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“The concept ‘crisis’ has indeed become a motto of modern politics, and for a long time it has been part of normality in any segment of social life,” argued Giorgio Agamben in a 2013 interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He further explained:
“The very word expresses two semantic roots: the medical one, referring to the course of an illness, and the theological one of the Last Judgement. ‘Crisis’ in ancient medicine meant a judgement, when the doctor noted at the decisive moment whether the sick person would survive or die. The present understanding of crisis, on the other hand, refers to an enduring state. So this uncertainty is extended into the future, indefinitely” and “an endless process of decision never concludes.”
A leading Italian philosopher well-known for his theory of the state of exception, Agamben borrowed this genealogy of crisis almost exactly from Reinhart Koselleck’s entry in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (in Volume 3, 1982), published in the Journal of the History of Ideas in 2006 with the excellent translation of Michaela Richter. It is perhaps one of the most influential single conceptual histories, compounding into so many layers of reference that it has taken on the appearance of a historical document in little under forty years. Koselleck called crisis the “structural signature of modernity,” scrawled in Schiller’s hand through his dictum of ‘World History is the Last Judgement.’ (372-95) Its “metaphorical flexibility,” and the dual valence of diagnostic and judgement, helped crisis to become a contemporary buzzword and an ambivalent analytical tool—sometimes system-immanent, sometimes system-exploding.
Crisis?! What Crisis?” Photo by Michael Coghlan. Wikipedia Commons.
Sovereign debt, climate change, refugeedom, liberalism: we indeed seem to live in times of crisis. There has been talk of the “crisis in crisis” as well as of the need for an “anti-crisis” from scholars weary of the concept’s shaky foundations and its apparent tendency in conjunctures such as the 2008 financial meltdown to foreclose possibilities, rather than to open them. One recent observer has even suggested that a “crisis paradigm” runs amok in political and social theory, harboring an epistemic blind-spot to the ways the determination of crises is used to advance normative claims.
This interdisciplinary conversation about what crisis means, where it came from, and how we deploy it has a longer history. In 1976, the prominent French sociologist Edgar Morin had already decided that the concept of crisis was becoming so overused and emptied of meaning that the concept’s own experience of crisis would eventually resurrect it. “The crisis of the concept of crisis is the beginning of the theory of crisis,” he enthused. (162-3) Yet, these were the first steps to a crisologie that never came. We can self-reflexively recognize crisis as a vague category of analysis, a ramifying narrative structure, or a moving target of presentism. But even explanations of presentism, such as François Hartog’s, routinely fall back onto diagnosing…a “crisis of time.” Crisis and critique: a recursive partnership.
“Treat the Crisis as a Crisis.” Photo by Takver. Flickr.
But what happens to the conceptual histories of modernity when modernity becomes a tradition? Here, Christian Geulen has asked a pertinent question. For many, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe seems outdated, a vestige of postwar efforts to trace the pathogenesis of Europe’s destruction of the Enlightenment. Yet, if Alf Lüdtke has shown himself skeptical of the work’s utility as a eurocentric anachronism, Geulen appears confident it can be renovated through a radical overhauling of its analytical tools and geolinguistic boundaries. Willibald Steinmetz shares Geulen’s optimism, arguing that Koselleck’s notions of conceptual democratization and temporalization have been accomplished, while politicization and ideologization (the increasing abstraction of concepts into -isms) continue to repeat throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Asking about “What Is Dead and What Is Alive in Conceptual History?,” Jan-Werner Müller has equally found hope in the idea of a “critical conceptual history of the present.” Koselleck did consider crisis “as an everyday experience,” but a critical history would explore song, games, and the other discursive mediums of non-elite actors, engaging in a hybrid histoire de mentalités that is closer to Rolf Reichardt’s efforts in the mid-1980s Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich 1680-1820. Does jettisoning the Sattelzeit also mean rethinking the “signature of modernity” then? Curiously, Koselleck’s text on crisis runs through the cutting-edge interdisciplinary scholarship that engages the term as a common thread. Perhaps Begriffsgeschichte 1.0 might be more alive and well in other scholarly fields than we have recognized.
Koselleck understood the vital function of Begriffsgeschichte to be the precision of political and social language. In his view, revealing “the plenitude or poverty” of meaning in concepts would empower his readers to “establish a degree of semantic control over the use of (social and political) language today.” This modus vivendi helps us understand Koselleck’s presentation of crisis. “The concept of crisis, which once had the power to pose unavoidable, harsh and non-negotiable alternatives,” he writes in the introduction to the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, “has been transformed to fit the uncertainties of whatever might be favored at a given moment.” But Koselleck adds a twist:
“Such a tendency towards imprecision and vagueness, however, may itself be viewed as the symptom of a historical crisis that cannot as yet be fully gauged. This makes it all the more important for scholars to weigh the concept carefully before adopting it in their own terminology.”
Another crisis of crisis?
Two decades into the brave new twenty-first century, the owl of Minerva has not yet spread its wings and the deeper malaise Koselleck mysteriously alluded to remains intact. But focusing on crisis in his work—a conceptual theme, I argue, that ties much of it together—suggests several new possible directions for Begriffsgeschichte. For one, the relationship of hermeneutics to Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte still awaits exploration. Arriving from historical sociology, Isaac Reid has suggested a “full-blown crisis hermeneutics” (275) to explore how the “backcloth of action” is rewoven after it is torn. Second, conceptual histories have yet to engage space. The focus on Koselleck has understandably been temporal, and Geulen suggests considering spatialization as merely a process of recent conceptual evolution. But how might crisis spaces have undergirded temporalization? Agamben’s notion of the state of exception has proved so attractive to scholars because it captures both dimensions, such as in extraterritoriality. Finally, though Begriffsgeschichte has yet to transcend its nation-state and European containers, Koselleck sensed an opening for an outright planetary scale. His attention to the acceleration of eschatological time positioned nuclear planetary annihilation as a “final decision,” a modern katechon whose possible dissolution lay in “looking out for stabilizers which can be derived from the long duration of prior human history.” (246) Whether or not this was an opening into deep history, or merely the longue durée of theological temporality, Koselleck ultimately proposed “an ecology of the present” (29-33) in his later reflections on the “ecological crisis” enfolding the planet—and Begriffsgeschichte with it.
