLLANDER, HERMAN PAUL, and RIK PETERS
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 1-10
What does “historical distance” mean? Starting with Johan Huizinga, the famous Dutch historian who refused to lecture on contemporary history, this introductory article argues that “historical distance” is a metaphor used in a variety of intellectual contexts. Accordingly, the metaphor has ontological, epistemological, moral, aesthetic, as well as methodological connotations. This implies that historical distance cannot be reduced to a single “problem” or “concept.” At the same time, this wide variety of meanings associated with distance helps explain why an easily recognizable tradition of scholarly reflection on historical distance does not exist. In a broad survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical theory, this article nonetheless attempts to show that distance has been a major, if seldom explicitly articulated, theme in European and American philosophy of history. In doing so, it pays special attention to those few authors who in recent years have taken up the metaphor for critical study. Finally, the paper summarizes some of the main arguments put forward in the articles comprising this issue on historical distance.
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MARK SALBER PHILLIPS
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 11-23
In common usage, historical distance refers to a position of detached observation made possible by the passage of time. Understood in these terms, distance has long been regarded as essential to modern historical practice, but this conception narrows the idea of distance and burdens it with a regulatory purpose. I argue that distance needs to be reconceived in terms of the wider set of engagements that mediate our relations to the past, as well as the full spectrum of distance-positions from near to far. Re-imagined in these terms, distance sheds its prescriptiveness and becomes a valuable heuristic for examining the history of historical representation. When distance is studied in relation to the range of mediations entailed in historical representation, it becomes evident that the plasticities of distance/proximity are by no means limited to gradients of time; rather, temporality is bound up with other distances that come from our need to engage with the historical past as (simultaneously) a realm of making, of feeling, of doing, and of understanding. Thus for every historical work, we need to consider at least four basic dimensions of representation as they relate to the problem of mediating distance: 1. the genres, media, and vocabularies that shape the history’s formal structures of representation; 2. the affective claims made by the historical account, including the emotional experiences it promises or withholds; 3. the work’s implications for action, whether of a political or moral nature; and 4. the modes of understanding on which the history’s intelligibility depends. These overlapping, but distinctive, distances—formal, affective, ideological, and conceptual—provide an analytic framework for examining changing modes of historical representation.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 24-37
This essay argues that concerns about historical distance arose along with modernist historicism, and they disappear with postfoundationalism. The developmental historicism of the nineteenth century appealed to narrative principles to establish continuity between past and present and to guide selections among facts. In the twentieth century, modernist historicists rejected such principles, thereby raising the specter of historical distance: that is, the distorting effects of the present on accounts of the past, the chasm between facts and narrative. The modernist problem became: how can historians avoid anachronism and develop accurate representations of the past? Instead of using narrative principles to select facts, modernist historicists appealed to atomized facts to validate narratives. However, in the late twentieth century, postmodernists (Frank Ankersmit and Hayden White) argued that there was no way to close the distance between facts and narratives. The postmodern problem became: how should historians conceive of their writing given the ineluctable distance between facts and narratives? Today, postfoundationalism dispels both modernist and postmodernist concerns with historical distance; it implies that all concepts (not just historical ones) fuse fact and theory, and it dissolves issues of conceptual relativism, textual meaning, and re-enactment.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 38-50
Historical distance presents more complex issues than simply evaluating the meaning of the temporal span between a point in the past and some moment present to an observer. The ordinary historical difference, which is horizontal in the sense that it evokes the notion of hermeneutic horizons, fragments uncontrollably when examined closely, resulting in what might be called a “chronoschism.” The experience of encountering a historical painting by Botticelli provides an example of this fragmentation. This complication of historical distance reminds us also of quite different sorts of distance, including the depths of endless regression, and the elevation of the historical sublime. These various forms of historical distance present a challenge to the horizontal character of normal historical practice.
JAAP DEN HOLLANDER
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 51-67
The metaphor of historical distance often appears in discussions about the study of contemporary history. It suggests that we cannot see the past in perspective if we are too near to it. According to founding fathers like Ranke and Humboldt, temporal distance is required to discern historical “ideas” or forms. The argument may have some plausibility, but the presupposition is plainly false, since we cannot see the past at all. This leaves us with the question of what to make of the so-called historical forms. This article discusses three different views. The first, historicist, view is objectivist and localizes historical forms in the past. The second, narrativist, view is subjectivist and localizes historical forms in the realm of imagination and representation. The third view goes beyond the other two in that it considers both sides. It does not use a one-sided but a two-sided concept of form, which hinges on the idea of a distinction. This means that historical forms occupy both sides of the subject–object distinction or the present–past distinction. Because the subject–object terminology is confusing, the essay employs an alternative distinction between first- and second-order observation. With the help of this distinction, it is possible to redescribe the distance metaphor in such a way that the theoretical status of contemporary history becomes less enigmatic.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 68-80
In his discussion of David Hume and historical distance, Mark Salber Phillips points out that in the process of distance-creation there is a distinction between something occurring “within the text” and “outside the text.” In this paper I draw on this distinction and introduce a semantic mechanism (namely, meaning) that allows a certain distance to be designed within a historical text. This mechanism is highlighted in a view of reference that sees it as indirect (in distinction from a view of reference that sees it as direct and that has no room for the notion of meaning). According to the indirect reference view, meaning opens up a space for what might be called historical distance. However, this is not to say that everything with regard to the immediacy and remoteness of this historical distance is analyzable solely in terms of what is happening at the level of the text. In fact, I argue that distance-effects can be understood only if we also take into account contexts of the writing and reading of history. The semantics of indirect reference allows for distance-construction, but its span depends on the circumstances governing the creation and reception of historical representation. I conclude with the observation that the view presented here should not be interpreted as disconnecting historical work from past reality.
CHINATSU KOBAYASHI and MATHIEU MARION
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 81-103
In this paper, we begin by suggesting an intuitive model of time embodying a notion of temporal distance that we claim is at work in Gadamer’s hermeneutics, while it is rejected in Collingwood’s theory of interpretation. To show this, after a brief review of the influence of Collingwood on Gadamer and of their disagreement over the possibility of recovering an author’s intention, we examine in turn their answers to the problem of transposition, upon which the philosophy of Dilthey supposedly foundered. We show that Gadamer embraced the idea of temporal distance in his solution, which consisted in claiming that the distance between an author from the past and us is filled in by tradition, which opens access to the text for us, while Collingwood considered explanations of the actions of historical agents, and by extension understanding of a text, in intentional or rational terms. Furthermore, he thought that such explanations are not causal, and that the thoughts involved in them do not stand within the flow of physical time, which is involved in any notion of temporal distance. This is why Collingwood felt entitled to anti-relativistic conclusions about the recovery of authorial intentions, conclusions that prompted Gadamer to claim that “the dimension of hermeneutical mediation which is passed through in every act of understanding” escaped him. We then discuss the underlying notions of time at work in both Gadamer and Collingwood, showing that Ricœur had a better appreciation of the issue, since he saw that Collingwood’s moves parallel, up to a point, Heidegger’s critique of “vulgar time,” albeit with an entirely different result. We also point to the importance in Collingwood’s thinking of his notion of “incapsulation.”
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 104-116
What did “historical distance” mean to historians in the Rankean tradition? Although historical distance is often equated with temporal distance, an analysis of Ernst Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode reveals that for German historians around 1900 distance did not primarily refer to a passage of time that would enable scholars to study remote pasts from retrospective points of view. If Bernheim’s manual presents historical distance as a prerequisite for historical interpretation, the metaphor rather conveys a need for self-distanciation. Self-distanciation is not a Romantic desire to “extinguish” oneself, but a virtuous attempt to put one’s own ideas and intuitions about the working of the world between brackets in the study of people who might have understood the world in different terms. Although Bernheim did not explicitly talk about virtue, the article shows that his Lehrbuch nonetheless considers self-distanciation a matter of virtuous behavior, targeted at an aim that may not be fully realizable, but ought to be pursued with all possible vigor. For Bernheim, then, distance requires epistemological virtue, which in turn calls for intellectual character, or what Bernheim’s generation considered scholarly selfhood (wissenschaftliche Persönlichkeit). Not a mapping of time onto space, but a strenuous effort to mold “scholarly characters,” truly able to recognize the otherness of the past, appears to be characteristic of Bernheim’s view of historical distance.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 117-135
This paper explores how the notion of distance works in the practice of interpretation by studying the philosophical underpinnings of the originalism debate in American constitutionalism. Focusing on some of its most important spokespeople, the paper shows that they start from the historicist presupposition that distance can in principle be overcome by a reconstruction of the original intentions of the framers of the Constitution. With the help of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who explicitly based his philosophical hermeneutics on the notion of distance, this presupposition will be criticized. The paper concludes that the originalist and hermeneuticist positions do not mutually exclude each other, but can be synthesized if they are seen as different questions about the same text. The meaning of the Constitution is therefore not given but is dependent on the direction of the questions asked by the interpreter. From this question-dependency of meaning it follows that interpretation follows the law of acoustics: “Angle of incidence equates angle of reflection.”
History and Theory, Theme Issue 50 (December 2011), 139-149
The point of departure of this essay is the intuition that the relationship between the past and the present (or between the past as the object of historical investigation and what is said about it by the historian) should be conceived of in terms of temporal distance. The spatial metaphor of distance at work in this intuition is thought to provide the basis for the epistemological model appropriate for understanding the nature of historical knowledge. This results in two claims: 1) epistemology is the philosophical instrument we must rely upon for understanding historical writing, and 2) the metaphor of distance is—whether one is aware of it or not—the model for most, if not all, epistemological thought. This essay discusses the pros and cons of these two claims. It argues that the two claims are indeed the best way to begin our analysis of the relationship between the past and the historical text or representation. However, we cannot afford to stop there; indeed, we must ask ourselves where the associations we have with the metaphor of temporal distance may, in the end, be misleading. This will enable us to recognize that the notion of distance will, finally, have to yield its prerogatives to that of the notion of function. Historical writing is functionalist in the sense that the historical text is a substitute for the past discussed in it. That is its function. Hence the essay’s title.
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 303-327
Many long-standing debates about anachronistic concept-attributions derive from an essentialist understanding of concepts that is often difficult to sustain for metaphysical or epistemological reasons. The intentionalist alternative to essentialism elaborated in this article successfully clarifies and avoids many standard problems with anachronism.
JEFFREY ANDREW BARASH
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 328-340
This essay explores the different interpretations proposed by Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg of the relation between Platonic philosophy and myth as a means of bringing to light a fundamental divergence in their respective conceptions of what precisely myth is. It attempts to show that their conceptions of myth are closely related to their respective assumptions concerning the historical significance of myth and regarding the sense of history more generally. Their divergent conceptions of myth and of history, I argue, are at the same time not simply matters of abstract speculation, but spring from fundamental presuppositions concerning myth’s political significance. The present elucidation aims not only to set in relief one or another of the ways in which Cassirer or Blumenberg understood myth, nor even to present Blumenberg’s critical reception of Cassirer’s theories, but above all to contribute to the interpretation of the political implications of myth and of its historical potency in our contemporary epoch.
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 341-357
How do micro cases lead us to surprising macro claims? Historians often say that the micro level casts light on the macro level. This metaphor of “casting light” suggests that the micro does not illuminate the macro straightforwardly; such light needs to be interpreted. In this essay, I propose and clarify six interpretive norms to guide micro-to-macro inferences.
I focus on marginal groups and monsters. These are popular cases in social and cultural histories, and yet seem to be unpromising candidates for generalization. Marginal groups are dismissed by the majority as inferior or ill-fitting; their lives seem intelligible but negligible. Monsters, on the other hand, are somehow incomprehensible to society and treated as such. First, I show that, by looking at how a society identifies a marginal group and interacts with it, we can draw surprising inferences about that society’s self-image and situation. By making sense of a monster’s life, we can draw inferences about its society’s mentality and intelligibility. These will contest our conception of a macro claim. Second, I identify four risks in making such inferences—and clarify how norms of coherence, challenge, restraint, connection, provocation, and contextualization can manage those risks.
My strategy is to analyze two case studies, by Richard Cobb, about a band of violent bandits and a semi-literate provincial terrorist in revolutionary France. Published in 1972, these studies show Cobb to be an inventive and idiosyncratic historian, who created new angles for studying the micro level and complicated them with his autobiography. They illustrate how a historian’s autobiographical, literary, and historiographical interests can mix into a risky, and often rewarding, style.
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 358-372
Intellectual historians often make empirical claims, but can never know for certain if these claims are right. Uncertainty is thus inevitable for intellectual historians. But accepting uncertainty is not enough: we should also act on it, by trying to reduce and report it. We can reduce uncertainty by amassing valid data from different sources to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of competing explanations, rather than trying to “prove” an empirical claim by looking for evidence that fits it. Then we should report our degree of certainty in our claims. When we answer empirical questions in intellectual history, we are not telling our readers what happened: we are telling them how strong we think our evidence is—a crucial shift of emphasis. For intellectual historians, then, uncertainty is subjective, as discussed by Keynes and Collingwood; the paper thus explores three differences between subjective and objective uncertainty. Having outlined the theoretical basis of uncertainty, the paper then offers examples from actual research: Noel Malcolm’s work shows how to reduce and report uncertainty about composition, and David Wootton’s work shows how to reduce and report uncertainty about beliefs.
RYAN ANTHONY VIEIRA
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 373-389
The political impact of “social acceleration” has recently attracted much attention in sociology and political theory. The concept, however, has remained entirely unexplored in the discipline of history. Although numerous British historians have noted the prominent position of acceleration in the late-Victorian and Edwardian imagination, these observations have never expanded beyond the realm of rhetorical flourish. The present paper attempts to build a two-way interdisciplinary bridge between British political history and the theories of social acceleration that have been posited in the social sciences, arguing that both British political historians and acceleration theorists have much to gain from further dialogue.
JOHN H. ZAMMITO
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 390-413
Rheinberger’s brief history brings into sharp profile the importance of history of science for a philosophical understanding of historical practice. Rheinberger presents thought about the nature of science by leading scientists and their interpreters over the course of the twentieth century as emphasizing increasingly the local and developmental character of their learning practices, thus making the conception of knowledge dependent upon historical experience, “historicizing epistemology.” Linking his account of thought about science to his own work on “experimental systems,” I draw extensive parallels with other work in the local history of science (the ideas of Latour, Pickering, Rouse, and others) and consider the epistemological implications both for the relation between history and philosophy of science and between history and theory more broadly. In doing so, I suggest that the long-standing gap between the natural sciences and history as a “human science” has been significantly bridged by the insistence upon the local, mediated, indeed “historicized epistemology” of actual science.
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 414-424
Davis argues that the familiar periodization dividing European history into medieval and modern phases disguises a claim to power as a historical fact. It justifies slavery and subjugation by projecting them onto the “feudal” Middle Ages and non-European present, while hiding forms of slavery and subjugation practiced by “secular” modernity. Periodization thus furnishes one of the most durable conceptual foundations for the usurpation of liberty and the abuse of power.
In part I, devoted to “feudalism,” Davis traces the legal, political, and colonial struggles behind the development of the concept of “feudal law” in early modern France and England and unravels just how that concept hides colonial oppression while justifying European sovereignty. In part II, devoted to “secularization,” she demonstrates the failure of twentieth-century critics of “secularization” like Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, and Reinhart Koselleck to break out of the limits imposed by the medieval/modern periodization. Part II concludes with a look at conceptual alternatives in the writings of Amitav Ghosh and the Venerable Bede.
Three limitations of this book are worth mentioning. It traces the political history hidden by the concept of “feudalism,” but does not trace the political history hidden by the concept of “religion.” It offers no answer to the question of how to break the link between scholarship and politics without ending up in a logical impasse or reinforcing the link. It does not address the possibility that answering this question may require breaking with the terms of professional historical inquiry. Perhaps the question could be answered in terms like those that led Wittgenstein to characterize his Philosophical Investigations as remarks on the natural history of human beings.
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 425-432
Two new books about the Pragmatist tradition, Richard Bernstein’s The Pragmatic Turn and Colin Koopman’s Pragmatism as Transition, represent respectively a summing up of the past half-century of the tradition’s history and a possible program for its future development. Bernstein ecumenically considers the achievements of a wide range of thinkers from Peirce, Dewey, and James to Brandom, Putnam, and Rorty, drawing valuable lessons from each, while not sparing criticism of their flaws. Koopman also tries to bridge the gap between what he calls “classicopragmatism” and “neopragmatism,” although he finds more to admire in Rorty than in his predecessors. Whereas Bernstein attempts to supplement the pragmatist tradition by turning to Habermas, Koopman finds his inspiration in Foucault. Both authors emphasize the historicist, evolutionary, and transitionalist implications of pragmatism, paying as a result insufficient attention to the historical possibilities of repetition, rupture, discontinuity, and the unexpected event. In terms of the political implications they draw, Koopman advocates a meliorist incrementalism that lacks any real bite, while Bernstein expresses dissatisfaction with the democratic pieties of Rorty’s final work, but doesn’t really provide a sustained alternative.
History and Theory 50 (October 2011), 433-442
This edited collection of conference papers moves historiographical debate beyond the cultural, linguistic, subjective, and archival “turns,” and beyond historiographical questions asked from the “postcolony,” to consider the historian’s role as writer and in relationship to his or her (dead) subjects. Wider cultural appropriations of the Holocaust frame several contributions and underpin the ethics of historical reconstruction discussed. This review of Unsettling History considers “raising the dead” as a paradigmatic activity of Western social historians, first articulated in the European nineteenth century. Using the perspective of its editors and contributors, it argues for a yet more detailed attention to historians’ acts and performances of writing.
HOLT N. PARKER
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 147-170
The most common definitions of popular culture suffer from a presentist bias and cannot be applied to pre-industrial and pre-capitalist societies. A survey reveals serious conceptual difficulties as well. We may, however, gain insight in two ways. 1) By moving from a Marxist model (economic/class/production) to a more Weberian approach (societal/status/consumption). 2) By looking to Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” and Danto’s and Dickie’s “Institutional Theory of Art,” and defining popular culture as “unauthorized culture.”
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 171-187
Cultural historical research has deliberately challenged “historical realism,” the view that history is comprised entirely of observable actions that actually occurred, and instead has emphasized the historical significance of thoughts, emotions, and representations; it has also focused on the invisible, the momentary, and the perishable. These latter elements introduce the notion of the possible in history. This article examines the ways in which cultural history has approached the notion of the possible, as well as the methodological and theoretical implications of this approach. Its chief claim is that the idea of possibility is fundamental for the concept of culture and ineliminable from its historical study.
The question of possibility is present in multiple ways in the study of history; it is important to distinguish among different levels of possibility. The possible may mean, for instance, what it is possible for historians to know about the past, or the possibilities open to historical agents themselves, or, indeed, the possibilities they perceived themselves as having even if these seem impossible from the point of view of the historian. The article starts with the first aspect and moves on toward the possibilities that existed in the past world either in fact or in the minds of those in the past.
The article argues that the study of past cultures always entails the mapping of past possibilities. The first strand of the essay builds on the metaphor of the black hole and intends to solve one of the central problems faced by cultural historians, namely, how to access the horizon of the people of the past, their experience of their own time, especially when the sources remain silent. The second, more speculative strand builds on the notion of plenitude and is designed to open up avenues for further discussion about the concept of culture in particular.
NATALIE ZEMON DAVIS
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 188-202
This essay was first presented at the 2010 Ludwig Holberg Prize Symposium in Bergen, Norway, where I, as the prize recipient, was asked to describe my work and its import for our period of globalization. The essay first traces the interconnected processes of “decentering” history in Western historiography in the half century after World War II: the move to working people and “subaltern classes”; to women and gender; to communities defined by ethnicity and race; to the study of non-Western histories and world or global history, in which the European trajectory is only one of several models. Can the historian hold onto the subjects of “decentered” social and cultural history, often local and full of concrete detail, and still address the perspectives of global history? To suggest an answer to this question, I describe my own decentering path from work on sixteenth-century artisans in the 1950s to recent research on non-European figures such as the Muslim “Leo Africanus” (Hasan al-Wazzan). I then offer two examples in which concrete cases can serve a global perspective. One is a comparison of the literary careers of Ibn Khaldun and Christine de Pizan in the scribal cultures on either side of the Mediterranean in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The other is the transmission and transformation of practices of divination, healing, and detection from Africa to the slave communities of Suriname in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
JOAN W. SCOTT
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 203-209
Natalie Davis is a quintessential storyteller in the way theorized by Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Michel de Certeau. Her work decenters history not simply because it grants agency and so historical visibility to those who have been hidden from history or left on its margins, but also because her stories reveal the complexities of human experience and so challenge the received categories with which we are accustomed to thinking about the world.
BONNIE G. SMITH
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 210-219
Natalie Zemon Davis’s work has decentered the identities of her subjects as part of seeing their complexity. This essay, inspired by Davis’s rich thought and scholarship, looks at the ways in which the Romantics in the arts decentered their thought and practices away from the West. Their decentering involved serious study of non-Western thought and its incorporation into their art, and the regular use of opium to shape their creative works. One borrowed theme was transcendence to a higher mode of existence, often through sexual union with a woman. So influential did Romantic tropes, themes, and images derived from outside the West become that they persisted in Western culture long after the Romantics themselves had lost interest in the body of non-Western culture from which they drew. Examples include the work of Samuel Coleridge, Walter Scott, Hector Berlioz, the Schlegel brothers, Caroline Günderode, Sidney Owenson, and others.
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 220-228
Mediterranean history, and the history of other closed seas, is seen here as the experience of those who traversed the sea and arrived as decentered aliens on the other side. Mainly these have been men, with merchants generally as pioneers who introduced the goods, ideas, and religion of one region to another. From antiquity onwards, port cities such as Carthage, Alexandria, Smyrna, and Livorno acted as links among the three continents facing the Mediterranean, and visitors from other lands were sometimes free to roam, sometimes ghettoized.
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 229-242
In his latest contribution to the application of Darwinian evolutionary thinking to the social sciences, W. G. Runciman conceives of human behavior as resulting from three levels of selection—biological, cultural, and social. These give rise, respectively, to evoked, acquired, and imposed patterns of behavior. The biological level is hardly controversial, but to draw a distinction between separate cultural and social selective processes is more problematic. Runciman takes memes to be the variants competitively selected at the cultural level and the practices constituting rule-governed roles to be the variants competitively selected at the social level—thus preserving separate spheres of research for anthropology and sociology. It is not clear, however, what drives cultural and social evolution. Nor are the three levels theoretically well integrated. The book’s strength lies in the numerous examples provided of how the application of selectionist theory illuminates and enriches sociological and historical explanations and contributes to the construction of historical narrative.
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 243-253This book summarizes in a compact volume Runciman’s arguments to comparative sociologists that their discipline belongs under the theoretical umbrella of neo-Darwinian selectionism. In his view, heritable variation and competitive selection govern cultural and social as well as biological evolution. Runciman makes a strong case for the usefulness of selectionism, but two of the theory’s central features are problematic: his choice of units of selection; and the notion that culture can be distinguished from society historically as well as analytically. No one friendly to the basic project would argue against the need for hypotheses about units that undergo selection, but arguments can be made, also on pragmatic grounds, that he has chosen the wrong kinds of units. Runciman’s learning and wisdom show to good effect in the book’s fundamental approach: in the overall human story, the biological, cultural, and social coevolve. The quickly accumulating evidence of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, sociology, and neuroscience strongly supports the hypothesis that there is a biological basis for a great deal of human behavior, and also that sociocultural evolution modifies genes. History, in this way of thinking, is like a “braided stream” of unpredictably mutating, blending, and coevolving biological, cultural, and social processes. The old Darwinian image of branching fails to capture the complexity of evolutionary processes in biology, culture, and society. Runciman outlines a unified bio-social science relying upon information theory. If his program were carried out consistently it would relegate to a non-scientific level the traditional historical narratives about “carriers” or “vehicles.” The scientific-explanatory level would instead feature replicators. Game-theory strategies play a prominent role in the selectionist picture. The emphasis on units of information stored in human brains or in exosomatic brain prostheses pushes neuroscience and information theory to the fore. An argument for the analytic-heuristic value of “memes” and “practices” should be weighed against the value of other hypothetical units undergoing selection in a sociocultural evolutionary approach.
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 254-269
What is time? This essay offers an attempt to think again about this oldest of philosophical questions by engaging David Hoy’s recent book, The Time of Our Lives: A Critical History of Temporality, which proposes a “history of time-consciousness” in twentieth-century European philosophy. Hoy’s book traces the turn-of-the-century debate between Husserl and Bergson about the different senses of time across the various configurations of hermeneutics, deconstruction, poststructuralism, and feminist theory. For him, what is at stake in such a project is to distinguish between the scientific-objective “time of the universe” and the phenomenology of human temporality, “the time of our lives.” Hoy’s approach is to organize his book around the three tenses of time—past/present/future—and to view objective-scientific time as derived from the more primordial forms of temporalizing lived experience that occur in our interpretation of time. In my reading of Hoy’s work, I attempt to explore how “time” (lived, experiential, phenomenological) can be read not in terms of “consciousness” (Hoy’s thematic), but in terms of the self’s relationship with an Other. That is, my aim is less to establish a continental tradition about time-consciousness, understood through the methods of genealogy, phenomenology, or critical theory, than it is to situate the problem of time in terms of an ethics of the Other. In simple terms, I read Hoy’s project as too bound up with an egological interpretation of consciousness. By reflecting on time through the relationship to the Other rather than as a mode of the self’s own “time-consciousness,” I attempt to think through the ethical consequences for understanding temporality and its connection to justice.
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 270-284
Kevin Starr’s Golden Dreams is the culmination to some forty years of scholarship on the unfolding theme of a “California Dream,” that imaginal component to the growth of the self-identity and increasing international economic power of the most populous state in the American Union. Indeed, the period 1950–1963 that the book meticulously covers forms in many ways the most imposing manifestation of that Dream. This essay reviews the central features of Starr’s account, particularly the infrastructural foundations in transportation, water supply, and higher education realized by a triumvirate of California governors, both Republican and Democrat, who regarded themselves as nonpartisan members of the “Party of California”; the expansion of California’s major cities: Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco; the characteristics of the Silent Generation and the culture of “cool Jazz” that dominated the period; as well as the rise of dissident elements among environmentalists, minorities, and Beats, that foretold the protest period of the 1960s. This essay then asks whether Starr has avoided the larger implications of his own narrative that California from this period on had become in most respects a putative nation-state in its own right. From the global impact of its major media industry—Hollywood—to the continued advances of its economic clout throughout the rest of the century as at times the fifth largest economic entity in the world, California may need to be increasingly regarded as a world civilization in itself rather than as a regional civilization to which Starr’s historical narrative has so far constricted it.
The title of the work in footnote 1, p. 270, should be: “Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915”
In footnote 6, p. 274, the title of the last work cited in the note should be: The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s.
History and Theory 50 (May 2011), 285-294
The two books discussed here join a current pushback against the concept (thus also against claims for the historical occurrence) of genocide. Nichanian focuses on the Armenian “Aghed” (“Catastrophe”), inferring from his view of that event’s undeniability that “genocide is not a fact” (since all facts are deniable). May’s critique assumes that groups don’t really—“objectively”—exist, as (by contrast) individuals do; thus, genocide—group murder—also has an “as if” quality so far as concerns the group victimized. On the one hand, then, uniqueness and sacralization; on the other hand, reductionism and diffusion. Alas, the historical and moral claims in “defense” of both genocide and “genocide” survive.
History and Theory 50 (February 2011), 1-19
Philosophers of history in the past few decades have been predominantly interested in issues of explanation and narrative discourse. Consequently, they have focused consistently and almost exclusively on the historian’s (published) output, thereby ignoring that historical scholarship is a practice of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing, in which successful performance requires active cultivation of certain skills, attitudes, and virtues. This paper, then, suggests a new agenda for philosophy of history. Inspired by a “performative turn” in the history and philosophy of science, it focuses on the historian’s “doings” and proposes to analyze these performances in terms of epistemic virtue. It argues that historical scholarship is embedded in “practices” or “epistemic cultures,” in which knowledge is created and warranted by means of such virtues as honesty, carefulness, accuracy, and balance. These epistemic virtues, however, are not etched in stone: historians may highlight some of them, exchange one for another, or reinterpret their meaning. On the one hand, this suggests a rich area of research for historians of historiography. To what extent can consensus, conflict, continuity, and change in historical scholarship be explained in terms of epistemic virtue? On the other hand, the proposal outlined in this article raises a couple of philosophical questions. For example, on what grounds can historians choose among epistemic virtues? And what concept of the self comes with the notion of virtue? In addressing these questions, philosophy of history may expand its current scope so as to encompass not only “writings” but also “doings,” that is, the virtuous performances historians recognize as professional conduct.
History and Theory 50 (February 2011), 20-40
The French philosopher and intellectual historian Pierre Hadot (1922–2010) is known primarily for his conception of philosophy as spiritual exercise, which was an essential reference for the later Foucault. An aspect of his work that has received less attention is a set of methodological reflections on intellectual history and on the relationship between philosophy and history. Hadot was trained initially as a philosopher and was interested in existentialism as well as in the convergence between philosophy and poetry. Yet he chose to become a historian of philosophy and produced extensive philological work on neo-Platonism and ancient philosophy in general. He found a philosophical rationale for this shift in his encounter with Wittgenstein’s philosophy in the mid-1950s (Hadot was one of Wittgenstein’s earliest French readers and interpreters). For Hadot, ancient philosophy must be understood as a series of language games, and each language game must be situated within the concrete conditions in which it happened. The reference to Wittgenstein therefore supports a strongly contextualist and historicist stance. It also supports its exact opposite: presentist appropriations of ancient texts are entirely legitimate, and they are the only way ancient philosophy can be existentially meaningful to us. Hadot addresses the contradiction by embracing it fully and claiming that his own practice aims at a coincidence of opposites (a concept borrowed from the Heraclitean tradition). For Hadot the fullest and truest way of doing philosophy is to be a philosopher and a historian at the same time.
JOHANN N. NEEM
History and Theory 50 (February 2011), 41-70
Historians around the world have sought to move beyond national history. In doing so, they often conflate ethical and methodological arguments against national history. This essay, first, draws a clear line between the ethical and the methodological arguments concerning national history. It then offers a rationale for the continued writing of national history in general, and American history in particular, in today’s global age.
The essay makes two main points. First, it argues that nationalism, and thus the national histories that sustain national identities, are vital to liberal democratic societies because they ensure the social bonds necessary to enable democratic citizens to sacrifice their immediate interests for the common good. The essay then argues that new methodological and historical work on the history of nations and nationalism has proven that nations are as real as any other historical group. Rejecting national history on critics’ terms would require rejecting the history of all groups. Instead, new methods of studying nations and nationalism have reinforced rather than undermined the legitimacy of national history within the discipline.
History and Theory 50 (February 2011), 71-97
This article discusses together two recent prize-winning works of epic proportions that have received much attention: Saul Friedländer’s two-volume historical study Nazi Germany and the Jews and Jonathan Littell’s novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the former of which focuses on victims and the latter on perpetrators of the “Final Solution.” I provide a critical analysis of Littell’s novel, especially with respect to its seemingly fatalistic mingling of erotic and genocidal motifs and its disavowal or underestimation of the difficulty and necessity of understanding victims of the Nazi genocide. My analysis raises the question of the extent to which the notoriety of the novel may be due to the way it instantiates influential approaches to both literature and the Holocaust in terms of an aesthetic of the sublime, excess, radical ambiguity (resolvable at best into irony and paradox), and fatalistic entry into an incomprehensible “heart of darkness.” Crucial here is the notion that an object (paradigmatically, the Holocaust) both demands representation or explanation and ultimately is beyond comprehension, narrative, or even words. I also reevaluate the bases for the justified praise accorded Friedländer’s masterwork and question certain claims made on its behalf by commentators, especially with respect to literary and historiographical innovation. In so doing, I explore and defend the role of critical theory in relation to historical narrative.
History and Theory 50 (February 2011), 98-111
In his new book, How Modernity Forgets, Paul Connerton seeks to show a relationship between the workings of late capitalism and the institutionalization of forgetfulness in ever more abstract conceptions of space and time. He uses this argument to explain why the topic of collective memory has waxed so large in contemporary historical scholarship. I interpret his argument in light of his earlier work on habit memory and his still earlier critique of Frankfurt School social theory. I close with some comments on his study in the context of recent work on mnemonic practices in modern culture.
History and Theory 50 (February 2011), 112-119
In The Deaths of Hintsa: Postapartheid South Africa and the Shape of Recurring Pasts, Premesh Lalu claims to offer a critique of apartheid’s colonial past. Emblematic of this colonial past is the 1835 killing and mutilation of the Xhosa king Hintsa. Lalu uses this violent event to argue against the evidence provided by the colonial archives. He argues that the killing of Hintsa was not an empirical fact but a product of the colonial imagination. The review argues that although the critique of apartheid’s colonial past is timely, the book is not about Hintsa and does not therefore offer an alternative narrative of the death of the Xhosa king.
History and Theory 50 (February 2011), 120-128
The recent wave of interest in the “theological-political” has focused scholarly attention on the constellation of ideas associated with “messianic time.” The term kairós belongs to this constellation, and Giacomo Marramao’s brief but ambitious text of the same name both proposes and performs a “kairological” reconfiguration of the close relationship between philosophy and time. Marramao’s argument for the productive potential of “cosmic disorientation” and contingency will merit the attention of historians interested in Benjamin’s blend of messianism and historical materialism, and of anyone who is intrigued by the prospect of a messianism without apocalypticism.