Alex Langstaff is a PhD candidate in modern European history at NYU.
Something that always surprises me in the perception of river flooding is how we tend to reduce different floods to recurring iterations of the same phenomenon. Historical river floods are in fact usually evoked by means of the year in which they occurred and in relation to the most noticeable urban area that they affected. On one hand, this way to refer to different floods standardizes each event and effectively erases the heterogeneous causes that contribute to their occurrence. On the other hand, the ‘by-year-label’ allows a low degree of difference which is functional to comparatively measure the magnitude of devastation that each iteration causes. This way of thinking about floods contributes to divert the discussion of how and why each flood takes place towards a more “sensational” narrative, which is typical of “disaster culture” (Robert C. Bell and Robert M. Ficociello). Is a flood just a flood among others? Shouldn’t we learn to reflect on each flood separately?
The Trinity River in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex provides an interesting case for a reflection on river floods. Between 1908 and 1949, in fact, following the occurrence of increasingly severe flooding events, local authorities created a system of levees that will soon be dismantled. According to the Trinity River Vision Authority, in fact, the current levee system is not only inadequate for contemporary flood risk, but prevents the development of river ecology as well as direct access to the river. Launched in 2002 and supervised by the Trinity River Vision Authority, the Trinity River Vision Project promises flood damage reduction, ecological renewal, and opportunities for recreation and development. The project advocates for the Renaissance of local river culture and draws on a “holistic approach to flood protection” in order to safeguard Fort Worth and transform it into a riverfront city.
The language of the Master Plan prompts a certain level of risk, that of flooding, and at the same time provides us with a well-designed solution that guarantees safety while enhancing beauty. It enables a positive vision of the future that capitalizes on fears of loss caused by uncontrollable events as well as on the feeling of awe that providential technology can inspire. The reference to the theme of “renaissance” seems not coincidental in that in its “holistic” vision the project advocates for a beautified city which redirects the community towards the river as a source for pleasure, entertainment, and relief. Much could be said on this reference. However, what concerns me here is that the Trinity River Vision Authority capitalizes on the tension between an enhanced sense of flood risk and an already-made providential solution without providing an adequate contextualization of flooding.
Located at the junction of Clear Fork and West Fork of the Trinity River, Fort Worth has experienced several episodes of extreme flooding, most noticeably in 1844, 1866, 1871, 1890, 1908, 1922, 1949 and 1989, while flash flooding is a frequent occurrence. The Plan only includes an introductory remark on the 1949 flood as “a massive flood” that “destroyed much of the city” and continues with “the river reached a depth of 52 feet and a width of 1.5 miles, killing 10 people and leaving 4,000 citizens homeless” (9). However, the Report on Trinity River at Dallas and Fort Worth, presented by the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors on March 11, 1949 provides us with a much more complex scenario for understanding the occurrence of that “massive” flood (Committee on Public Works; id: 11324 H.doc.242). According to the document prepared by the Board of Engineers on March 11, 1949, in fact, the population of Dallas had increased from 295,000 in 1940 to 483,000 at the time, and of Fort Worth from 178,000 to 318,000 (5). The Board of Engineers connected flood risk to this “extraordinary growth” which “accelerated development and utilization of the reclaimed flood-plain lands at both cities for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes” (6). Drainage is thus identified as a significant issue, because existing infrastructures did not seem to be able to sustain both discharge and storm waters. Such a historical reflection allows a more refined understanding of the elements that produce flooding, which is less about nature and devastation, and more about policy and social behaviors.
The Flood of Forty-Nine - YouTube
Video capturing the effects of flooding in Fort Worth Flood in 1949. More footage on the Texas Archive of the Moving image FWPD Collection.
The plan might well achieve its goals and represent a great solution for certain flooding patterns. However, as is often the case with landscape design and engineering, the solution might also be provisional. The question that remains open is if the plan effectiveness will be reduced by changing rain patterns and how layers of historical interventions will interact with such a future scenario. Reclaimed land, diverted rivers, forgotten creeks, and streams play a crucial role in the patterns that are followed by storm waters. It is not clear if the plan took such history into account, although some aspects seem to be partially informed by a historical perception, particularly in an effort to mimic the river’s original topography. A more systematic historical perspective would enhance important reflections on the interactions between the river and the urban fabric, with its shifting economic and cultural assets. Since the plan already aims to presents the river as a pedagogical site (17), it would be interesting to create learning opportunities that also aim to prompt flood culture as a preventive civic tool.
Engaging with local historical research contributes to enhance a different perception of the site’s present-day configuration and provides people with more accurate tools for developing a sense of flood risk and awareness. River flooding which often occupies the margins of our imagination, and thus rarely activates our sense of risk, has been in fact increasing and is expected to increase even more over the coming years, according to research presented in the Annual Disaster Statistical Review and in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An intellectual engagement with a relational history of flood can enhance levels of awareness and thus reduce those psychological post-flood impacts, particularly anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are often unaccounted for and have been highlighted by recent publications such as Climate Change and Public Health, edited by B. S. Levy, and J. A. Patz and published by Oxford University Press. From this perspective, risk is not to be understood in Ulricht Beck’s sense as “the perceptive and cognitive schema” that “opens a world within and beyond the clear distinction between knowledge and not-knowing, truth and falsehood, good and evil” (5-6). On the contrary, an adequate discussion of the conditions that produce flood moves stories of flood away from the semantics of dreadful risk towards a vision of the future that is shaped by an informed sense of risk.