History and Theory 49 (December 2010), 6-27
The prediction defended in this paper is that over the next fifty years we will see a return of the ancient tradition of “universal history”; but this will be a new form of universal history that is global in its practice and scientific in its spirit and methods. Until the end of the nineteenth century, universal history of some kind seems to have been present in most historiographical traditions. Then it vanished as historians became disillusioned with the search for grand historical narratives and began to focus instead on getting the details right through document-based research. Today, however, there are many signs of a return to universal history. This has been made possible, at least in part, by the detailed empirical research undertaken in the last century in many different fields, and also by the creation of new methods of absolute dating that do not rely on the presence of written documents. The last part of the paper explores some of the possible consequences for historical scholarship of a return to a new, scientific form of universal history. These may include a closer integration of historical scholarship with the more historically oriented of the sciences, including cosmology, geology, and biology. Finally, the paper raises the possibility that universal history may eventually be taught in high schools, where it will provide a powerful new way of integrating knowledge from the humanities and the sciences.
History and Theory 49 (December 2010), 28-46
The themes of connectedness and continuity, which are also mathematical properties, have run like a red thread through the last fifty years of History and Theory, notably in the theory of the narration of action in history. In this essay I review various answers to the question of the driving force that motivates action and that propels a sequence, continuous or discontinuous. These answers underpin narrative strategies intended to solve the problem of human agency and thereby to provide the basis for historical narratives. I argue that both continuous and discontinuous conceptions of history have to do with the restrictive concept of trajectory. Most of our familiar concepts such as trajectory, equilibrium, optimum, probability, and sensitivity to initial conditions are taken from mathematics and physics, but how well adapted are they to dealing with the time of actors, whose actions are intermingled with uncertainty? I shall present alternative concepts of dynamics, ones that no longer lead toward just one particular future or that reflect a single past. On this basis I suggest reorganizing our view of historical time along the principles of maintenance, acquisition, and victory. Historical sources trace back not to one story or one process that is plausible or that appeals to common sense, but to a whole family of processes. From the past, we can obtain sets of constraints that circumscribe sets of stories rather than a single scenario. I shall then propose a topology of the time of action based on my alternative conception of dynamics, a topology made of what I call viability kernels, capture basins, and victory domains.
History and Theory 49 (December 2010), 47-63
If it is true, as I have argued in an earlier essay, that discontinuity is not an unintended side-effect of our ambition to attain goals that are in line with our identity, but the result of our giving in to a sublime “why not?,” then how can we conceive of history as a process? In this essay I will explore the thesis that my notion that the discontinuities of history spring from a dehors texte squares well with an evolutionary view of history. I will do so by giving an account of how Lenin and Trotsky brought off one of the primordial discontinuities of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution. Starting with Trotsky’s remark that Lenin owed his success to his “imagination,” I show that the October 1917 coup d’état was not guided by strategy or driven by ideology, but by a series of “inspired” improvisations in which the protagonists fled forward into the unknown. Trotsky describes Lenin’s “intuition of action” as the fruit of his ability to take leave of the system of complexity reduction that is stored in conventions, received wisdom, and other things we take for granted. Trotsky in effect says that Lenin’s improvisations were most successful when he was so completely “possessed” by his deeds that he didn’t fully know what he was doing—when, that is, he was in (as psychiatrists would say) a state of dissociation. In Lenin’s inspired deeds the “latent powers of the organism” that humans have “inherited from animal ancestors” rose up, Trotsky said, and “smashed through the doors of psychic routine and—together with the highest historico-philosophical generalizations—stood up in the service of the revolution.” Acting out the dehors texte, Lenin brought about one of the metamorphoses in which humanity mutates to new—though not necessarily higher or happier—levels. The essay includes some remarks on what all this means for the relation between history and theory in the upcoming years.
History and Theory 49 (December 2010), 64-84
Progress in understanding, clarifying, forming, and devising methods for analyzing, eliminating, or resolving the problems of the philosophies of history and historiography requires integration with other branches of philosophy such as metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind, and ethics. Conversely, mainstream philosophical theories would benefit from confronting the problems of the philosophies of history and historiography. Solving the problems of the philosophies of historiography and history requires considering historiography as continuous with philosophy.
This approach is exemplified by examining metaphysical issues in the philosophy of history—historical contingency, necessity, determination, causation, over-determination, and under-determination—as well as investigating the epistemology of testimony for its relevance to the epistemology of our knowledge of the past.
Inference from multiple testimonies is a particular case of a general model of inference, one in which scientists infer a common cause from multiple sources of evidence that preserve similar information about their common causes. The historical sciences—history, phylogeny, evolutionary biology, comparative historical linguistics, and cosmology—all infer common causes or origins. The theoretical sciences are not interested in any particular token event, but in types of events, whereas, in contrast, the historical sciences attempt to infer common-cause tokens.
The main reasons for the absence of decisive progress in the philosophy of historiography along the promising directions the article outlines are external: random, adverse institutional and market conditions that block the professionalization of the field.
CAROLYN J. DEAN
History and Theory 49 (December 2010), 85-99
This essay renews a discussion of how historians do, and should, represent atrocity. It argues that the problems of representing extreme violence remain under-conceptualized; in this context it discusses the strengths and weaknesses of minimalism, a style prevalent both in historiography and in an intellectual culture that values understatement in approaches to violence. The essay traces the general cultural preference for minimalist narratives of suffering, which, it claims, is driven by the widespread conviction that experimental and exuberant narratives convert victims’ suffering into kitsch. It then focuses on two works, by Saul Friedländer and by Jan Gross, on the history of Jewish victims during and after the Second World War in order to assess how each uses sophisticated minimalist understatement to represent suffering, but with radically different effects. Finally, it asks historians to reflect upon the representation of extreme events by focusing on narrative style, on questions of ethics, and on the cultural narratives within which their own work on suffering and violence is inevitably embedded—especially given that historians are paying increasing attention to violent events that generate tremendous difficulties in relation to the representation both of victims and perpetrators.
History and Theory 49 (December 2010), 100-117
Over the last fifty years there has been much discussion about the value of narrative in the production of historical knowledge whereby it is generally assumed that “narrative” is a given and that the only thing at issue is its epistemological value. This article critically examines this assumption. It shows how conceptions of “narrative” have mutated in response to changes in cultural practice and, as importantly, how they have been implicitly modeled on the particular medium envisaged for telling stories: the stand-alone monograph. The belief that history’s natural form is a book written by an individual historian has thus informed most discussions of narrative in the twentieth century, meaning that the primacy of language, the autonomy of the author, and the finished, self-contained character of the work have been taken for granted. The “naturalness” of the stand-alone monograph can no longer be taken as a given, however, in the new media ecologies. Digitization and the internet offer new technologies for producing and disseminating historical knowledge and, in the process, present both opportunities and challenges to professional historians. Beyond their practical implications, the digital media also provide a new theoretical model for viewing historical narrative in terms of its social production by multiple agents across different platforms, and this can change our understanding both of past and of future practices.
History and Theory 49 (December 2010), 118-145
This essay reflects on the future of world history by reflecting on its past. It looks to how Iberian historiography in the early modern period “rediscovered” Islamic historiography in the course of Portuguese expansion into the Indian Ocean region in the sixteenth century. However, since the Iberians had deliberately cultivated a form of amnesia regarding this historiography as a result of the so-called Reconquest, new modes and methods of appropriation had to be found. Further, whereas medieval contact had largely been with materials in Arabic, the sixteenth-century world was far more centrally concerned with materials in Persian. The essay proposes that these materials and their perspective had a significant impact on humanist historians such as João de Barros as well as on their successors. Equally, access to European historical writings in Latin had some impact on Indo-Persian chroniclers at the Mughal court and elsewhere. However, it may be argued that an even greater impact on the Mughals was that of “Hindu” writings regarding the ancient past of India. All in all, the essay suggests that the past of such historical writing was crucially mediated by philological practice. Nor can philology be neglected for future projects in the writing of world history or global history. The essay thus questions the presumptions of both neo-skeptics, who neglect how historians have worked in the past, and of scientistic historians, who oppose the central place of humanistic disciplines in the future writing of history.
WILLIAM H. SEWELL, JR.
History and Theory 49 (December 2010) 146-166
This article attempts to account for professional historians’ relative neglect of the history of economic life over the past thirty years, looking mainly at the American case. This neglect seems paradoxical, considering the remarkable transformations that have taken place in world capitalism during this same period. I trace the neglect to the capture of the once interdisciplinary field of economic history by mathematically inclined economists and to the roughly simultaneous turn of historians from social to cultural history. I conclude by suggesting some topics in the history of economic life that seem both timely and exciting. I also suggest some intellectual resources that other disciplines, particularly economic sociology and economic history, could offer should historians decide to tackle the history of economic life once again.
History and Theory 49 (October 2010), 315-335
Lately, the concept of experience, which postmodernist theoreticians declared dead, has seen a renaissance. The immediacy of experience seems to offer the possibility of reaching beyond linguistic discourses. In their attempt to overcome the “linguistic turn,” scholars such as Ankersmit, Gumbrecht, and Runia pit experience against narrative. This paper takes up the recent interest in experience, but argues against the opposition to narrative into which experience tends to be cast. The relation between experience and narrative is more complex than is widely assumed. Besides representing and giving shape to experience, narratives are received in the form of a (reception) experience. Through their temporal structure, narratives are crucial to letting us re-experience the past as well as to representing the experiences of historical agents. This potential of narrative is nicely illustrated by Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War in which “side-shadowing” devices restore history’s experientiality. Through “side-shadowing,” narrative can challenge the tendency toward teleologies inherent in merely retrospective histories and can re-create the openness intrinsic to the past when it still was a present. However, the “side-shadowing” devices used by Thucydides are fictional. To conceptualize the price and gain of “side-shadowing” in historiography, the paper advances the concept of a “narrative reference” (a concept analogous to Ricoeur’s “metaphorical reference”). Introspection, speeches, and other “side-shadowing” devices sacrifice truth in a positivist sense, but permit a second-level reference, namely to history’s experientiality. In a final step, the paper turns toward modern historians—most of whom are reluctant to use the means of fiction—to briefly survey their attempts at restoring the openness of the past.
History and Theory 49 (October 2010), 336-360
Chinese historiography of modern China in the 1980s and 1990s underwent a paradigmatic transition: in place of the traditional revolutionary historiography that bases its analyses on Marxist methodologies and highlights rebellions and revolutions as the overarching themes in modern Chinese history, the emerging modernization paradigm builds its conceptual framework on borrowed modernization theory and foregrounds top-down, incremental reforms as the main force propelling China’s evolution to modernity. This article scrutinizes the origins of the new paradigm in the context of a burgeoning modernization discourse in reform-era China. It further examines the fundamental divides between the two types of historiography in their respective constructions of master narratives and their different approaches to representing historical events in modern China. Behind the prevalence of the modernization paradigm in Chinese historiography is Chinese historians’ unchanged commitment to serving present political needs by interpreting the past.
BENJAMIN ALDES WURGAFT
History and Theory 49 (October 2010), 361-383
Many authors, both scholarly and otherwise, have asked what might have happened had Walter Benjamin survived his 1940 attempt to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. This essay examines several implicitly or explicitly “counterfactual” thought experiments regarding Benjamin’s “survival,” including Hannah Arendt’s influential “Walter Benjamin: 1892–1940,” and asks why our attachment to Benjamin’s story has prompted so much counterfactual inquiry. It also explores the larger question of why few intellectual historians ask explicitly counterfactual questions in their work. While counterfactuals have proven invaluable for scholars in diplomatic, military, and economic history, those writing about the history of ideas often seem less concerned with chains of events and contingency than some of their colleagues are—or they attend to contingency in a selective fashion. Thus this essay attends to the ambivalence about the category of contingency that runs through much work in intellectual history. Returning to the case of Walter Benjamin, this essay explores his own tendency to pose “what if?” questions, and then concludes with an attempt to ask a serious counterfactual question about his story. The effort to ask this question reveals one methodological advantage of counterfactual inquiry: the effort to ask such questions often serves as an excellent guide to the prejudices and interests of the historian asking them. By engaging in counterfactual thought experiments, intellectual historians could restore an awareness of sheer contingency to the stories we tell about the major texts and debates of intellectual history.
ANDREW LINKLATER and STEPHEN MENNELL, Norbert Elias
History and Theory 49 (October 2010), 384-411
Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process, which was published in German in 1939 and first translated into English in two volumes in 1978 and 1982, is now widely regarded as one of the great works of twentieth-century sociology. This work attempted to explain how Europeans came to think of themselves as more “civilized” than their forebears and neighboring societies. By analyzing books about manners that had been published between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, Elias observed changing conceptions of shame and embarrassment with respect to, among other things, bodily propriety and violence. To explain those developments, Elias examined the interplay among the rise of state monopolies of power, increasing levels of economic interconnectedness among people, and pressures to become attuned to others over greater distances that led to advances in identifying with others in the same society irrespective of social origins. Elias’s analysis of the civilizing process was not confined, however, to explaining changing social bonds within separate societies. The investigation also focused on the division of Europe into sovereign states that were embroiled in struggles for power and security. This article provides an overview and analysis of Elias’s principal claims in the light of growing interest in this seminal work in sociology. The analysis shows how Elias defended higher levels of synthesis in the social sciences to explain relations between “domestic” and “international” developments, and changes in social structure and in the emotional lives of modern people. Elias’s investigation, which explained long-term processes of development over several centuries, pointed to the limitations of inquiries that concentrate on short-term intervals. Only by placing short-term trends in long-term perspective could sociologists understand contemporary developments. This article maintains that Elias’s analysis of the civilizing process remains an exemplary study of long-term developments in Western societies over the last five centuries.
History and Theory 49 (October 2010), 412-425
Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain is rightly critical of the functionalist fallacies that have plagued evolutionary theory, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. However, his attempt to improve on these efforts relies on functional explanations that themselves oversimplify the lessons of neuroscience. In addition, like explanations in evolutionary psychology, they are highly speculative and cannot be confirmed or disproved by evidence. Neuroscience research is too diverse to yield a single picture of brain functioning. Some recent developments in neuroscience research, however, do suggest that cognitive processing provides a kind of “operating system” that can support a great diversity of cultural material. These developments include evidence of “top-down” processing in motor control, in visual processing, in speech recognition, and in “emotion regulation.” The constraints that such a system may place on cultural learning and transmission are worth investigating. At the same time, historians are well advised to remain wary of the pitfalls of functionalism.
History and Theory 49 (October 2010), 426-434
In this rich and sensible assessment of historians’ practice and prospects, Allan Megill focuses on the obligation that historians have to support their accounts with evidence. He does this, first, by illustrating the difference between real and merely claimed evidence and, then, by giving an analysis of the underlying nature of evidence in historical accounts. Turning later to the question of how historians and their public should feel about diminishing unity (fragmentation) in historiography and the practices that generate it, Megill explains the sources of fragmentation and then argues that it doesn’t matter whether historians are doing the same thing and/or doing it in the same way. What matters, rather, is whether they are doing interesting things and doing them well.
History and Theory 49 (October 2010), 435-446
Christopher Hill’s National History and the World of Nations reminds us of the conjunctural moment of an emerging world market in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the promise it offered for vitalizing a “world history” yet to be written. More importantly, it supplies the silhouette of a radically different interpretive approach, formed by the force of a centrifugal perspective that—through its concentration on how France, the United States, and Japan were simultaneously motivated to construct representations of self-identity in national narratives—converged to disclose the possibility of a wider world no longer held hostage to the geopolitical category of the “West.” Hill’s account shows that the impulse behind the formation of national history employed different strategies to imagine a singular linear historical narrative of national identity that aimed both to remove the spectacle of coexisting, different, multiple temporalities and to weld large and regionally disparate populations into a single people who, in a new time, would be instructed to recognize themselves in the nation’s story. In Hill’s reckoning, national history in France, the United States, and Japan appears simply as another name for historical necessity that sought, through processes of naturalization and nationalization, to overcome the unstable and uneven relationship between state and capital but that failed to conceal the deeper reality of determinations demanded by the relations of capital at the local and international levels.
History and Theory 49 (May 2010), 157-168
Six questions are outlined and then responded to about Holocaust denial. These consider (1) Holocaust denial’s view of the Holocaust counterfactually—if it had occurred; (2) the presumed adequacy of the binary choice between Holocaust denial and affirmation; (3) the status and credence of their own assertions among denial advocates; (4) the often implied historiographic uniqueness of Holocaust denial; (5) the contributions to Holocaust history of the denial position; (6) the measures—scholarly, legislative, practical—that have been or might be directed at the phenomenon of Holocaust denial.
History and Theory 49 (May 2010), 169-193
Was the crisis of historicism an exclusively German affair? Or was it a “narrowly academic crisis,” as is sometimes assumed? Answering both questions in the negative, this paper argues that crises of historicism affected not merely intellectual elites, but even working-class people, not only in Germany, but also in the Netherlands. With an elaborated case study, the article shows that Dutch “neo-Calvinist” Protestants from the 1930s onward experienced their own crisis of historicism. For a variety of reasons, this religious subgroup came to experience a collapse of its “historicist” worldview. Following recent German scholarship, the paper argues that this historicism was not a matter of Rankean historical methods, but of “historical identifications,” or modes of identity formation in which historical narratives played crucial roles. Based on this Dutch case study, then, the article develops two arguments. In a quantitative mode, it argues that more and different people suffered from the crisis of historicism than is usually assumed. In addition, it offers a qualitative argument: that the crisis was located especially among groups that derived their identity from “historical identifications.” Those who suffered most from the crisis of historicism were those who understood themselves as embedded in narratives that connected past, present, and future in such a way as to offer identity in historical terms.
ELÍAS JOSÉ PALTI
History and Theory 49 (May 2010), 194-211
Recently, the diffusion of the so-called “new intellectual history” led to the dismissal of the old school of the “history of ideas” on the basis of its ahistorical nature (the view of ideas as eternal entities). This formulation is actually misleading, missing the core of the transformation produced in the field. It is not true that the history of ideas simply ignored the fact that the meaning of ideas changes over time. The issue at stake here is really not how ideas changed (the mere description of the semantic transformation they underwent historically), but rather why they do. The study of the German tradition of intellectual history serves in this essay as a basis to illustrate the meaning and significance of the recent turn from ideas as its object. In the process of trying to account for the source of contingency of conceptual formations, it will open our horizon to the complex nature of the ways by which we invest the world with meaning. That is, it will disclose the presence of different layers of symbolic reality lying beneath the surface level of “ideas,” and analyze their differential nature and functions. It will also show the reasons for the ultimate failure of the “history of ideas” approach, why discourses can never achieve their vocation to constitute themselves as self-enclosed, rationally integrated systems, thereby expelling contingency from their realm. In sum, it will show why historicity is not merely something that comes to intellectual history from without (as a by-product of social history or as the result of the action of an external agent), as the history of ideas assumed, but is a constitutive dimension of it.
History and Theory 49 (May 2010), 212-236
This essay is the first attempt to compare Reinhart Koselleck’s Historik with Hannah Arendt’s political anthropology and her critique of the modern concept of history. Koselleck is well-known for his work on conceptual history as well as for his theory of historical time(s). It is my contention that these different projects are bound together by Koselleck’s Historik, that is, his theory of possible histories. This can be shown through an examination of his writings from Critique and Crisis to his final essays on historical anthropology, most of which have not yet been translated into English. Conversely, Arendt’s political theory has in recent years been the subject of numerous interpretations that do not take into account her views about history. By comparing the anthropological categories found in Koselleck’s Historik with Arendt’s political anthropology, I identify similar intellectual lineages in them (Heidegger, Löwith, Schmitt) as well as shared political sentiments, in particular the anti-totalitarian impulse of the postwar era. More importantly, Koselleck’s theory of the preconditions of possible histories and Arendt’s theory of the preconditions of the political, I argue, transcend these lineages and sentiments by providing essential categories for the analysis of historical experience.
History and Theory 49 (May 2010), 237-265
The history of emotions is a burgeoning field—so much so, that some are invoking an “emotional turn.” As a way of charting this development, I have interviewed three of the leading practitioners of the history of emotions: William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns. The interviews retrace each historian’s intellectual-biographical path to the history of emotions, recapitulate key concepts, and critically discuss the limitations of the available analytical tools. In doing so, they touch on Reddy’s concepts of “emotive,” “emotional regime,” and “emotional navigation,” as well as on Rosenwein’s “emotional community” and on Stearns’s “emotionology” and offer glimpses of each historian’s ongoing research. The interviews address the challenges presented to historians by research in the neurosciences and the like, highlighting the distinctive contributions offered by a historical approach. In closing, the interviewees appear to reach a consensus, envisioning the history of emotions not as a specialized field but as a means of integrating the category of emotion into social, cultural, and political history, emulating the rise of gender as an analytical category since its early beginnings as “women’s history” in the 1970s.
History and Theory 49 (February 2010), 1-20
Surely one of the key issues in historiography is how to account for those mind-boggling and sometimes extremely bloody events in which we enter something really, sublimely new. In this essay my point of departure is that retrospectively it is almost impossible even for the historical actors themselves to get access to the contingent, irrational, “sacrilegious” aspect of the sublime event they brought about. In order to get a grip on the evanescent essence of the historical sublime, I propose to bring to a head, instead of leveling down, the tension that characterizes all historical and biographical discontinuities: the tension between the fact that discontinuities are made by the participants, yet are portrayed by these very participants as having come as a surprise. I will argue that discontinuity is not a regrettable side-effect of our ambition to attain goals that are in line with our identity, but that every now and then we give in to the urge to cut ourselves loose from our moorings. A key concept of the perspective that with sublime historical events “in the beginning is the deed” is vertigo. Vertigo may feel like a fear of falling, but really it is a wish to jump, covered by a fear of falling. Vertigo predisposes, as psychoanalysts say, to “counterphobic” behavior. Giving in to vertigo is a strategy for escaping from an unbearable tension by doing something—by breaking apart from what one used to cherish, by eating the apple, by committing an “original sin.” Making history—in the sense of embarking upon something that is as sublimely new as the French Revolution or the First World War—thus is not a matter of pursuing some interest but of willfully fleeing forward into the unknown.
JARI KAUKUA AND VILI LÄHTEENMÄKI
History and Theory 49 (February 2010), 21-37
Contemporary caution against anachronism in intellectual history, and the currently momentous theoretical emphasis on subjectivity in the philosophy of mind, are two prevailing conditions that set puzzling constraints for studies in the history of philosophical psychology. The former urges against assuming ideas, motives, and concepts that are alien to the historical intellectual setting under study, and combined with the latter suggests caution in relying on our intuitions regarding subjectivity due to the historically contingent characterizations it has attained in contemporary philosophy of mind. In the face of these conditions, our paper raises a question of what we call non-textual (as opposed to contextual) standards of interpretation of historical texts, and proceeds to explore subjectivity as such a standard. Non-textual standards are defined as (heuristic) postulations of features of the world or our experience of it that we must suppose to be immune to historical variation in order to understand a historical text. Although the postulation of such standards is often so obvious that the fact of our doing so is not noticed at all, we argue that the problems in certain special cases, such as that of subjectivity, force us to pay attention to the methodological questions involved. Taking into account both recent methodological discussion and the problems inherent in two de facto denials of the relevance of subjectivity for historical theories, we argue that there are good grounds for the adoption of subjectivity as a non-textual standard for historical work in philosophical psychology.
SIMON T. KAYE
History and Theory 49 (February 2010), 38-57
Counterfactualism is a useful process for historians as a thought-experiment because it offers grounds to challenge an unfortunate contemporary historical mindset of assumed, deterministic certainty. This article suggests that the methodological value of counterfactualism may be understood in terms of the three categories of common ahistorical errors that it may help to prevent: the assumptions of indispensability, causality, and inevitability. To support this claim, I survey a series of key counterfactual works and reflections on counterfactualism, arguing that the practice of counterfactualism evolved as both cause and product of an evolving popular assumption of the plasticity of history and the importance of human agency within it. For these reasons, counterfactualism is of particular importance both historically and politically. I conclude that it is time for a methodological re-assessment of the uses of such thought-experiments in history, particularly in light of counterfactualism’s developmental relatedness to cultural, technological, and analytical modernity.
History and Theory 49 (February 2010), 58-70
From a hermeneutic point of view, understanding is always conditioned by one’s own horizon and perspective. As the great poet Su Shi remarks, we do not know the “true face of Mount Lu” because what we see constantly changes as we move high or low, far off or up close. But the point of the “hermeneutic circle” is not to legitimize the circularity or subjectivity of one’s understanding, but to make us conscious of the challenge. How do we understand China, its history and culture? What should be the appropriate paradigm or perspective for China studies? More than twenty years ago, Paul Cohen argued for a “China-centered” approach to understanding Chinese history, but to assume an insider’s perspective does not guarantee adequate understanding any more than does an outsider’s position guarantee emancipation from an insider’s myopia or blindness. By discussing several exemplary cases in China studies, this essay argues that neither insiders nor outsiders have monopolistic or privileged access to knowledge, and that integration of different perspectives and their dynamic interaction beyond the isolation of native Chinese scholarship and Western Sinology may lead us to a better understanding of China and its history.
History and Theory 49 (February 2010), 71-89
The paper focuses on an argument put forward by Augustine in his De doctrina christiana: there are passages in the Bible that need to be read in a literal, contextual, and ultimately rhetorical perspective. This approach to the Bible (usually overshadowed by Augustine’s own parallel emphasis on the importance of allegory) was needed to deal with customs— for instance the patriarchs’ polygamy—that had to be evaluated, Augustine argued, according to standards different from those prevailing in the present day. This need inspired Augustine to utter some sharp remarks on the need to avoid (as we would say today) ethnocentric, anachronistic projections into the Biblical text.
The long-term impact of Augustine’s argument was profound. The emphasis on the letter played a significant role in the exchanges between Christian and Jewish medieval readings of the Bible, which affected Nicholas of Lyra’s influential commentary (Postilla). The same tradition may have contributed to Valla’s and Karlstadt’s audacious hermeneutic remarks on the Biblical canon, which covertly or openly focused on contradictions in the Biblical text, questioning the role of Moses as author of Deuteronomy. Traces of those discussions can be detected in Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus. The paper suggests that the emphasis on a literal, contextual reading of the Bible provided a model for secular reading in general. The possible role of this model in the aggressive encounter between Europe and alien cultures is a matter of speculation.
JENNIFER TUCKER, in collaboration with TINA CAMPT
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 1-8
The status of photographs as keystones of historical explanation has become a topic of urgent intellectual and cultural interest around the world, at the same time as methods of shaping historical narratives are also changing in ways that compel attention to the employment of photographs in historiography. By exposing the questions we ought to raise about all historical evidence, photographs reveal not simply the potential and limits of photography as a historical source, but the potential and limits of all historical sources and historical inquiry as an intellectual project. As the papers in this issue make apparent, this is precisely the promise and ultimate potential of the historical study of photographs—that it pushes their interpreters to the limits of historical analysis. This essay, which serves as an introduction to the Theme Issue, contextualizes issues raised by the articles and offers a critical synthesis of their impact on future scholarship about photography in historical analysis.
MARIANNE HIRSCH and LEO SPITZER
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 9-25
When historians, archivists, and museologists turn to Eastern European photos from family albums or collections—for example, photos from the decades preceding the Holocaust and the early years of the Second World War—they seek visual evidence or illustrations of the past. But photographs may refuse to fit expected narratives and interpretations, revealing both more and less than we expect. Focusing on photos of Jews taken on the main avenues of Cerna˘u?i, Romania, before the Second World War and during the city’s occupation by Fascist Romanians and their Nazi-German allies, this essay shows how a close reading of these vernacular images, both for what they show and what they are unable to show, can challenge the “before, during, and after” timeline that, in Holocaust historiography, we have come to accept as a given.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 26-33
In responding to an essay by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer about photographs taken in the streets of Chernivitsi (Czernowitz) in the 1940s, and thus in the midst of the Holocaust, this paper seeks to link their concerns to a broader consideration of photography as a modern phenomenon. In the process, the paper provides a brief history of street photography, a genre virtually ignored in standard histories of the photographic medium. The author suggests that Hirsch and Spitzer’s paper bravely reminds us that our fascination with photographs is based not on truth, but on a combination of desire (our own desire to transcend death) and faith (in photography’s ability to deliver this end, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary). Their account of street photography in Czernowitz thereby amounts to an interpretation of photographs as dynamic modes of apprehension rather than as static objects from the past that veridically represent it. It is precisely this aspect of photographs that makes them such unusually complicated, ambiguous, and incongruous historical objects.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 34-51
Born in 1956, Santu Mofokeng formed part of the Afrapix Collective that engaged in exposé and documentary photography of anti-apartheid resistance and social conditions during the 1980s in South Africa. However, Mofokeng was an increasingly important internal critic of mainstream photojournalism, and of the ways black South Africans were represented in the bigger international picture economy during the political struggle. Eschewing scenes of violence and the third-party view of white-on-black brutality in particular, he began his profound explorations of the everyday and spiritual dimensions of African life, both in the city and in the countryside. His formal techniques favor “fictions” that contain smoke, mist, and other matters and techniques that occlude rather than expose. Using angularity and ambivalence, he also ruptures realist expectations and allows space for the uncanny and the supernatural. He works with the notion of seriti (a northern seSotho term encompassing aura, shadow, power, essence, and many other things). The essay follows strands in Mofokeng’s writings and statements in relation to certain of his photographs, most recently repositioned in the substantial 2007 exhibition Invoice, to argue that he has pushed for a desecularization and Africanization of photography from the 1980s to the present. In more recent work the scourge of apartheid has been replaced by the HIV/AIDS virus, a mutation of nature, exacerbating the spiritual insecurities of many people in post-apartheid South Africa. The essay concludes that Mofokeng’s work poses a critique of the parallel paradigms of Marxist-influenced social history and documentary photography in 1980s South Africa, both still highly influential, by attempting to reinsert aura (seriti) into photography and by highlighting what secular Marxism has concealed and proscribed.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 52-58
This paper responds to Patricia Hayes’s insightful readings of Santu Mofokeng’s photographic work in South Africa. The paper operates from the premise that photography is a technology of visualization that both draws on and establishes a visual economy through which events and issues are materialized in particular ways. This allows the paper to pose questions and develop understandings about Mofokeng’s work in terms of the way certain factors coalesced to enable a particular representation of black South Africans in the global image economy. Central to this is the role of assumptions about exposure and visibility in relation to violence, assumptions that Mofokeng’s work, as a critique of conventional documentary work, explicitly contests. In exploring the invisibility of everyday life, Mofokeng expands notions of documentary photography and photojournalism. This paper demonstrates this point by connecting Mofokeng’s work to a contemporary controversy in European photojournalism to highlight how a more complex understanding of documentary photography is necessary.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 59-76
The role of chance in producing a picture by snapping a shutter release before a complex and quickly changing scene weakens the bond between the historic action photograph and the meanings it is routinely asked to bear. To appreciate this problem and to understand the array of popular notions that have been marshaled to finesse or suppress the role of chance in photographic production, I consider the case of Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 photograph of American servicemen raising a flag on Iwo Jima. The analysis pushes the production of this famous photograph through a series of zoological analogies: Is it like a fisherman reeling in a trophy catch? Like a cat pouncing on a mouse or a spider setting a trap for a fly? Like a pig pushing its snout through the dirt? Like chimpanzees banging at typewriters? These analogies are playful but also serious. We need new models for understanding the production of the historic action photograph because the predominant modern and postmodern approaches to that production have suppressed the role of chance. Whereas the modern regime tends to understand the historic action photograph as an inspired flash of history, the postmodern regime tends to understand it as a discursive effect. Entertaining the notion that such a photograph is instead a stochastic result leads to a new conception of photography and its relationship to history. Chance emerges as a third kind of photographic madness, alongside the industrial madness decried by Charles Baudelaire and the indexical madness that moved Roland Barthes.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 77-81
Against the notion of chance that Robin Kelsey proposes as the opening to a new conception of photography and its relationship to history, this response argues for attention to the apparatuses that strive to “cope with chance” and guarantee meaning—apparatuses whose effective purpose is precisely not to be undone by chance and not to be reminded of their contingent and arbitrary nature—in other words, of their historicity. This opens another kind of encounter with the historicity of the photographic image, as sliding from frame to frame, never quite fitting any of them, the photograph shows itself as an elusive opening, the ground of irreducibly heterogeneous and radically incommensurable stakes––never just one definitive and well-flagged stake driven into the ground at some singular moment in the past.