I became interested in the history of the Trinity River in Northern Texas because continuous warnings for local flash floods prompted me to wonder why flooding could occur in inland Texas. The site unsettled the axioms of my European sense of Texas by introducing unexpected elements such as green grass, magnificent trees, abundant rain, and encroaching waters. Acknowledging the Trinity River prompted me to reflect on the history of the relationship between settlers, water, and land in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The river also prompted the crucial questions on flooding that opened this reflection.
Is it appropriate to classify each flood occurrence in relation to spatio-temporal categories, particularly in public historical discourse? Wouldn’t it be more effective to refer to each flood in relation to the specific processes that caused it? Engaging with more detailed stories of individual floods would contribute to enhance a defined sense of risk which is easier to navigate than undefined fears of the inexplicable and the unexpected. This informed sense of risk is as important a prevention measure as works of engineering, STEM, and public science.
By contributing editor Jonathon Catlin and guest contributor Lotte Houwink ten Cate
From June 6–9, 2019, over thirty eminent scholars of German and Jewish history and culture gathered in Berlin at the conference “Mosse’s Europe: New Perspectives in the Study of German Judaism, Fascism, and Sexuality” to critically reassess and carry on the legacy of the pathbreaking German-Jewish historian George L. Mosse (1918–1999) on the occasion of the centenary of his birth. Presentations concerned both Mosse himself, including reminiscences from the many students he trained during his long career, and also new research inspired by his more than two dozen books. Of particular importance is new work about women, queer history, and the study of sexual violence that complements Mosse’s earlier work on masculinity and male sexuality.
The conference began with the remarkable story of Mosse’s family, who owned and published the Berliner Tageblatt, a leading liberal newspaper that has been called the New York Times of Weimar Germany. They lived in magnificent estates in Berlin and the neighboring countryside, and young George enjoyed an idyllic bourgeois childhood. However, the family’s fortune was not without its costs. Roger Strauch, Mosse’s great nephew, remarked that Mosse’s grandfather, the tycoon Rudolf Mosse, was “the George Soros of his day,” as Hitler and Goebbles often invoked the Mosse name to stoke myths of Jewish power and conspiracy. Despite the pressure of antisemitism, it seems, remarkably, that no Mosses converted to Christianity. Meike Hoffman also noted a decisive error in the biography of the family by Elisabeth Kraus: The Tageblatt was declared bankrupt on 19 September 1933—and not 1932, as Nazi documents claimed; hence the newspaper was not sold or handed over willingly to an “Aryan” owner, but rather seized under the fictitious pretense of bankruptcy.
Mosse’s passport issued by the Nazi state. Courtesy of the Mosse Program.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, when George was fifteen, his family fled to France, Switzerland, and then America. He attended a Quaker boarding school in England, then Cambridge and Haverford College, and earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1946. Mosse began his scholarly career as a specialist on English constitutional history of the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1955 he moved to the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he began teaching the modern German and Jewish history that had profoundly shaped his own life. As he concluded his memoir in 1999:
“The Holocaust was never very far from my mind; I could easily have perished with my fellow Jews. I suppose that I am a member of the Holocaust generation and have constantly tried to understand an event too monstrous to contemplate. All my studies in the history of racism and volkish thought, and also those dealing with outsiderdom and stereotypes, though sometimes not directly related to the Holocaust, have tried to find the answer to how it could have happened; finding an explanation has been vital not only for the understanding of modern history, but also for my own peace of mind. This is a question my generation had to face, and eventually I felt I had come closer to an understanding of the Holocaust as a historical phenomenon. We have to live with an undertone of horror in spite of the sort of advances that made it so much easier for me to accept my own nature…. The issues of the Third Reich were writ large in my consciousness, a part of my personal transformation from the irresponsibility of youth, a past which had to be faced. I had rejected the worlds of my past and had sought to transform myself, but in my anxieties, fears, and restlessness, I was still a child of my century.” (Confronting History: A Memoir, p. 219)
In order to understand European fascism, his former student Steven Aschheim (Hebrew University) said, Mosse “de-ghettoized” Jewish experience. He pioneered a unique cultural approach that broke out of the essentialist and closed practice of Jewish history he encountered in Israel. Hence, for example, Mosse’s classic The Crisis of German Ideology: The Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (1964) describes the rise of Nazism not only as an “anti-Jewish revolution” but also as a broader “spiritual revolution” that drew upon and weaponized older volkish ideas and other forms of racism.
In his four decades at Wisconsin, Mosse trained dozens of graduate students until his retirement in 1987. As an entertaining graphic novel about his life illustrates, Mosse resisted the radicalization of the campus in the 1960s, proudly asserting to his students: “This course is designed to rid you of your slogans.” The mob of student activists apparently stood in violation of his dictum, “let us be wary of forced conformity,” or, as Aschheim put it, “beware of normalcy.”
Nick Thorkelson, “You Had to Be There: George Mosse Finds Himself in History”
Beginning in 1969, Mosse spent a semester each year teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, several Mosse family properties appropriated by the Nazi state and then East Germany were restituted to Mosse. Upon his death in 1999, he donated the restitution to the University of Wisconsin–Madison (whose unsightly humanities building still bears his name), home to the Mosse Program, which facilitates scholarly exchanges between Wisconsin and Hebrew University and also sponsors annual lectures in Madison, Jerusalem, and Berlin. Collaborative efforts to restitute the family’s art collection are ongoing at the Freie Universität Berlin.
Alongside historians such as Peter Gay, Carl Schorske, Fritz Stern, Walter Laqueur, Arno Mayer, Raul Hilberg, and Saul Friedländer, Mosse was part of an intellectual cohort recently considered together in The Second Generation: Émigrés from Nazi Germany as Historians (2015). While others shared Mosse’s turn to cultural history, Mosse’s open homosexuality helped lead him to original insights about the centrality of sexuality and masculinity to nationalism. On this front, Kilian Harrer has written a fascinating piece about Mosse’s missed encounter with Foucault. While Mosse’s published writings are generally dismissive of the more radical French theorist, he read Foucault with great interest. Mosse wrote in the margins of his copy of Histoire de la sexualité: La volonté de savoir (1976): “Yes, sex part not of traditional legal power but of symbolism and myth of new politics.” He explored such ideas further in his late reflections on homosexuality, such as “Why Gay History?” (1996).
In opposition to many German historians who fled from politics into the social history of structure and bureaucracy, Mosse saw fascism as a cultural totality that satisfied the need for “a fully furnished house” of normative order and a sense of stability (George L. Mosse’s Italy, p. 42). Fascism offered a new vision of man, a dynamic worldview, a secular “liturgy” for the politicized masses. Mosse wrote in his memoir that he was by no means above these longings himself: he found certain currents of Zionism seductive and was awed by the spectacle of a Hitler rally as a teenager. As Aschheim noted, in order to understand fascism, Mosse studied its internal self-representations, exploring such “irrational” topics as its obsessions with gymnastics, the “Jewish nose,” and “degenerate” masturbation.
As Darcy Buerkle (Smith College) noted, Mosse called Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (1985) his “coming out book.” This book has been described by his former student Anson Rabinbach (Princeton) as “a path-breaking study of how stereotypes like ‘healthy’ and ‘degenerate’ and ‘normal and abnormal’ underlay what became the persecution of Europe’s Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies and the insane.” As Aleida Assmann (Konstanz) noted, for Mosse, the “heil und gesund” (well and healthy) national body invented outsiders as a moral yardstick against which to assert its own respectability. Ideal types exist in a dialectic with anti-types. The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1998) further expanded the way the figures of the feminized Jew and homosexual figured as “others” to the bourgeois ideal of “the soldierly man.”
Steven Aschheim at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Photos by David von Becker.
Mosse’s work defied conventional periodization by highlighting cultural continuities across historical caesuras. For example, he argued that Nazism simultaneously embodied and transcended earlier notions of bourgeois respectability. Assmann credited his attention to everyday habits, symbols, and rituals as influential for her own field of memory studies. Mosse’s late work argued that memory regimes including the “cult of the fallen soldier” and the “myth of the war experience” after the First World War led to “the brutalization of German politics” and paved the way for another war. Assmann, in turn, explores the gulf between horror and glory at the Second World War in national memories.
Mary Louise Roberts, Elissa Mailänder, and Stefanos Geroulanos at the Deutsches Historisches Museum
Amidst a sea of entertaining stories from former students about Mosse’s at times “outrageous” and pompous character, co-organizer Atina Grossman reflected upon why she chose not to study with Mosse: she was warned of his dismissive attitude toward women and the nascent field of women’s history. Given her interest in gender, she opted to study at Rutgers instead.
Atina Grossmann at the Deutsches Historisches Museum
The most original work presented concerned the history of gender and sexuality. Stefanie Schüler-Springorum (Berlin Center for Research on Antisemitism) presented on the Nazi notion of “race defilement,” which entangled desire, fear, disgust, and sexual violence in what she called “pornographic antisemitism,” while Elissa Mailänder (Sciences Po) explored sexual violence against female concentration camp guards. Mary Louise Roberts (Wisconsin) presented a comparative study of the shifting significance of rape by American GIs in Britain and France, whereas Regina Mühlhäuser (Hamburg Institute for Social Research) analyzed the framing of rape as a weapon of war not as a “terminus technicus” but as an argumentative topos. Anna Hájková (Warwick) highlighted erased queer desires and same-sex experiences among victims of Nazi persecution. As Grossmann acknowledged, these presentations were spaced out in order to avoid all-male panels. While this commendable decision did lead to missed conversations among the presenters, discussion was hindered more because of a constant lack of time.
Anna Hájková and Regina Mühlhäuser at the Deutsches Historisches Museum
One panel reflected on the relevance of Mosse’s work on fascism today amidst resurgent right-wing populism. Mary Nolan (NYU) explored right-wing appeals to women in France and Germany, while Andreas Huyssen (Columbia) debunked the boogeyman of Jewish “cultural Marxism” on the contemporary right. Enzo Traverso (Cornell) drew careful lines of analogy between the 1930s and today, but argued, as per his recent The New Faces of Fascism, that contemporary rightwing movements draw upon historical fascism but are ultimately “post-fascist.” Traverso also skeptically noted several distinctive elements of Mosse’s account of fascism, especially compared to the theory of one of Mosse’s closest scholarly interlocutors, Emilio Gentile. Mosse saw both fascism and Jacobinism as mass “political religions,” and hence as reactionary and counter-revolutionary elements split off from the emancipatory Enlightenment tradition that spawned the French Revolution. Rabinbach also noted that Mosse refused to separate Italian Fascism, rooted in the state, from Nazism, rooted in racial ideology. Mosse’s expansive theory of fascism also included Francoism in Spain but paid less attention to anti-fascism, the mobilizing creed of the generation that resisted it in the Spanish Civil War. Despite the subtitle of his Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (1978), Mosse also paid far less attention to the earlier atrocities of European colonialism than his fellow émigré Hannah Arendt.
The final day, current and former Mosse Fellows departed from the panegyrics of the older generation and presented new directions in a variety of fields. David Harrisville (Furman) presented new work on the role of ideology in the Wehrmacht based on his analysis of a large trove of correspondence by soldiers. Arie Dubnov (George Washington) applied Mosse’s notion of the cult of the fallen soldier to Israel, which as a young nation reburied many early Zionist leaders on Mount Herzl—its Pantheon—and created new holidays and liturgies to honor fallen soldiers in Israeli wars. Ethan Katz (Berkeley) gave a fascinating preview of his new work on the role of the Jewish insurgency in Algiers and its decisive contribution to Operation Torch, extending his previous scholarship on Jewish-Muslim relations and colonialism into the field of Holocaust Studies.