MICHAEL S. ROTH
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 82-94
This essay focuses on three topics that arose at the Photography and Historical Interpretation conference: photography’s incapacity to conceive duration; photography and the “rim of ontological uncertainty;” photography’s “anthropological revolution.” In the late nineteenth century, blindness to duration was conceptualized as the cost of photographic precision. Since the late twentieth century, blindness to our own desires, or inauthenticity, has been underlined as the price of photographic ubiquity. These forms of blindness, however, are not so much disabilities to be overcome as they are aspects of modern consciousness to be acknowledged. The engagement with photography’s impact on historical consciousness gives rise to reconsiderations of temporal extension and to the difficulties of acknowledging one’s desires in an increasingly open and fractured social field. Photography’s indexicality combined with its reproducibility gives rise to photographic ambivalence. As with other forms of ambivalence, we should be less concerned with diluting its constitutive tensions than with learning to live with its conflicted possibilities.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 95-111
This paper takes as its point of departure Roland Barthes’s proposition in La Chambre claire that the nineteenth century “invented History and Photography,” that the era of photography is one of revolutions, and that the photograph’s “testimony” has diminished our capacity to think in terms of “duration.” Barthes also asserts that the French photographer Nadar is “the greatest photographer in the world,” but takes no account of Nadar’s acute receptivity to the history of the nineteenth century. The paper argues that, though he fully recognized (and indeed documented) the unique properties of the new medium, Nadar himself was overridingly preoccupied with assessing photography’s role in a period when war and revolution were compromising the onward march of social and economic progress. Throughout his life, he was committed to the progressive ideas that he assimilated while growing up in Paris and Lyon in the 1830s. He wrote of the emergence of a Bohemian culture in the Latin Quarter of Paris, and remained keenly aware of the visual impressions that he had received in his youth from the popular lithographs of the pre-photographic era. He became a supporter of the artistic avant-garde, which led him to purchase important work by the landscape painter Daubigny. In his art criticism, he excoriated the later portraits of Ingres, which might have competed with his own reputation as a photographic portraitist. Yet, in his admiration for Delacroix, he emphasized the lengthy initiation necessary for the appreciation of the master’s paintings, implying a direct contrast with the “instantaneity” of the photographic process. By common consent, the period of Nadar’s great success as a portraitist, which secured his posthumous fame, occupied a short phase in his career as a whole. But his writings show that it was his lively intuition of the wider ramifications of photography that impelled him to move on—experimenting successfully with the first aerial photographs and documenting the catacombs of Paris with the aid of magnesium lighting. Though he could never experience television, he left a narrative in which the feasibility of transmitting images over a distance was presented as being startlingly realistic. In short, Nadar’s published work can be viewed as a sustained meditation on the interaction of historical experience and the media, which not only records but anticipates photography’s impact within the wider framework of visual culture.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 112-129
Not too long after photography’s grand debut in 1839, physician and inventor Oliver Wendell Holmes described the new technology as a “mirror with a memory.” What might this phrase mean for the question of African Americans and their relationship to the vicissitudes of photography and the vagaries of memory in particular? Through readings of works of art and social activism that make use of lynching photographs, this essay considers ways in which photography has functioned as a technology of memory for African Americans, what the essay calls critical black memory, and proffers a mode of historical interpretation that both plays upon and questions photography’s documentary capacity.
The essay makes two claims specifically. First, the mechanical reproduction of lynching by way of the photograph has been central to the recounting and reconstitution of black political cultures throughout the Jim Crow and post-Civil Rights era. From the usage of lynching photography in pamphlets by early twentieth-century anti-lynching activists, to posters created by mid-century civil rights organizations, to their deployment in contemporary art and popular culture, this archive has been a constitutive element of black visuality more broadly. Second, African American engagements with photography as a “site of memory” suggest a mode of historical interpretation in which African Americans simultaneously critique the “truth-claims” of photography while they mobilize the medium’s documentary capacity to intervene in the classification and subjugation of black life.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 130-150
This article explores the significance of the material practices of photography and its archiving in interpretive approaches to the relationship between photographs and history. Drawing on work in material culture studies in anthropology and on the concept of “material hermeneutic,” it argues that photographs should not be understood only through forensic and semiotic analysis of content, but as objects that constitute material performances of a complex range of historiographical desires in the negotiation of the relations among past, present, and future. The analysis is grounded in an exploration of the material practices of the photographic survey movement in England between 1885 and 1918. This loosely cohered group of amateur photographers recorded a historical topography of ancient churches, cottages, passing events, and folk customs in order to create a photographic record for the benefit of future generations. As such it was a self-conscious statement of “popular historicism.” The members’ concern for key values of permanence and accuracy, expressed through the detail of photographic and archival processes, reveals the ways in which cultural loss and photographic loss become mutually sustaining metaphors for each other, and in which the photographs themselves are material markers of both evidential value and of an affective historical imagination.
JULIA ADENEY THOMAS
History and Theory, Theme Issue 48 (December 2009), 151-168
In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault focuses on excavating discursive formations, but he acknowledges that a pre-discursive reality, “the enigmatic treasure of ‘things’ anterior to discourse,” also exists. This divide between the pre-discursive and the discursive is straddled, I argue, by photographs as historians use them. The reason for photography’s dual capacity lies with the complex nature of sight, which is both precognitive (primarily so, as neuroscience demonstrates), and also culturally encoded. Historians most commonly rely on mute sensuality; they place photographs in books with little comment, implying that some form of unmediated recognition is possible. Used in this way, photographs cannot serve as the basis for new analyses but may underscore the affective stance of historians toward their topics. Less commonly, historians interrogate photographs much like texts, locating them within the discourses through which they emerged. This strategy treats the experience of sight, in Joan Scott’s words, as “an interpretation that needs to be interpreted.” Photographs seen as discursive objects may provide understanding of past political and social relations, but we lose any assurance that we can recognize and intuitively understand their subjects. In short, we risk blindness. I explore these two fundamentally different strategies for approaching photographs, using the concepts of recognition and excavation to examine an image made in 1946 by Japanese photographer Hayashi Tadahiko. Photographs, I argue, expose our dual relationship with the past, both visceral and cultural.
ANDREW CURRANHistory and Theory 48 (October 2009), 151-179
The scholarly quest to recover the construction of racial difference in the Enlightenment-era life sciences generally overlooks a singular fact: the vast majority of eighteenth-century thinkers who were engaged in theorizing the human were often far more preoccupied with preserving a belief in an essential human sameness than they were in creating categories of essential difference. This article charts the problem of a potential human sameness as it related to questions of category, biological processes, and the human and non-human through an examination of a neglected and key construct in the eighteenth-century life sciences, the albino. The albino was absorbed into a scientific narrative in 1744 when Maupertuis used the concept to put forward a theory of shared origins or monogenesis. Positing that the nègre blanc—quite literally a “white Negro”—was a racial throwback, a reversion to a primitive whiteness, Maupertuis inspired a new generation of thinkers, most notably the great French naturalist Buffon, to assert categorically that blacks had degenerated from a prototype white variety. The significance of the concept nègre blanc, which has not been studied sufficiently, cannot be overestimated. In addition to the fact that the new role of the nègre blanc clearly said as much about whiteness as it did about blackness, the albino generated a new diagnostic chronology of the human species.
History and Theory 48 (October 2009), 180-198
The dominant view of twentieth-century analytic philosophy has been that all thinking is always in a language, that languages are vehicles of thought. The same view has been widespread in continental philosophy as well. In recent decades, however, the opposite view—that languages serve merely to express language-independent thought-contents or propositions—has been more widely accepted. The debate has a direct equivalent in the philosophy of history: when historians report the beliefs of historical figures, do they report the sentences or propositions that these historical figures believed to be true or false? In this paper I argue in favor of the latter, intentionalist, view. My arguments center mostly on the problems with translation that are likely to arise when a historian reports the beliefs of historical figures who expressed them in a language other than the one in which the historian is writing. In discussing these problems the paper presents an application of John Searle’s theory of intentionality to the philosophy of history.
History and Theory 48 (October 2009), 199-219
wide as an exemplary work of history. Yet it was written by a historian who in the last two decades has strenuously asserted the limits of Holocaust representation. At the center of this essay is a problem of historical writing: how to write a historical narrative of the Holocaust that both offers explanations of the unfolding events and also suggests that the most powerful sensation about those events, at the time and since, is that they are beyond words. I explore Friedländer’s crafting of such a narrative by considering, first, the role of his attempt in The Years of Extermination to explain the Holocaust and, second, the narrative form of the book. The book is best seen, I argue, not primarily as a work of explanation but as a vast narrative that places an explanation of the Holocaust within a specific form of describing that goes beyond the boundaries of the historical discipline as it is usually practiced. This form of describing goes beyond the almost positivist attachment to facts that dominates current Holocaust historiography. By using Jewish individual testimonies that are interspersed in the chronological history of the extermination, Friedländer creates a narrative based on ruptures and breaks, devices we associate with works of fiction, and that historians do not usually use. The result is an arresting narrative, which I interpret by using Johan Huizinga’s notion of historical sensation. Friedländer sees this narrative form as specific to the Holocaust. I view this commingling of irreducible reality and the possibility of art as a required sensibility that belongs to all historical understanding. And in this respect, The Years of Extermination only lays bare more clearly in the case of the Holocaust what is an essential element in all historical reconstruction.
History and Theory 48 (October 2009), 220-237
Saul Friedländer’s recent Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination offers a brilliant new literary mode for historical representation of extreme events such as the Holocaust. He has produced an authoritative historical narrative of the Holocaust, within which he integrates the victims’ authentic voices, as recorded (mostly) in their contemporary writings. This article offers a comparative assessment of Friedländer’s achievement with regard to the integration of Jewish sources into the historical account. It begins with a contextualization of Friedländer’s book within a framework that compares the ways in which Jewish sources are addressed by different historiographical approaches. In the second part it seeks to contextualize analytically and critically Friedländer’s concept of “disbelief”—a concept by which he defines the role of the “victims’ voices” in his narrative. I claim that in our current “era of the witness,” set within a culture addicted to the “excessive,” the voices of the victims and the witnesses appear to have lost their radical political and ethical force. They seem no longer to bear the excess of history, and can thus hardly claim to be the guardians of disbelief. Excess and disbelief have thus become the most commonplace cultural topos. In our current culture, I contend, the excessive voices of the victims have, to some extent, exchanged their epistemological, ontological, and ethical revolutionary function for an aesthetic one. They operate according to the pleasure principle in order to bring us, the consumers of Holocaust images, the most expected image of the “unimaginable,” which therefore generates a melancholic pleasure and involves the narrative in melodramatic aesthetics. The article concludes by briefly suggesting some guidelines for an alternative approach to the study of contemporary Jewish Holocaust sources.
CHRISTOPHER R. BROWNING
History and Theory 48 (October 2009), 238-247
In The Years of Extermination, the second volume of Nazi Germany and the Jews, Saul Friedländer attempts to write an “integrated” history of the Holocaust that captures the “convergence” of German decisions and policies, the reaction of the surrounding world, and the perceptions and experiences of the Jews. Although several historiographical issues are studied in detail (the role of Hitler, the evolution of Nazi anti-Jewish policy, and the role of the Christian churches), the most innovative aspect of the book is its extensive use of excerpts from over forty diaries of Jewish victims, which are interspersed among the statements of Nazi leaders and officials, Wehrmacht soldiers, churchmen, and various collaborators and bystanders in order to juxtapose “entirely different levels of reality.” What ultimately holds the book together, despite its intentionally disrupted narrative and Friedländer’s disclaimer that the history of the Holocaust can be encompassed within any “single conceptual framework,” is the overarching theme of the “crisis of liberalism.”
History and Theory, Theme Issue 47 (May 2009), 5-24
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) was a popular and critical success when it first appeared, and has had a notable impact on popular perceptions of “the bombing of Dresden,” although it has been criticized by historians because of its inaccuracy. This article analyzes the novel’s quirky, comic style and its generic mixture of science fiction and testimony, showing how Vonnegut consistently used ingenuous understatement as a way of imaginatively engaging his readers with the horrors of war. The article argues that the text’s aesthetics are closer to those of graphic novels than of realist narratives and that, accordingly, we can understand its cultural impact only by approaching it as a highly artificial linguistic performance with present-day appeal and contemporary relevance, and not merely by measuring the degree to which it gives a full and accurate mimesis of past events.
The article uses the case of Vonnegut to advance a more general argument that builds on recent work in cultural memory studies: in order to understand the role that literature plays in shaping our understanding of history, it needs to be analyzed in its own terms and not as a mere derivative of historiography according to a “one model fits all” approach. Furthermore, we need to shift the emphasis from products to processes by considering both artistic and historiographical practices as agents in the ongoing circulation across different cultural domains of stories about the past. Theoretical reflection should account for the fact that historiography and the various arts play distinct roles in this cultural dynamics, and while they compete with one another, they also converge, bounce off one another, influence one another, and continuously beg to be different.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 47 (May 2009), 25-53
This essay provides a close reading of Saul Friedländer’s exceptionally successful comprehensive history of the Holocaust from the theoretical perspective of Hayden White’s philosophy of history. Friedländer’s The Years of Extermination has been celebrated as the first synthetic history of the “Final Solution” that acknowledges the experiences of the victims of Nazi genocide. But Friedländer has not simply added the voices of the victims to a conventional historical account of the Holocaust. Instead, by displacing linear notions of time and space and subtly deconstructing conventional concepts of causality, he has invented a new type of historical prose that performs rather than analyzes the victims’ point of view. Friedländer’s innovation has particularly radical consequences for the construction of historical explanations. On the one hand, Friedländer explicitly argues that anti-Semitism was the single most important cause of the Holocaust. On the other hand, his transnational, multifaceted history of the “Final Solution” provides a wealth of data that escapes the conceptual grasp of his explicit model of causation. Friedländer chooses this radically self-reflexive strategy of historical representation to impress on the reader the existential sense of disbelief with which the victims experienced Nazi persecution. To Friedländer, that sense of disbelief constitutes the most appropriate ethical response to the Holocaust. Thus the narratological analysis of The Years of Extermination reveals that the exceptional quality of the book, as well as presumably its success, is the result of an extraordinarily creative act of narrative imagination. Or, put into terms developed by White, who shares Friedländer’s appreciation of modernist forms of writing, The Years of Extermination is the first modernist history of the Holocaust that captures, through literary figuration, an important and long neglected reality of the “Final Solution.”
History and Theory, Theme Issue 47 (May 2009), 54-76
Photography has often been scrutinized regarding its relationship to reality or historical truth. This includes not only the indexicality of photography, but also the question of how structures and processes that comprise history and historical events can be depicted. In this context, the Holocaust provides a particular challenge to photography. As has been discussed in numerous publications, this historic event marks the “limits of representation.” Nevertheless there are many photographs “showing” the Holocaust that have been produced in different contexts that bespeak the photographers’ gaze and the circumstances of the photographs’ production. Some of the pictures have become very well known due to their frequent reproduction, even though they often do not show the annihilation itself, but situations different from that; their interpretation as Holocaust pictures results rather from a metonymic deferral. When these pictures are frequently reproduced they are transformed into symbolic images, that is, images that can be removed from their specific context, and in this way they come to signify abstract concepts such as “evil.” Despite being removed from their specific context these images can, as this essay argues, refer to historical truth. First, I explore the arguments of some key theorists of photography (Benjamin, Kracauer, Sontag, Barthes) to investigate the relationship between photography and reality in general, looking at their different concepts of reality, history, and historical truth, as well as the question of the meaning of images. Second, I describe the individual circumstances in which some famous Holocaust pictures were taken in order to analyze, by means of three examples, the question what makes these specific pictures so particularly suitable to becoming symbolic images and why they may—despite their abstract meaning—be able to depict historical truth.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 47 (May 2009), 77-102
Looking at the public reaction to it, one might say that Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is undoubtedly the most successful film about the Holocaust. The film’s success in the U.S. and other Western countries can be traced back mainly to the fact that it creates the impression of telling a true, apparently authentic, story.
This essay investigates how this impression of historical truth and authenticity emerges in a fiction film. For this purpose the essay reverts to a concept developed by Jörn Rüsen, which distinguishes among three dimensions of historical culture, namely political, aesthetic, and cognitive. In addition to the historical context that serves as a specific precondition for the film’s success, the essay primarily investigates the strategies of authentication Spielberg applied at both the visual and narrative levels.
The investigation concludes that the impression of evidence produced by the movie is significantly a result of the sophisticated balancing of the three dimensions mentioned above. The film utilizes artifacts of an existing and increasingly transnational (visual) memory for the benefit of a closed, archetypical narrative. It follows the aesthetic and artistic rules of popular narrative cinema, and largely recurs to conventions of representation that were common in film and television programs of the 1990s. Although these forms condense the historical course of events, the film manages to stay close to insights gained by historiography.
The hybrid amalgamation of history and memory, and of the imaginary and the real, as well as the combination of dramaturgies of popular culture with an instinct for what can (not) be shown—all of these factors have helped Schindler’s List to render a representation of the founding Holocaust myth in Western societies that can be sensually experienced while being emotionally impressive at the same time.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 47 (May 2009), 103-121
What is a “historical” video game, let alone a successful one? It is difficult to answer this question because all our definitions of history have been constructed in a linear-narrative cultural context that is currently being challenged and in large part displaced by digital media, especially video games. I therefore consider this question from the point of view of historical semantics and in relation to the impact of digital technology on all aspects of the historiographical operation, from the establishment of digital archives, to the production of e-texts, to the digital remediation of visual modes of historical representation. Seen from this dual perspective, video games appear to participate in a process of spatialization and virtualization of historical semantics. In the first place, video games have begun to detach the notion of history from its double reference to the past and to the real—“what essentially happened”—that it had acquired at the end of the eighteenth century. Second, they also challenge the semiotic production of “historic events” that has characterized the construction of modern historical consciousness. Historical video games, in other words, replace representation with simulation and presence with virtuality, thereby marginalizing the oscillation of the modern historical imagination between historical facts and historic events, transcendence and immanence, representation and presence. Although digital reworkings of historical semantics have not produced any grammatical transformation of the signifier, history—nor does this essay propose one—I do argue that the impact of video games on our contemporary historic(al) culture is of paradigmatic proportions similar to those described by Reinhart Koselleck for the dawn of the modern age. Focusing on one of the most successful contemporary video games, Sid Meier’s Civilization, I show how the remediation of cinematic genres by video games is pushing the processes of de-temporalization and de-referentialization of history toward the formation of a new notion of the historical that may be conceptualized as the inversion of the classic Aristotelian paradigm: history has replaced poetry and philosophy as the realm of the possible.