Mosse is well known for his most personal scholarly book German Jews Beyond Judaism (1985), which Aschheim called “almost a confession of faith.” This work has been interpreted in Mosse’s Festschrift as a response to Gershom Scholem’s polemical denunciation of “the myth of the German-Jewish dialogue.” Former Mosse student David Sorkin (Yale) added that with this work Mosse aimed to highlight secular forms of Jewish culture beyond Zionism. Mosse emphasized the centrality of the German notion of Bildung (cultivation) in German-Jewish experience. He called it “the knighthood of modernity” and described it as a means of cultural redemption and a “secular religion” particularly important to Jews, such as his own family, who had given up traditional faith. The Germanocentrism and elitism of this thesis has received ample criticism from such scholars as Aschheim, Peter Jelavich, and Shulamit Volkov. Yet the ideal of Bildung continued to shape Mosse’s thinking and way of life well after his departure for the United States, informing his humanism and what Herf called his “Cold War liberal” politics.
On the final day, Herf claimed that not enough attention had been paid to antisemitism, apparently overlooking the persuasive arguments that had been made about its intersections with gender and sexuality (about which, according to Herf, “much..
1974, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg – known for such massive tomes as The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, The Genesis of the Copernican World, and Work
– received the prestigious Kuno Fischer Prize for his life’s work. Musing on
the relation between history and philosophy in his acceptance
speech, Blumenberg uttered a curious sentence: “I have always felt
the charge of ‘historicism’ to be an honor.” (170) From the mouth of a
philosopher, even a historian of philosophy, this statement must seem
astonishing. After all, in its polemical meaning, “historicism” refers to a value-free
accumulation of facts lacking any distinction between the important and
unimportant. Wanting to clarify the genesis of phenomena without being able to
determine their validity, as the “charge of ‘historicism’” could be summed up,
ends in a meaningless relativism. And as a philosophical attitude, historicism
is a paradox, for it dissolves philosophy into history. Yet, the fact that it
should be “an honor” to practice it, can be justified philosophically for Blumenberg. As a correction of mistaken
conceptions of history, historicism is put to use for a whole program of
historical theory: Blumenberg once
called it the “destruction of history” (224).
makes clear what kind of history is to be destroyed at various points in his
work, but in The Genesis of
the Copernican World, the issue takes center stage. Here, he levels
a polemic against what he calls “temporal ‘nostrocentrism’” – an
“us-centeredness” in time (170). By this he means the tendency to look at
history from today alone and to bestow on its winding path a necessity that
willfully ignores all the junctions it could have taken. In this way, the past
becomes a series of transitional stages on the way to the present. It, in turn,
is either its own destination or simply a stopover towards a future set as a telos.
What is left by the wayside is both the sense of the complexity of history as
well as the intrinsic value of what has been passed through. The cipher
“historicism” thus serves Blumenberg above all for the correction of overly straightforward
and overly presentist theories of history. He offers a three-fold
counter-strategy: First, he calls for the history of the past to be written as
a history of possibilities. Second, he
argues for a non-linear course of history
that permits leaps and non-simultaneities. Finally, he relates both to a historical ethos – surprising for a
philosopher who is not known for normative statements.
The Genesis of the Copernican World, Blumenberg’s criticism of
non-historical thought is directed against the assumption that Copernicus’s
discovery would have been possible at any time. This view, however, already
argues from the consciousness of the Copernican world for which the line between
the present and the past simply needs to be drawn through different points in
order to arrive at the same result. Not only Copernicus’s thesis itself, but
also the disposition for its reception, Blumenberg reminds us, were “built into
and embedded in a system of premises” (137). The fact that the earth revolves
around the sun had already been postulated by Aristarchus of Samos in the
fourth century B.C.E., but his insight did not achieve any lasting effect
because such a cosmology was simply not compatible with the ancient world view
(15–16). Thus, Blumenberg argues, it is not so much the forerunners of the
Copernican system that should be examined, but more fundamentally “the
conditions of the possibility of the fact that there is any such thing as a
history of Copernicus’s effects” (133). Instead of the reconstruction of
Copernicus, Blumenberg’s analysis aims at the “opening up of the possibility of
a Copernicus“ (121). A, not the Copernicus – since now it is solely about
the circumstances that allow for such a figure to have a lasting impact.
history of possibilities presupposes the interweaving of the philosophical,
theological and scientific elements of a world view. The object of
investigation is not simply the Copernican theory, but also its world: Instead of looking at
“historically insular phenomena” one should “make progress on the question of
their rhizome” (132). Five years before Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
created an emblem of postmodern thought with this term, Blumenberg makes use of
the image of the root network to stand for that “system of premises” of a
historical epoch that can always only be treated as a whole. It is Blumenberg’s
methodological aim to measure, in this rhizome, the conceivable “scope” of
possibilities, the “breadth of variation within which certain theoretical
actions are possible and others are excluded” (131–32). Such a history of
possibilities would be a rejection of merely causal-progressivist historical
models that think in terms of prehistory, phenomenon, and history of effects.
Against the tendency to regard each historical moment as a stop on the way to
the next, Blumenberg urges us to map the potential of each time onto itself.
reconstructing historical possibilities is one strategy for the “destruction of
history,” another lies in rejecting a strictly linear flow of time. Elsewhere,
Blumenberg writes: “History does not run, primarily, in diachronic sequences of
what is not yet, what is, and what is not anymore; rather, it proceeds in
synchronous parataxes and hypotaxes.” (345) Blumenberg gives an example of such
a non-simultaneity by describing the Copernican revolution, in one essential
element, as a paradoxical loop – as a result of which it itself is a
precondition. He refers to the principle of inertia first formulated by Isaac
Newton, according to which bodies retain their linear and uniform motion if no
force is exerted on them. While the Copernican system is generally regarded as
a prerequisite for the discovery of inertia, Blumenberg insists that Copernicus
could not have formulated his theory without an idea equivalent to it.
reconstructs this strange loop in detail: Copernicus used the scholastic
concept of impetus to describe the
continuous rotation of the earth without the constant supply of energy.
Originally, this concept was used to explain the effect of the sacraments in
the absence of a direct influence of God. Metaphorically, then, impetus already implied the preservation
of energy. Copernicus coopted this notion of a “communicated causality” (145)
and applied it to the physics of celestial objects. According to Blumenberg,
this is a “reoccupation of medieval systematic positions” (153) such as he had
already described it in his The Legitimacy
of the Modern Agefor
the notion of progress (65–69). On the one hand, this resulted
in the “loosening of the systematic structure” (143) of scholasticism, as its
elements could now be redeployed in ways in which they were not initially
intended, paving the way for the construction of the Copernican world; on the
other hand, Copernicus succeeded in “the opening up of freedom for theory“
(131), which allowed not only his own theory but also its Newtonian
formalization. By this point, Blumenberg has destroyed the strict distinction
between prehistory and the history of effects for good, giving way to a
temporality that permits jumps and latencies.
an historicist, for Blumenberg, means thinking in complex potentialities and
temporal dilations. This has little to do with the mere accumulation of facts of
which 19th-century historicism is usually accused. He also
warns against the narrative construction of a single history, aware
of the danger “that history [Geschichte] is pushed aside by a story [Geschichte]”(171). To this end, he relies on the
construction of spaces of possibility and on a sense for historical
non-simultaneity. This is first of all a historiographical-methodological
consideration: It requires us to sharpen our focus on those background
transformations that change our understanding of historical phenomena, and to
recognize and take seriously the contingency of their effects, since other
paths were always possible. Blumenberg sees this
as the main problem of the history of science in his time: the tendency to
produce narratives of “in part interesting, in part at least charming (even if
by now scarcely comprehensible) errors” (272) – but of errors nonetheless.
Blumenberg’s history of possibilities goes beyond a mere critique of linear,
progressivist history. It also contains an ethical appeal, which is a true
rarity in his work. Turning away from nostrocentrism and making the present something
other than the obvious outcome of history restitutes the dignity to each
time-space position it was denied by an “arrogance on the part of the
contemporaries.” (200; trans. mod.) Against this arrogance, Blumenberg’s
historicism emphasizes “that all historical moments after each present one are
equivalent with regard to man’s radical potentialities” (202). Blumenberg’s
theory of history is based on a theory of freedom; history is the space in
which this freedom can be realized, and it is important to retain an awareness
of the breadth of this space. In his
speech, Blumenberg calls the consequence of this historicism, with
some pathos, the “the elementary obligation of forsaking nothing that is
human.” It is an ethos that demands “according respect to those who have fallen
into obscurity” (170).
Hannes Bajohr is a research fellow at the Leibniz Center of Literary and Cultural Research, Berlin. Together with Florian Fuchs and Joe Paul Kroll he has co-edited History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, forthcoming).
text first appeared in German on the blog
of the Leibniz Center of Literary and Cultural Research, Berlin, and was
translated by the author.
April 22 was Earth Day: an annual, global, day of mobilization to push for environmental reform. Often painted as the origin story of the environmental movement, Earth Day, which began in 1970, was originally about regulation and education, centering around issues like the ozone hole, oil spills, and pesticide use. 49 years later, in 2019, Earth Day is tinged with greater urgency: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has given us 12 years to act against the climate crisis, the hottest 20 years in recorded history have occurred in the past 22, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) has announced a million species are at risk of extinction, and extreme weather is increasing as frozen and remote parts of the globe melt at an alarming rate. In response, Extinction Rebellion shut down central London, a teen more savvy than global political leaders leads weekly strikes for climate, and glaciers have Twitter feeds that articulate their own demise. Still, though, political inaction is palpable.
Extinction Rebellion protesters in London, April 2019. Photo: Wiki Commons
Recently, and with fervor, the concept of the Anthropocene has been deployed within academia to articulate the extent and urgency of the global environmental crisis. Originally articulated by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and limnologist Eugene Stoermer at the turn of the millennium, the ‘Anthropocene’ is the proposed name for a new geologic epoch, one which aims “to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology” (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). In the logic of Anthropocene, humanity has become a forcing mechanism in global natural processes, producing a clash between ‘human’ or ‘shallow’ time, and ‘deep’ or ‘natural’ time. The ‘Anthropocene’ is an acknowledgement that human activities are changing the world at temporal scales far beyond the histories, lifetimes, or political terms humans normally operate within and imagine.
Graphic of the deep temporal history of the planet. Image: Wiki Commons
In the basic conception of the Anthropocene, there are two actors: mankind and the environment. This sweeping and seemingly compelling divide at once highlights the separation of the two categories and collapses it: if humans are geologic force, we can no longer imagine ourselves outside of nature. Thus, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, the Anthropocene brings to an end “the age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” which have underpinned Western notions of modernity (Chakrabarty, 2009). In academia, it also challenges traditional divisions of intellectual production—humanities on the one hand, the sciences on the other—that C.P. Snow famously, if problematically, diagnosed as The Two Cultures (Snow, 1959). So, by revealing the inherent interactions of this purported dualism, the Anthropocene is a powerful concept, one that has been gobbled up by the academic world as a new and innovative way to articulate environmental crises, and to revolutionize traditional siloes of thinking and learning. But perhaps the voracious consumption of the Anthropocene should give us pause. If consumption has been the central engine of producing the Anthropocene—for centuries humanity has rapidly exploited the planet for commodification—what of such a rapid and uncritical consumption of the idea itself? What, exactly, are we doing as we ingest and reproduce Anthropocenic thinking?