History and Theory, Theme Issue 47 (May 2009), 122-137
The representation of history continues to evolve in the domain of museum exhibitions. This evolution is informed in part by the creation of new display methods—many of which depart from the traditional conventions used to achieve the “museum effect”—in part by an increased attention to the museum–visitor relationship. In this context the ethical force of bearing witness, at times a crucial aspect of the museum experience, has emerged as a particularly compelling issue. In seeking to represent and address atrocity, injustice, and the abrogation of human rights, museums have the potential to become “sites of conscience” and to encourage “historical consciousness.” Through a series of three exhibitions devoted to slavery, the New-York Historical Society demonstrated how such sites can be constructed and how objects can be deployed to represent extreme or “limit cases.” In this review/essay I investigate and interrogate these exhibitions, looking closely at the use of objects as a source of “indirect testimony” (Marc Bloch) and at the “dialogical situation” (Paul Ricoeur) that might arise in an encounter among objects, exhibit narratives, and visitors. Thinking in terms of point of view, I look at the variety of rhetorical platforms from which objects speak in these exhibitions; thinking in terms of syntax, I look at the effects of ordering and of the radical juxtaposition of objects; thinking in terms of irony, I look at the provocations of double-voiced narratives and at how objects are used to support those historical sentences.
STEVEN G. SMITH
History and Theory 48 (February 2009), 1-19
Why should past occurrences matter to us as such? Are they in fact meaningful in a specifically historical way, or do they only become meaningful in being connected to other sorts of meaning—political or speculative, for example—as many notable theorists imply? Ranke and Oakeshott affirmed a purely historical meaningfulness but left its nature unclear. The purpose of this essay is to confirm historical meaningfulness by arguing that our commanding practical interest in how we share action with other actors is distinctively engaged by presumed information about past occurrences. We recognize that past occurrences have determined the conditions of action sharing, constraining our practice with regard to which actors we share practical reality with and which compounding actions we may or must join in progress.
ANTOON DE BAETS
History and Theory 48 (February 2009), 20-43
There is perhaps no text with a broader impact on our lives than the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is strange, therefore, that historians have paid so little attention to the UDHR. I argue that its potential impact on the study of history is profound. After asking whether the UDHR contains a general view of history, I address the consequences of the UDHR for the rights and duties of historians, and explain how it deals with their subjects of study. I demonstrate that the UDHR is a direct source of five important rights for historians: the rights to free expression and information, to meet and found associations, to intellectual property, to academic freedom, and to silence. It is also an indirect source of three duties for historians: the duties to produce expert knowledge about the past, to disseminate it, and to teach about it. I discuss the limits to, and conflicts among, these rights and duties. The UDHR also has an impact on historians’ subjects of study: I argue that the UDHR applies to the living but not to the dead, and that, consequently, it is a compass for studying recent rather than remote historical injustice. Nevertheless, and although it is itself silent about historians’ core duties to find and tell the truth, the UDHR firmly supports an emerging imprescriptible right to the truth, which in crucial respects is nothing less than a right to history. If the UDHR is a “Magna Carta of all men everywhere,” it surely is one for all historians.
History and Theory 48 (February 2009), 44-62
The name of “Peru” and the entities and beings it names first appeared “in an abyss of history” on “the edge of the world” in the early 1500s. In this essay I ask what hermeneutical truths or meanings the strange event that made the name of Peru both famous and historical holds for—and withholds from—any understanding of the meaning of colonial history. By way of a reading of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s rendering, in Los Comentarios Reales de los Incas (1609) of “the origin and principle of the name of Peru,” I suggest that Peru’s name is itself an inaugural event that marks the founding void or abyss of colonial and postcolonial history, which is to say, of modern global history. This événemential void is not unoccupied, however. It is inhabited by another founding, mythopoetic figure of history: “the barbarian” whose speech is registered in the historian’s text.
TOR EGIL FORLAND
History and Theory 47 (December 2008), 483-494
God, at least as an active agent, is excluded from today’s scientific worldview—including he worldview of the humanities. This creates a gulf between a godless science and believers in God’s active presence in the world, a gulf that I argue is unbridgeable. I discuss the general methodological question from the starting point of a 1652 episode in a Norwegian valley, where God reportedly saved two brothers stranded on an islet by providing just enough fresh, edible plants each day for them to survive until they were found by a search team after twelve days. I resist four temptations to take easy ways out of a real dilemma: whether to accept or dismiss this and similar miracle accounts. The first is to explain evidence and refuse to consider the events about which the evidence reports; the second, to deny that reports of miracles represent a problem since biblical actors and authors lacked Hume’s concept of inviolable laws of nature; the third, to become resigned to a putative epistemological gap that renders impossible any dialogue on religion with actors from the early modern period; the fourth, to restrict our studies to asking what the events meant to the historical actors without passing judgment on the truth value of their beliefs. I suggest that when doing historical research, historians are part of a scientific community; consequently, historiographical explanations must be compatible with accepted scientific beliefs. Whereas many historians and natural scientists in private believe in supernatural entities, qua professional members of the scientific community they must subscribe to metaphysical naturalism, which is a basic working hypothesis in the empirical quest of science. As long as the supernatural realm is excluded from the scientific worldview, however, historians’ explanations of miracles will differ fundamentally from the explanations proffered by believers.
BRAD S. GREGORY
History and Theory 47 (December 2008) 495-519
Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary within the secular intellectual culture of the modern academy, scientific findings are not necessarily incompatible with religious truth claims. The latter include claims about the reality of God as understood in traditional Christianity and the possibility of divinely worked miracles. Intellectual history, philosophy, and science’s own self-understanding undermine the claim that science entails or need even tend toward atheism. By definition a radically transcendent creator-God is inaccessible to empirical investigation. Denials of the possibility or actual occurrence of miracles depend not on science itself, but on naturalist assumptions that derive originally from a univocal metaphysics with its historical roots in medieval nominalism, which in turn have deeply influenced philosophy and science since the seventeenth century. The metaphysical postulate of naturalism and its correlative empiricist epistemology constitute methodological self-limitations of science—only an unjustified move from postulate to assertion permits ideological scientism and atheism. It is entirely possible that religious claims consistent with the empirical findings of the natural and social sciences might be true. Therefore historians of religion not only need not assume that atheism is true in their research, but they should not do so if they want to understand religious people on their own terms rather than to impose on them an undemonstrated and indemonstrable ideology. Exhortations to critical thinking apply not only to religious views, but also to uncritically examined secular ideas and assumptions, however widespread or institutionally embedded.
TOR EGIL FORLAND
History and Theory 47 (December 2008), 520-532
This reply aims both to respond to Gregory and to move forward the debate about God’s place in historiography. The first section is devoted to the nature of science and God. Whereas Gregory thinks science is based on metaphysical naturalism with a methodological corollary of critical-realist empiricism, I see critical, empiricist methodology as basic, and naturalism as a consequence. Gregory’s exposition of his apophatic theology, in which univocity is eschewed, illustrates the fissure between religious and scientific worldviews—no matter which basic scientific theory one subscribes to. The second section is allotted to miracles. As I do, Gregory thinks no miracle occurred on Fox Lakes in 1652, but he restricts himself to understanding the actors and explaining change over time, and refuses to explain past or contemporary actions and events. Marc Bloch, in his book The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France, is willing to go much further than Gregory. Using his superior medical knowledge to substitute his own explanation of the phenomenon for that of the actors, Bloch dismisses the actors’ beliefs that they or others had been miraculously cured, and explains that they believed they saw miraculous healing because they were expecting to see it. In the third section, on historical explanation, I rephrase the question whether historians can accommodate both believers in God and naturalist scientists, asking whether God, acting miraculously or not, can be part of the ideal explanatory text. I reply in the negative, and explicate how the concept of a plural subject suggests how scientists can also be believers. This approach may be compatible with two options presented by Peter Lipton for resolving the tension between religion and science. The first is to see the truth claims of religious texts as untranslatable into scientific language (and vice versa); the other is to immerse oneself in religious texts by accepting them as a guide but not believing in their truth claims when these contradict science.
History and Theory 47 (December 2008), 533-559
Leon Roth’s famous question “Is there a Jewish philosophy?” has been the subject of an ongoing controversial debate. This paper argues that the concept of a Jewish philosophy—in the sense of an allegedly continuous philosophical tradition stretching from antiquity to early modernity—was created by German Enlightenment historians of philosophy. Under competing models of historiography, Enlightenment philosophy construed a continuous tradition of Jewish thought, a philosophia haebraeorum perennis, establishing a controversially discussed order of discourse and a specific politics of historiography. Within this historiography, historical and systematical paradigms, values, and patterns kept shifting continuously, opening up perspectives for different, even contradictory accounts of what Jewish philosophy was (and is). With Hegel and his successors, this specific discourse came to a close. Hegel attacks “Jewish thought” as a form of metaphysics of substance—a critique countered by several thinkers who can be referred to as “Jewish Hegelians” (E. Fackenheim). The Jewish Hegelians fully accepted, however, Hegel’s account of the “Philonic distinction”: the difference between substance and subject within the conception of the One. This calls attention to the idea that not only the role of the “Mosaic distinction” (J. Assmann), the distinction between true and false in religion, should be examined more closely, but also the consequences of the “Philonic distinction” between identity and difference in monotheistic concepts of deity.
SUSAN A. CRANE
History and Theory 47 (October 2008), 309-330
This essay considers, from ethical and historical-critical perspectives, alternatives to unconditional public access to Holocaust atrocity photographs. Photographic images have become the common coin of public awareness and historical information about the Holocaust. For the generations immediately following the genocide, atrocity photos and images of Nazi crimes served as vital testimony. For succeeding generations, however, access to certain “recirculated” images (Barbie Zelizer) has created a sense of familiarity with the Holocaust and with the National Socialist era that may prevent, rather than facilitate, engagement with the historical subject, particularly for students. Few of the victims of the Shoah pictured in either the best known or the least circulated images were willing subjects. As such, the bulk of Holocaust and National Socialist photography should perhaps fall under the same category as the results of Nazi medical experiments: they have been rendered inadmissible because they are ethically compromised materials, made without the participants’ consent. While I am not advocating the wholesale destruction of Holocaust photographs, I will suggest that removing them from view or “repatriating” them might serve Holocaust memory better than their reduction to atrocious objects of banal attention. Just as the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 provided a mechanism for the reclassification of human remains, from ethnographic to spiritually sacred artifacts, we should consider what a similar reclassification of Holocaust photographs could offer. Have Holocaust atrocity photographs reached the limits of their usefulness as testimony?
History and Theory 47 (October 2008), 331-350
According to a popular view, the past is present here and now. This is presentism combined with endurantism: the past continuously persists through time to the present. By contrast, I argue that memories, memorials, and histories are of entities discontinuous with present experiences, and that the continuity between past and present in them is a construct. Memories, memorials, and histories are semantic means for dealing with the past. My presupposition that past and present are different is supported by grammar: as verbal tenses show, the past is not present here and now, for otherwise it would not be past. A failure to note this difference is a lack of chronesthesia, a sense of time specific to human beings. I argue that presentism fails to account for the temporal structures of memory and the changes in perspective as we switch from the present to a past situation. My account is perdurantist in the sense that it allows for temporal parts of things such as memorials or tombstones, as well as events such as wars or commemorations. But my main goal is to outline a semantic approach to the past: the tie between past and present actions and events is the semantic ground–consequence relation: a past event is the antecedent grounding a present situation, explaining why it is the case. In addition, I show how we refer to the past by means of two rhetorical figures of speech: synecdoche, using the (emblematic-) part–whole relation for relating the past to the present by transposing its sense; and anaphor, which has a deictic function—it points back toward the past. In references to the past, the deictic field is a scene visualized by the speaker and addressees: the deictic field is transposed from a perceptual to an imaginary space.
History and Theory 47 (October 2008), 351-372
Arthur Lovejoy’s history of unit-ideas and the history of concepts are often criticized for being historically insensitive forms of history-writing. Critics claim that one cannot find invariable ideas or concepts in several contexts or times in history without resorting to some distortion. One popular reaction is to reject the history of ideas and concepts altogether, and take linguistic entities as the main theoretical units. Another reaction is to try to make ideas or concepts context-sensitive and to see their histories as dynamic processes of transformation. The main argument in this paper is that we cannot abandon ideas or concepts as theoretical notions if we want to write an intelligible history of thought. They are needed for the categorization and classification of thinking, and in communication with contemporaries. Further, the criterion needed to subsume historical concepts under a general concept cannot be determined merely on the basis of their family resemblances, which allows variation without an end, since talk of the same concepts implies that they share something in common. I suggest that a concept in history should be seen to be composed of two components: the core of a concept and the margin of a concept. On the basis of this, we can develop a vocabulary for talking about conceptual changes. The main idea is that conceptual continuity requires the stability of the core of the concept, but not necessarily that of the margin, which is something that enables a description of context-specific features. If the core changes, we ought to see it as a conceptual replacement.
History and Theory 47 (October 2008), 372-395
Historians looking to make history a professional discipline of study in Victorian Britain believed they had to establish firm boundaries demarcating history from other literary disciplines. James Anthony Froude ignored such boundaries. The popularity of his historical narratives was a constant reminder of the continued existence of a supposedly overturned phase of historiography in which the historian was also a man of letters, transcending the boundary separating fact from fiction and literature from history. Just as professionalizing historians were constructing a methodology that called on historians to be inductive empirical workers, Froude refused to accept the new science of history, and suggested instead that history was an individual enterprise, one more concerned with drama and art than with science. E. A. Freeman warned the historical community that they “cannot welcome [Froude] as a partner in their labors, as a fellow-worker in the cause of historic truth.”
This article examines the boundary work of a professionalizing history by considering the attempt to exclude Froude from the historian’s discourse, an attempt that involved a communal campaign that sought to represent Froude as “constitutionally inaccurate.” Froude suffered from “an inborn and incurable twist,” argued Freeman, thereby diagnosing “Froude’s disease” as the inability to “make an accurate statement about any matter.” By unpacking the construction of “Froude’s disease,” the article exposes the disciplinary techniques at work in the professionalization of history, techniques that sought to exclude non-scientific modes of thought such as that offered by Froude.
History and Theory 47 (May 2008), 149-167
The relationship between history and justice traditionally has been dominated by the idea of the past as distant or absent (and with that, irreversible). This ambiguous ontological status makes it very difficult to situate the often-felt “duty to remember” or obligation to “do justice to the past” in that past itself, and this has led philosophers from Friedrich Nietzsche to Keith Jenkins to plead against an “obsession” with history in favor of an ethics aimed at the present. History’s ability to contribute to the quest for justice, as a result, often seems very restricted or even nonexistent. The introduction of the “presence”-paradigm in historiography can potentially alter this relation between history and justice. However, to do so it should be conceived in such a way that it offers a fundamental critique of the metaphysical dichotomy between the present and the absent and the underlying concept of time (chronosophy) that supports this dichotomy. The “presence”-paradigm can be emancipatory and productive only if presence and absence are not perceived as absolute dichotomies. In the first part of this article I elaborate on the influence that the present/absent dichotomy has on the notion of justice by introducing a conceptual contrast between what I will call the “time of jurisdiction” and the “time of history.” The second part of the article focuses on the way certain aspects of the dominant Western chronosophy reinforce the present/absent dichotomy and thereby prevent us from thoroughly exploring the ambiguous but often very problematic presence of the past. Throughout the article I refer to the relatively recent phenomenon of truth commissions and the context of transitional justice to discuss some challenges for the “presence”-paradigm.
JEROEN VAN BOUWEL AND ERIK WEBER
History and Theory 47 (May 2008), 168-182
Explanatory pluralism has been defended by several philosophers of history and social science, recently, for example, by Tor Egil FORLAND in this journal. In this article, we provide a better argument for explanatory pluralism, based on the pragmatist idea of epistemic interests. Second, we show that there are three quite different senses in which one can be an explanatory pluralist: one can be a pluralist about questions, a pluralist about answers to questions, and a pluralist about both. We defend the last position. Finally, our third aim is to argue that pluralism should not be equated with “anything goes”: we will argue for non-relativistic explanatory pluralism. This pluralism will be illustrated by examples from history and social science in which different forms of explanation (for example, structural, functional, and intentional explanations) are discussed, and the fruitfulness of our framework for understanding explanatory pluralism is shown.