Critics of the Anthropocene have rightly pointed out what the concept obfuscates: the long and entangled colonial, patriarchal, capitalist histories of environmental exploitation in which humans were not understood as a homogenous group, or as naturally equal. Such critiques are eloquently laid out in, for example, Jason Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (2016) and Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s, “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” (2017). On top of this, far from the revolutionary concept it is purported to be, Anthropocene-thinking is rather familiar: a species-level framework can be found in the environmentalism of Earth Day and it’s more bureaucratic iterations: the IPCC reports and the historic efforts to develop global responses to climate change, from Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972) to the Kyoto Protocol (2005) and beyond. History has therefore shown us that this logic, appealing as it may be, doesn’t hold: in Kyoto, for example, efforts to flatten humans into a monolith were led by developed nations—the main burners of fossil fuels—who deployed a claim to a unified planet to shirk their greater responsibility. The end result of these deliberations is, as argued in ‘Carbon tax: Challenging Neoliberal Solutions to Climate Change,’ a neoliberal model of carbon credits, allowing capitalism and consumption to persist, transforming the air itself into a commodity (Andrew et al., 2010). Conceptually, politically, and pragmatically, then, the simplistic version of the Anthropocene is neither new or revolutionary, nor, it seems, effective. Can the idea of humans as geologic agents in any way help us imagine and do more?
While the ‘human’ of the Anthropocene is overly simplistic and rife with problems, the concept’s attention to temporal diversity could perhaps be its redemption. The collision of shallow and deep time begs the question: How can we make sense of, articulate, or engage with an ancient planet in our fleeting moment with it? In trying to hold multiple timescales in our hands at once, the Anthropocene can help push us to different sources, like natural archives; different timelines, like those traced by plastics or corals; different knowledges, particularly indigenous; different framings, such as a position of care; and fundamentally different definitions of what ‘freedom’ should look like. These shifts invert the equation of the Anthropocene by demanding immediate and sustained attention to the structures that have obscured these different ways of being or knowing, those same structures which have helped shape the dominant narratives of environmental action and political and social change.
To explore one example briefly. Ice is a productive illustration of the alternative spatial, temporal, and relational modes of thinking possible in a less anthropocentric Anthropocene. Today, as vast chunks of ice detach from Antarctica and high mountain glaciers rapidly retreat, ice is the fragile icon of the climate crisis. But ice also gives us access to an unparalleled natural archive, both in the form of ice cores and in the form of icebergs, which as natural chronometers have recorded the deep history of the planet. These archives remind us that the ebb and flow of ice has shaped the surface of the earth as we know it, and that as interglacial beings, we are subject to the whims of a mass of matter that not only moves, but changes state. But to understand all the facets of the frozen material, Western scientific knowledge-production is not enough. As Julie Cruikshank recounts in Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination, to the three First Nation women who are her interlocutors, glaciers “are wilful, sometimes capricious, easily excited by human intemperance but equally placated by quick-witted human responses” (8). How and why glaciers move, and the natural and social stories they tell, are multiple, entangled and complex: we should treat them, and all matter, human or nonhuman, as such.
Liliehöökbreen Glacier, Svalbard. Photo by Author.
By rethinking the meaning of ice, by considering existence at conflicting and complex timescales, and by privileging and being attentive to non-Western epistemologies—which, as Zoe Todd notes, are founded on relationalities that are too often touted as ‘new’ by the West—the Anthropocene can open up to ontological reform, to new systems of governance, and revolutionized modes of knowing (Todd, 2016). The result is a radically different relationship with self, others, and place than that which has underpinned so much of Western thought and society—and justified violent modes of extraction, colonization, and consumption—since the Enlightenment. If freedom, long defined as the liberation of humans from nature, is reconceptualized, the Anthropos of the Anthropocene could be diminished. In humble and thoughtful ways, with an eye to moderation, the idea of the Anthropocene can and should still be consumed.
Alexis Rider is a Ph.D Candidate in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “A Melting Fossil: Ice, Life, and Time in the Cryosphere, 1840-1970,” asks how ice, an ephemeral and ubiquitous substance, has been deployed by diverse scientific disciplines to understand geologic timescales. Alexis completed her MA at the New School for Social Research, and her B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, which is where she is originally from.
The conference “The Mahabharata in Modern Intellectual History:
Perspectives from South Asia, Europe, and East Asia” organized by Milinda Banerjee at Ludwig–Maximilians-Universität
Munich on 24 November 2018, addressed the dearth
of academic engagement with the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the
perspective of modern global intellectual history. The edited volume Political Thought in Action (S. Kapila, F.
Devji: 2013) constitutes a rare exception in this regard, given that the bulk
of scholarship on the Mahabharata (subsequently Mbh) tends to concentrate on
premodern Indian history. Academic research on the Mbh in its many written,
oral, and performed versions not only has historical value, but contemporary
relevance, given that the Mbh has profoundly influenced modern politics in
South Asia; in fact, it still significantly shapes public discourses in the
subcontinent and intellectual-cultural debates globally. To analyze the
manifold reception histories of the epic, scholars need to weave together
approaches from multiple disciplines, including global intellectual history,
Indology, philosophy, literary studies, and political theory.
Paulus Kaufmann (University of Zurich) and Philipp Sperner (Munich University) examined the transnational significance of the Mbh as evident from its reception in German philosophy. Kaufmann noted the tendency to neglect non-Western philosophers in German histories of philosophy, with the ambivalent reception of the Mbh providing a paradigmatic exemplar. Kaufmann chose Hegel as an example of a critical, yet informed, philosopher interested in Indian thought. Hegel’s main critiques of the Mbh, which Kaufmann identified as the “argument from lack of freedom and the argument from lack of systematicity,” led to vivid discussions during the workshop regarding the distinction of philosophy from other areas of intellectual creativity.[Unbekannt1] Kaufmann argued that discussions on systematicity and traditions of dialectical reasoning can offer insight into how a philosophical corpus can be distinguished within the vast amount of (Indian) literature; in the process, misperceptions about Indian philosophy in Hegelian and European thought can also be more comprehensively addressed.