History and Theory 47 (May 2008), 183-199
To date, no satisfactory account of the connection between natural-scientific and historical explanation has been given, and philosophers seem to have largely given up on the problem. This paper is an attempt to resolve this old issue and to sort out and clarify some areas of historical explanation by developing and applying a method that will be called “pragmatic explication” involving the construction of definitions that are justified on pragmatic grounds. Explanations in general can be divided into “dynamic” and “static” explanations, which are those that essentially require relations across time and those that do not, respectively. The problem of assimilating historical explanations concerns dynamic explanation, so a general analysis of dynamic explanation that captures both the structure of natural-scientific and historical explanation is offered. This is done in three stages: In the first stage, pragmatic explication is introduced and compared to other philosophical methods of explication. In the second stage pragmatic explication is used to tie together a series of definitions that are introduced in order to establish an account of explanation. This involves an investigation of the conditions that play the role in historiography that laws and statistical regularities play in the natural sciences. The essay argues that in the natural sciences, as well as in history, the model of explanation presented represents the aims and overarching structure of actual causal explanations offered in those disciplines. In the third stage the system arrived at in the preceding stage is filled in with conditions available to and relevant for historical inquiry. Further, the nature and treatment of causes in history and everyday life are explored and related to the system being proposed. This in turn makes room for a view connecting aspects of historical explanation and what we generally take to be causal relations.
EILEEN KA-MAY CHENG
History and Theory 47 (May 2008), 200-228
This essay examines how and why historiography—defined to mean the study of the history of historical writing—first emerged as a legitimate subject of historical inquiry in the United States during the period from 1890 to the 1930s by focusing on the practice of historiography by three of the most influential American historiographers whose work spans this period: J. Franklin Jameson, John Spencer Bassett, and Harry Elmer Barnes. Whereas the development of historiography as a field of study signified a recognition that historians and historical writing are themselves products of the historical process, American historiographers in this period at the same time used historiography to further a scientific ideal of objectivity that was premised on the belief in the ability of historians to separate themselves from that process. Modern scholars (notably, Peter Novick) have attributed to scientific historians like Jameson and Bassett a simplistic and naïve positivism; but the ability of these historiographers to recognize the subjective character of historical writing and yet affirm a belief in objectivity reveals that their understanding of historical truth was more complex than modern scholars have acknowledged. In turn, by questioning the belief that the historical profession was originally founded on a naïve faith in the ideal of objective truth, I demonstrate that New Historians like Barnes were more similar to their predecessors, the scientific historians, than they (or later scholars) acknowledged. Thus, rather than portraying the shift from scientific history to the New History as a linear trajectory of development from objectivity to a more relativist viewpoint, I argue that New Historians like Barnes at once expressed a greater recognition than his scientific predecessors of how historical writing was the product of its context, while still insisting on his commitment to an ideal of objectivity that divorced the historian from that context.
History and Theory 47 (February 2008), 1-18
This paper is concerned with Foucault’s historical methodology. It argues that the coherence of his project lies in its development of a set of tools for unearthing the historical principles that govern thought and practice in the epochs that have shaped the present age. Foucault claimed that these principles are, at once, transcendental and historical. Accordingly, the philosophical soundness of Foucault’s project depends on his having developed a satisfactory way of passage between the absolutist purism of the transcendental and the mundane contingency of the historical. The paper shows that the key to seeing how Foucault achieved this desideratum lies in a surprising and largely unexplored methodological tradition that he himself explicitly acknowledged: Husserlian phenomenology as it was taken up, modified, and practiced in the thought of the philosopher of logic and mathematics, Jean Cavaillès—what I call the phenomenology of the concept.
The essay has four parts. The first sketches the two most prominent lines of interpretation of Foucault’s methodology and argues that both are inadequate, not least because they both dismiss Foucault’s phenomenological heritage. The second part lays out the rudiments of the neglected strand of the phenomenological tradition inaugurated by Cavaillès’s important critique and appropriation of Husserlian method. This serves, in turn, to set the stage for the third part that examines, first, Canguilhem’s and then Foucault’s distinct projects for grasping the transcendental within the historical, and the historical within the transcendental—their respective continuations of Cavaillès’s phenomenology of the concept. The essay concludes with a brief consideration of the pathways that this way of reading Foucault opens up for understanding the nexus of power, knowledge, and subjectivation that came to define his work.
History and Theory 47 (February 2008), 19-30
In this paper I look at narrative as a mode of explanation and at various ways in which the explanatory value of narrative has been criticized. I begin with the roots of narrative explanation in everyday action, experience, and discourse, illustrating it with the help of a simple example. I try to show how narrative explanation is transformed and complicated by circumstances that take us beyond the everyday into such realms as jurisprudence, journalism, and history. I give an account of why narrative explanation normally satisfies us, and how or in what sense it actually explains. Then I consider how narrative is challenged and rejected as a mode of explanation in many scientific and other contexts and why attempts are made to replace it with something else. I try to evaluate the nature and sources of these challenges, and I describe this controversy over narrative against the historical background of its emergence. My paper ends with a pragmatic defense of narrative explanation against these challenges.
KARSTEN R. STUEBER
History and Theory 47 (February 2008), 31-43
It has become something of a consensus among philosophers of history that historians, in contrast to natural scientists, explain in a narrative fashion. Unfortunately, philosophers of history have not said much about how it is that narratives have explanatory power. They do, however, maintain that a narrative’s explanatory power is sui generis and independent of our empathetic or reenactive capacities and of our knowledge of law-like generalizations. In this article I will show that this consensus is mistaken at least in respect to explanatory strategies used to account for rational agency using the “folk-psychological” framework of intentions, beliefs, desires, and the like. Philosophers distinguish insufficiently among different aspects and different types of information needed for a historian to persuasively account for an agent’s behavior in particular circumstances. If one keeps these aspects apart it will become apparent exactly how one should understand the epistemic contribution of empathy, generalizations, and narrative for the explanation of action.
TOR EGIL FORLAND
History and Theory 47 (February 2008), 44-56
This paper probes the explanatory value of mentality as a social emergent in general and of the Zeitgeist in particular. Durkheim’s contention that social facts have emergent properties is open to the charge that it implies logically inconsistent “downward causation.” On the basis of an analogy with the brain–mind dilemma and mental emergentism, the first part of the essay discusses and dismisses the notion of social emergent properties that cannot be reduced to the properties of their component parts—individuals—and their internal relations. However, ontological individualism need not compel us to methodological individualism. The second part introduces two challenges to methodological individualism. The most radical is Rajeev Bhargava’s assertion that the meaning of a belief is determined not by the individual holding the belief but by the entire linguistic community. Bhargava’s “contextualism” is closely related to the (post)structural demand that we focus on discourse as a communal entity instead of continuing a delusive quest for the intentions of individual speakers. A more modest alternative is Margaret Gilbert’s plea for using “plural subjects”—social groups in which “participant agents” act jointly or have a jointly accepted view—in the practical syllogisms that are central to rationalizing action explanation. The notion of plural subjects lends credence to, and is reinforced by, “situationist” social psychology, which shows how people conform to peer groups, authorities, and roles. Building on Wesley Salmon’s and Peter Railton’s ecumenical accounts of explanation, the essay argues that both individual rationalizing action explanations and explanations based on plural agents can give explanatory information: we need not choose one or the other. The third part discusses how the Zeitgeist can provide added explanatory value in an analysis of the New Left. This is possible if the “spirit of the sixties” is seen as representing the values and worldviews of the “sixties generation” as a social group in Gilbert’s terms. Radical youth would suspend judgment and pool their wills to conform to what they perceived were the views of the imagined “sixties community” or—rendering more explanatory force—to smaller parts of it in the guise of peer groups and organizations.
PAUL A. ROTH
History and Theory 47 (February 2008), 57-68
What ought to count as an explanation? Such normative questions—what “ought to be” the case?—typically mark the domain that those with a type of philosophical aspiration call their own. Debates in the philosophy of history have for too long been marred by bad advice from just such aspirants. The recurrent suggestion has been that historians have a particular need for a theory of explanation since they seem to have none of their own. But neither the study of the natural sciences nor the study of narrative compels or even makes plausible the view that it will be possible to adduce the norms of explanation, either in history or elsewhere, in advance of identifying theories that explain. I readily concede to Stueber, Carr, and FORLAND the use of a certain vocabulary when speaking of others. But it is one thing to point to a pervasive habit of explaining behavior in certain terms. It is quite another to document that these explanations have any value as explanations.
What apart from habit or philosophical dogma establishes any of their proposals as explanatory? Explanation by invoking the myth of the shared should be replaced by explanations that have empirical content.
History and Theory 47 (February 2008), 69-84
This essay is a critical discussion of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book Provincializing Europe as well as a first sketch of a History on Equal Terms. After giving a short summary of Provincializing Europe, I first argue, against Chakrabarty, that there is no necessary connection between the discipline of history and the metanarratives of modernity. To the contrary: the founding idea of the discipline of history was a turn against such grand narratives. With his attempt to deconstruct the narratives of the European Enlightenment and of modernity, Chakrabarty therefore has to be regarded as a thinker of radical historicism rather than as a critic of the discipline of history. Second, I criticize the use of the term “modernity” in Provincializing Europe and the concept of modernity in general. Instead of a deconstruction of the discipline of history, I propose a deconstruction of the concept of modernity. This could open up the way for a History on Equal Terms situated within the discipline of history, that is, a historiography that would—just as Chakrabarty rightly demands—in principle pay the same attention to and expect relevant results from any region in the world, depending only on the focus of research.
History and Theory 47 (February 2008), 85-96
This response to Carola Dietze’s critique of Provincializing Europe takes up for examination three key expressions or ideas on which the original argument of the book was founded: hyperreal Europe, historicism, and political modernity. I appreciate the spirit of Dietze’s engagement with the book, but I show that her critique is based on a degree of misapprehension of these three central ideas. While clarifying the details and the degree of my disagreement with Dietze, I provide my own critique of Dietze’s proposal of “equal histories” by arguing that Dietze has not named or explained the unit with respect to which different histories could be considered equal. I also argue that Dietze’s proposals about judging societies only by their “own” standards, and basing human dignity on the idea of a “human nature” that could be seen as a “constant,” do not solve the problems she sees with my book and are themselves open to some serious historical and logical criticism.
GABRIELLE M. SPIEGEL
History and Theory 46 (December 2007), 1-19
This article investigates the various forces that may help to explain the ongoing historio-graphical phenomenon of revision. It takes as its point of departure Michel de Certeau's understanding of the writing of history as a process consisting of an unstable and constantly changing triangulated relationship among a place (a recruitment, a milieu, a profession), analytical procedures (a discipline), and the construction of a text (or discourse). For de Certeau, revision is the formal prerequisite for writing history because the very distance between past and present requires continuous innovation simply to produce the objects of historical knowledge, which have no existence apart from the historian's identification of them. The specific nature of revision at a given moment is determined by the specificities of the process as a whole, that is, by the characteristics of place, procedure, and text and their contemporary relational configuration.
Taking the rise of "linguistic-turn" historiography as exemplary of the process of historical revision in its broadest possible meaning, the article seeks to discover the possible "causes" for that turn. It begins with an analysis of the psychological roots of poststructuralism as a response to the holocaust and its aftermath, and then proceeds to explore the possible economic and social transformations in the postwar world that might account for its reception, both in Europe but also, more counterintuitively, in the United States, where postmodernism proved to have an especially strong appeal. Added to this mix are the new patterns of social recruitment into the historical profession in the "sixties." the essay suggests that, to the extent that revision is understood as the result of the combined effect of psychological, social, and professional determinations, it is unlikely that there will ever be genuine consensus about the sources of revision in history, since all historians bring to their work differing congeries of psychological preoccupations, social positions, and professional commitments.
History and Theory 46 (December 2007), 20-44
Recognizing the contingent entanglement between historiography's social and political roles and the conception of the discipline as purely factual, this essay provides a detailed analysis of "revision" and its connection to "revisionism." This analysis uses a philosophical approach that begins with the commonplaces of our understanding as expressed in dictionaries, which are compared and contrasted to display relevant confusions. The essay then turns to examining the questions posed by History and Theory's Call for Papers announcing its Theme Issue on Revision in History, and, where philosophically relevant, answers them. The issue of paradigm change proved to be quite significant and required particular attention. A "paradigm" is analyzed in terms of Quine's "web of belief," and that web is itself explained as an ongoing process of revision, in analogy with Rawls's concept of pure procedural justice. Adopting this approach helps clarify the entanglement between politics and historiographical revision.
J. D. BRAW
History and Theory 46 (December 2007), 45-60
It is widely agreed that a new conception of history was developed in the early nineteenth century: the past came to be seen in a new light, as did the way of studying the past. This article discusses the nature of this collective revision, focusing on one of its first and most important manifestations: Ranke's 1824 Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker. It argues that, in Ranke's case, the driving force of the revision was religious, and that, subsequently, an understanding of the nature of Ranke's religious attitude is vital to any interpretation of his historical revision. Being aesthetic-experiential rather than conceptual or "positive," this religious element is reflected throughout Ranke's enterprise, in source criticism and in historical representation no less than in the conception of cause and effect in the historical process. These three levels or aspects of the historical enterprise correspond to the experience of the past, and are connected by the essence of the experience: visual perception. The highly individual character of the enterprise, its foundation in sentiments and experiences of little persuasive force that only with difficulty can be brought into language at all, explains the paradoxical nature of the Rankean heritage. On the one hand, Ranke had a great and lasting impact; on the other hand, his approach was never re-utilized as a whole, only in its constituent parts—which, when not in the relationship Ranke had envisioned, took on a new and different character. This also suggests the difference between Ranke's revision and a new paradigm: whereas the latter is an exemplary solution providing binding regulations, the former is unrepeatable.
History and Theory 46 (December 2007), 61-76
Revision in history is conventionally characterized as a linear sequence of changes over time. Drawing together the contributions of those engaged in historiographical debates that are often associated with the term "revision," however, we find our attention directed to the spaces rather than the sequences of history. Contributions to historical debates are characterized by the marked use of spatial imagery and spatialized language. These used to suggest both the demarcation of the "space of history" and the erasure of existing historiographies from that space. Bearing these features in mind, the essay argues that traditional, temporally oriented explanations for revision in history, such as Thomas S. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, miss the mark, and that a more promising line of explanation arises from the combined use of Michel Foucault's idea of "heterotopias" and Marc Augé's idea of "non-places." Revision in history is to be found where writers use imagery to move readers away from rival historiographies and to control their movement in the space of history toward their desired vision. Revision is thus associated more with control than with liberation.
History and Theory 46 (December 2007), 77-91
This essay is an account of the "revisionism" movement of the 1970s and 1980s in Soviet history, analyzing its challenge to the totalitarian model in terms of Kuhnian paradigm shift. The focus is on revisionism of the Stalin period, an area that was particularly highly charged by the passions of the Cold War. These passions tended to obscure the fact that one of the main issues at stake was not ideological but purely disciplinary, namely a challenge by social historians to the dominance of political history. A similar challenge, this time against the dominance of social history on behalf of cultural history, was issued in the 1990s by "post-revisionists." Although I was a participant in the battles of the 1970s, the essay is less a personal account than a case-based analysis of the way disciplinary orthodoxies in the social sciences and humanities are established and challenged, and why this happens when it does. In the case of Soviet history, I argue that new data and external events played a surprisingly small role, and generational change a large one.
History and Theory 46 (December 2007), 92-112
This article examines the theoretical and methodological implications of the revisionist debates. It focuses on the political, academic, and moral dimensions of the process of rewriting history and its interrelation with the public sphere. The article examines the recent debate in Greece and compares it with case studies of Germany, Spain, Israel, the Soviet Union, and Ireland. It comments on the common elements of these cases and proposes a basic typology of the revisionist debates in terms of similarities and differences. It categorizes the revisionist endeavors into three types: the successful, the failed, and the bewildered.
History and Theory 46 (December 2007), 113-143
This essay explores the ways that the specter of deconstruction has been haunting history over the past thirty years, in particular this specter's effects on the revision of intellectual and cultural history. The essay uses the terms "specter" and "haunting" to express the fact that while deconstruction is repeatedly targeted in attacks against the dangers of postmodernism, poststructuralism, or the linguistic turn, very few historians actively use deconstruction as a historical methodology; in this regard the target has always been a phantom. However, some historians have employed the methods of deconstruction, and by examining their work as well as the attacks on it the essay attempts to explain the historiographical reasons behind these attacks. The goal of the essay is ultimately to indicate some of the ways that deconstruction is useful for the historian, as evidenced in the project of historical revision.
History and Theory 46 (October 2007), 313-325
Professional historians tend to be ambivalent about one of the prime historical phenomena of our time: the desire to commemorate. The amount of attention given to memory (collective or not) and trauma bears witness to the fact that historians really do want to give in to that desire; the fact that they treat these subjects in a rather “positivist” way suggests that they regard it as a bit improper to do so wholeheartedly. As a result commemoration is all over the place but is never taken as seriously as it should be. This essay argues that effective commemoration should start with a question Giambattista Vico might have asked: “who are we that this could have happened?” Posing this question means relinquishing the identity-enhancing, self-celebrating stance from which we tend to commemorate “unimaginable” events. Commemorative self-exploration is a confrontation with what we don’t like to be confronted with: the fact that occasionally we behave in utter contradiction to what we regard as our identity. Heterodox, “monstrous,” and therefore Gedächtnisfähig behavior comes in three varieties: things we are proud of, things we are ashamed of, and the sublime “mutations” in which we “commit” history and embark on the unimaginable. Because sublime mutations change consciousness, commemorating them confronts posterity with almost insuperable epistemological difficulties. Commemorating sublime mutations means burying them—not in the sense of “covering” them, but in the sense of “inventing” a way in which they keep on living.
History and Theory 46 (October 2007), 326-344
This article revisits the question of the modernity of the Renaissance by examining the political language of Florentine civic humanism and by critically analyzing the debate over Hans Baron’s interpretation of the movement. It engages two debates that are usually conducted separately: one concerning the originality of civic humanism in comparison to medieval thought, and the other concerning the political and social function of the civic humanists’ political republicanism in fifteenth-century Florence. The article’s main contention is that humanist political discourse rejected the perception of social and political reality as being part of, or reflecting, a metaphysical and divine order or things, and thus undermined the traditional justifications for political hierarchies and power relations. This created the conditions of possibility for the distinctively modern aspiration for a social and political order based on liberty and equality. It also resulted in the birth of a distinctively modern form of ideology, one that legitimizes the social order by disguising its inequalities and structures of domination. Humanism, like modern political thought generally, thus simultaneously constructs and reflects the dialectic of emancipation and domination so central to modernity itself.
History and Theory 46 (October 2007), 345-365
This article offers a reading of an early eighteenth-century Punjabi text—Gur Sobha or “The Splendor of the Guru”—as a form of historical representation, suggesting reasons for the importance of the representation of the past as history within Sikh discursive contexts. The text in question provides an account of the life, death, and teachings of the last of the ten living Sikh Gurus or teachers, Guru Gobind Singh. The article argues that the construction of history in this text is linked to the transition of the Sikh community at the death of the last living Guru whereby authority was invested in the canonical text (granth) and community (panth). As such a particular rationale for history was produced within Sikh religious thought and intellectual production around the discursive construction of the community in relation to the past and as a continuing presence. As such, the text provides an alternative to modern European forms of historical representation, while sharing some features of the “historical” as defined in that context. The essay relates this phenomenon to a broader exploration of history in South Asian contexts, to notions of historicality that are plural, and to issues particular to the intersection of history and religion. Later texts, through the middle of the nineteenth century, are briefly considered, to provide a sense of the significance of Gur Sobha within a broader, historically and religiously constituted Sikh imagination of the past.
History and Theory 46 (October 2007), 366-383
Textures of Time is a rich and challenging book that raises a host of important and hard questions about historical narrative, form, and style; the sociology of texts; and the core problem of ascertaining historical truth. Two that pertain to the book’s main claims are of special interest to nonspecialist readers: Is register or style—“texture”—necessarily and everywhere diagnostic of “history”? Does a new kind of “historical consciousness” emerge in south India beginning in the sixteenth century, indeed as a sign of an Indian early modernity? Textures is not the first book to argue that historical discourse is constitutively marked by a peculiar style, but the claim is beset by difficulties that scholars since Barthes have detailed. Rather than textures of time—accounts of what really happened in history—what these works offer us may be only pretextures of time, textualized forms of a human experience that make claims about its degrees and types of truth through representations of various states of temporality. Instead of assessing, then, whether these works are history or something else like “myth,” we might ask whether they invite us to transcend this very dichotomy, to try, that is, to make sense of historical forms of consciousness rather than to identify forms of historical consciousness. As for modernity, nothing in south Indian historiography from 1500–1800 remotely compares to the conceptual revolution of Europe. But why should we expect the newness of the early modern world to have been experienced the same way everywhere? Modernity across Asia may have shown simultaneity without symmetry. Should this asymmetry turn out to reveal continuity and not rupture, however, no need to lament the fact. There is no shame in premodernity.
History and Theory 46 (October 2007), 384-395
This essay examines the writing of history and historiography in early modern south India as discussed in the book Textures of Time. The book argues that a historical and historiographical awareness was prevalent in south India prior to the arrival of a European field of knowledge under colonial rule. However, this essay maintains that the book unwittingly reproduces some of the very same Eurocentric formulations of the writing of history and modernity that it seeks to refute. A liberal conception of modernity is at the core of how society, history, and politics have been imagined in this book. These attributes of modernity, such as history as a set of causal relations, as presentation of facts, as a realm of the real cannot escape their prior formulation in Europe. The liberal social order also underpins the relationship between writing and the world. In Textures, early historians merely represent reality; they are not authors whose practices are constitutive of politics and identity. The conception of modernity overlooks the constitutive role colonial empires played in the very creation not only of the West and non-West, but also in conceptions of the real, the modern, the universal, and the historical.
History and Theory 46 (October 2007), 396-408
This essay considers an important and enduring problem in the writing of Indian history: how do we historians approach precolonial narratives of the past? A rich and suggestive new study of South Indian modes of historiography, Textures of Time: Writing History in South India 1600–1800, by Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, has positioned itself at the center of this debate. For a variety of reasons, precolonial narratives have been demoted to the status of mere information, and genres of South Indian writing have been dismissed as showing that South Indians lacked the ability to write history and indeed lacked historical consciousness. Textures of Time responds to this picture by proposing a novel historical method for locating historical sensibility in precolonial narratives of the past. The authors ask us not to judge all textual traditions in India, especially narratives of the past, on the basis of the verifiability of facts contained in them. Rather they suggest a radical openness of the text, and they argue that a historical narrative is constituted in the act of reading itself. They do this by examining the role of genre and what they call texture in precolonial South Indian writing.
This essay examines the strengths and limitations of their proposal. It does so by examining the formation of colonial archives starting in the late-eighteenth century in order to understand the predicament of history in South Asia. Colonial archives brought about a crisis in historiographical practices in India; they not only transformed texts into raw information for the historian to then reconstruct a historical narrative, they also delegitimized precolonial modes of historiography. A better understanding of these archives puts one in a better position to assess the insights of Textures of Time, but it also helps to highlight the problems in its solution. In particular, it reveals how the book continues to use modern criteria to assess premodern works, and in this way perhaps to judge them inappropriately.
VELCHERU NARAYANA RAO, DAVID SHULMAN, and SANJAY SUBRAHMANYAM
History and Theory 46 (October 2007), 409-427
In the years since its twin publication in 2001 (Indian edition) and 2003 (U.S. edition), Textures of Time has attracted a great deal more attention outside the United States than in the American academy. This, we suggest, is because its ideas and approach are rather at odds with the dominant trends in the area of “postcolonial studies.” In this response to three critical essays that engage with the book—by Rama Mantena, Sheldon Pollock, and Christopher Chekuri—we begin by setting out our principal hypotheses as well as the evidentiary structure of the book, which draws mostly on vernacular materials from South India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The former includes the claim that South India between roughly 1600 and 1800 (and thus in the centuries before the consolidation of colonial rule) possessed considerable and diverse historiographical traditions, though these histories came couched in a variety of genres, rendering them difficult for the uninitiated to recognize at first; the latter requires us to develop the significance of the concepts of “texture” as well as of “subgeneric markers” that help distinguish texts with a historical intention from those that are nonhistorical but have the same generic location. Our response then goes on to discuss why theoretical or sastric texts in India do not themselves explicitly theorize the distinctions we make. Here, we posit a contrast between “embedded” and “explicated” concepts in the “emic” sphere, suggesting that “texture” belongs to the first category. We explicitly distinguish our views from the poststructuralist (and Barthesian) language adopted by Pollock in his critique of Textures, and the more predictable postcolonial vision of Chekuri. We once more emphasize the need to take the vernacular historiography seriously, and to refine our reading practices, rather than overly depending on normative materials in Sanskrit, or on a prefabricated theoretical schema that derives from a stylized (and impoverished) view of the nature of the transformations produced by colonial rule.
THOMAS H. BROBJER
History and Theory 46 (May 2007), 155-179
Nietzsche is generally regarded as a severe critic of historical method and scholarship; this view has influenced much of contemporary discussions about the role and nature of historical scholarship. In this article I argue that this view is seriously mistaken (to a large degree because of the somewhat misleading nature of Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben). I do so by examining what he actually says about understanding history and historical method, as well as his relation to the founders of modern German historiography (Wolf, Niebuhr, Ranke, and Mommsen). I show, contrary to most expectations, that Nietzsche knew these historians well and that he fundamentally affirmed their view of historical method. What he primarily objected to among his contemporaries was that historical scholarship was often regarded as a goal in itself, rather than as a means, and consequently that history was placed above philosophy. In fact, a historical approach was essential for Nietzsche’s whole understanding of philosophy, and his own philosophical project.
History and Theory 46 (May 2007), 180-188
Imbued with profound historical consciousness, the Chinese people are Homo historiens in every sense of the term. To be human in China, to a very large extent, is to be historical, which means to live up to the paradigmatic past. Therefore, historical thinking in traditional China is moral thinking. The Chinese historico-moral thinking centers around the notion of Dao, a notion that connotes both Heavenly principle and human norm.
In view of its practical orientation, Chinese historical thinking is, on the one hand, concrete thinking and, on the other, analogical thinking. Thinking concretely and analogically, the Chinese people are able to communicate with the past and to extrapolate meanings from history. In this way, historical experience in China becomes a library in which modern readers may engage in creative dialogues with the past.
History and Theory 46 (May 2007), 189-193
Topical intercultural discourse on historical thinking is deeply determined by fundamental distinctions, mainly between the “East” and the “West.” The epistemological preconditions of this discourse are normally not reflected or even criticized. This article follows Chun-Chieh Huang’s attempt to give Chinese historical thinking a new voice in this intercultural discourse. It agrees with Huang’s strategy of focusing the description of the peculiarity of Chinese historical thinking on fundamental criteria of historical sense-generation. Huang argues for a strict difference between the Chinese way of sense-generation in history and the Western one. Against this distinction I argue that both traditions of historical thinking follow the same logic, namely that of the exemplary mode, which is known in the Western tradition by Cicero’s slogan “Historia vitae magistra.” Instead of claiming this mode as typical of Chinese historical thinking, I propose to clarify the difference between China and the West by looking for a modification of the same logic. Finally the question arises as to what the paradigmatic shift of historical thinking from the exemplary to the genetic mode means for the Chinese tradition Huang has presented. This shift cannot be understood as only a Western one, since it is a mode of pursuing modernity in history by a fundamental temporalization in the interpretation of the human world.
History and Theory 46 (May 2007), 194-200
This article comments on some of Professor Huang’s theses by looking at ancient historiography. It deals with the significance of history in its respective cultural contexts; the kind of orientation that historical thinking and historiography provide; and the relationship between concrete examples and abstract rules in historical argumentation. Distinguishing between ancient Greece and Rome, it shows that Huang’s explicit and implicit East–West oppositions are more valid with respect to ancient Greece than to ancient Rome. On important points, the situation of Rome is surprisingly close to that of China. Thus not only in China but also in Rome, tradition and history are highly important as a life-orienting force (as opposed to the importance of speculative thought in Greece); and not only in China but also in Rome the orientation that historical thinking and historiography provide is to a great extent moral (as opposed to orientation through intellectual insight that, for a historian such as Thucydides, is placed in the foreground). As to the relationship between concrete examples and abstract rules in historical argumentation, the paper takes up Professor Rüsen’s category of “exemplary meaning-generation,” but suggests a distinction between example in the sense of “case/instance” and example in the sense of “model/paragon.” Though the two corresponding modes of exemplary meaning-generation are mostly entwined, it appears that in Chinese and Roman historical works (in accordance with their stress on moral effect) there is a tendency toward meaning-generation by example in the sense of “model/paragon,” whereas in Greek historiography (in accordance with its stress on intellectual insight) the tendency is toward meaning-generation by example in the sense of “case/instance.”
Q. EDWARD WANG
History and Theory 46 (May 2007), 201-209
Taking Chun-chieh Huang’s ruminations on the defining character of Chinese historical thinking as a starting point, this essay discusses the ways in which historical cultures and traditions are compared and contrasted and explores some new ways of thinking. It argues that cultural comparisons often constitute two-way traffic (one begins to examine itself after encountering the other) and that attempts to characterize one historical culture, such as that of China, are often made relationally and temporally. When the Chinese tradition of historiography is perceived and presented in the West, it has been regarded more or less as a counterexample against which the “unique” traits of Western historical thinking are thrown into relief. Given the hegemonic influence of Western scholarship in modern times, latter-day Chinese historians also valorize the East–West dichotomy. A closer look at this dichotomy, or the characterization of both cultures, reveals that it is not only relative but also relational and temporal. When the modern Chinese appeared impressed by the rigor of Rankean critical historiography, for example, they were essentially attempting to rediscover their own cultural past, for example, the eighteenth-century tradition of evidential learning, in adapting to the changing world. Our task today, the essay contends, is to historicize the specific context within which cultural comparisons are made and to go beyond readily accepted characterizations in order to reassess certain elements in a given culture, to apply historical wisdom, and to cope with the challenges we now face.
History and Theory 46 (May 2007), 210-217
An effective and enriching discourse on comparative historiography invests itself in understanding the distinctness and identity that have created various civilizations. Very often, infected by bias, ideology, and cultural one-upmanship, we encounter a presumptuousness that is redolent of impatience with the cultural other and of an ingrained refusal to acknowledge what one’s own history and culture fail to provide. This “failure” need not be the inspiration to subsume the other within one’s own understanding of the world and history and, thereby, neuter the possibilities of knowledge-sharing and cultural interface. It is a realization of the “lack” that provokes and generates encounters among civilizations. It should goad us to move away from what we have universalized and, hence, normalized into an axis of dialogue and mutuality. What Indians would claim as itihasa need not be rudely frowned upon because it does not chime perfectly with what the West or the Chinese know as history. Accepting the truth that our ways of understanding the past, the sense of the past, and historical sense-generation vary with different cultures and civilizations will enable us to consider itihasa from a perspective different from the Hegelian modes of doing history and hence preclude its subsumption under the totalitarian rubric of world history. How have Indians “done” their history differently? What distinctiveness have they been able to weave into their discourses and understanding of the past? Does the fact of their proceeding differently from how the West or the Chinese conceptualize history delegitimize and render inferior the subcontinental consciousness of “encounters with past” and its ways of being “moved by the past”? This article expatiates on the distinctiveness of itihasa and argues in favor of relocating its epistemological and ideological persuasions within a comparative historiographical discourse.
History and Theory 46 (May 2007), 218-232
Cultures are constituted by binary oppositions: the absolute and the relative; the perfect and the imperfect; the stable and the unstable. Many of the world’s cultures have looked to revealed religion to discover the absolute: that which transcends the human, the intellect, and space and time. By positing a God who is omniscient and omnipotent, they conceive of an eternal and absolute that continues to exist in an immutable state.
In such cultures new perspectives for reinterpreting the past are continually propounded. This allows history to be rewritten and re-rewritten. History simply becomes a method for becoming conscious of the past.
By contrast, many East Asian cultures have not developed such a concept of revealed religion. For them, history itself constitutes an absolute, something on which one can rely. History in East Asia is endowed with a normative function, a source of authority that does not permit easy rewriting.
History and Theory 46 (February 2007), 1-28
This essay is written as an introductory essay to celebrate the third edition of Arthur Danto’s Analytical Philosophy of History, first printed in 1965. It raises questions about what it means to write an introduction given Danto’s own philosophical theses on history. What does it mean to write before a book but after the fact? The essay also pays special attention to the connections between Danto’s philosophy of history, philosophy of art, and the other areas of his philosophy that he regards to be all of a piece. It considers the nature of analytical philosophy and its heyday in America in the postwar period, when, to some degree, it was used as an antidote to a ideology of history that had proved itself to be no more than an extreme perversion of some of the most influential claims in a philosophy of history developed in Germany (mostly by Hegel) around 1800.
History and Theory 46 (February 2007), 29-46
The debate between individualism and holism in the philosophy of history pertains to the nature of the entities relied on in historical explanations. The question is whether explanations of historical items (for example, events, actions, artifacts) require the assumption that the collective historical entities (for example, civilizations, cultures, and so on) used in these explanations are (sometimes) conceived of as irreducible to the actions, thoughts, and beliefs of individual human beings. In this paper I analyze two methodological problems that holist explanations face in the writing of intellectual history. The first problem derives from the fact that holist explanations in intellectual history have to rely on the claim that certain beliefs were inconceivable to some individuals because they were members of specific collectives, whereas it is unclear how historical research can justify such claims when made from the holist position. The second problem pertains to the difficulties the holist position faces when it has to account for the novel properties of artifacts studied by intellectual history.