Sperner chose a deliberately achronological approach to point out not only the possible influences from India on German Romanticism and vice versa, but also how the Mbh was “considered as a quintessential example of a national epic, even before most other European nations discovered their national epics in the course of the 19th century.” He focused on the understanding of the Mbh as a national epic and the subsequent political implications. His comparison was based on Friedrich Schlegel’s On the language and wisdom of the Indians (1808) and Maithilisharan Gupt’s Bharat Bharati (1912). Schlegel not only significantly shaped debates about cultural nationalism in Europe and the role that German romanticism and folk literature played in its formation – which, according to Sperner, prefigured the emergence of similar ideas later in Indian nationalism –, but was himself foundationally inspired by his engagement with Indian history and textual culture. Similarly, Gupt, the first Hindi poet to be called rashtra kavi (national poet), put major emphasis on anti-colonial themes of Indian identity and national unity. He deployed ‘historical’ examples from the Mbh to place the concept of the epic at the center of Indian nationalism in Hindi-language discourses.
Meanwhile Egas Moniz-Bandeira (Autonomous University of Madrid) and Melanie J. Müller (Munich University) dealt with the uses and representations of the epic since the turn of the 20th century. Moniz-Bandeira traced its philosophical impact among intellectuals in China and Japan, where Okakura Kakuzō, Liu Shipei, and others examined the historical relationship between India and East Asia. Interest about India was fostered by several factors such as its colonial status, seen as a warning to East Asians, and the wish to find common traditions in the face of European imperialism. Several intellectuals maintained private exchanges with Indians, in which they discussed politics. International connections like these led to publications in Tokyo, where Indian and Chinese students gathered and authors such as Su Manshu and Liu Shipei wrote about Indian classics, while revolutionary authors among them emphasized India as the origin of cultural goods and philosophy.
Müller examined the “production of the ideal woman” through the Mbh. She alluded to Gandhi’s movement, which included women in the non-violent struggle for independence, although Gandhi dismissed the importance of education for women and failed to adequately consider their economic situation and their position within the family and in broader society. Gandhi emphasized the supposed ability of women to suffer silently, their non-violence as well as their alleged moral superiority over men. In contrast, the entrance of women into the public sphere required stronger prototypes to inspire, shape, and revise the ideas of gender roles. Here, the figure of Draupadi from the Mbh offered a powerful exemplar for women seeking a more active role in society and politics. Müller emphasized how Draupadi and other female characters from the Mbh motivated the fashioning of women’s voices and feminist literature in India. Such characters inspired women with values such as an activist sense of justice and self-determination. A typical example of a feminist retelling of the Mbh, as Müller pointed out, can be found in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions (2009).
Milinda Banerjee (Munich University) traced the role of the Mbh in the emergence of sovereignty in modern Bengal from the late 19th century. After the Imperial Assemblage in 1877 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title of Empress of India, British and pro-colonial Indian writers often legitimized the British colonial state as the restoration of the kingdom of Yudhishthira, described in the Mbh. In response, anti-colonial writers started their dialectical engagement, unwilling to submit to the unrighteous and exploitative British rule. This struggle gave rise to modern Bengali ideas of national sovereignty, partly based on the Mbh: a law-based national state, where law represented the codified will of God. Many Bengali intellectuals imagined the Indian nation on the basis of dharmarajya, the ideal ancient kingly state, unified by one king, one God and one law. From the 1910s, the Mbh became a source for political theories of social contract, as Indian thinkers demanded democratic rights on the basis of (supposedly ancient) constitutionalist ideas. Simultaneously, the epic inspired peasants and anti-colonial revolutionaries in their class-fight and struggle for political freedom. Bengali feminist writers and dramatists also re-interpreted the Mbh from the 1970s onwards, to seek women’s autonomy. Banerjee argued that the political interpretations of the Mbh opened up a gap between sovereignty and justice in their very attempt to locate what was right and just; it was through this epistemic opening that new notions of autonomy and demands for social progress could arise. Banerjee rounded up the discussion by noting how Bengali thinkers associated with the Subaltern Studies and postcolonial thought – especially Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – have brought the MBh into conversation with Hegel in recent decades, to produce new horizons of critical political and social theory.
In his presentation, Simon Cubelic (Heidelberg University) described the “political idiom in Nepal’s time of crisis” during the first half of the 19th century, a period often wrongly portrayed as “prepolitical”. Considering the struggles in Nepal due to unstable politics, infant monarchs, territorial expansion, and British colonial politics, Cubelic examined how Nepalese intellectuals responded to the crisis through the lens of the Mbh. The royal preceptor and later prime minister Ranga Nath Poudyal alluded to the Sanskritic state theory of the saptangas, describing the ideal qualities of the king and his ministers, to justify the restoration of the righteous monarch. He propagated his ideas of kingship based on descriptions from the Mbh; later the same text was used to determine the relationship between Brahmins and the king, and to reject polemics against Brahmins and to provide justification for their status, in a political situation when land-giving to Brahmins was problematized. Both presentations, by Banerjee and by Cubelic, described how the ancient classic was used on purpose to justify and re-define political concepts and relationships in modern South Asia.
Finally, Shuvatri Dasgupta (University of Cambridge) chose to combine the overlapping angles of literary studies, ethics, anthropology and history. She used the Mbh to raise the question of how the representation, translation, the selective reproduction, and adoption of a text like the Mbh shapes the reception, understanding, and function of the text. The Mbh exists in manifold versions, from being a popular love-story for a broad audience to a modern, educational version as “Gita for Girls”, or “Mahabharata for Boys” in the 20th century. Drawing specific attention to the obliteration of Draupadi’s menstrual politics in these retellings of the Mbh, Dasgupta indicated ways to rethink the concepts of the ‘political’ in the Mbh. Through constant and ever-changing re-creation, Dasgupta argued, a text leaves its past behind in the process of constant re-invention and re-interpretation. This ultimately dissolves the binary between the reader and the author within the larger discursive space.
The idea of taking into account different aspects and new angles on the Mahabharata was constantly present throughout the workshop. Its significance was discussed in terms of political, literary, and gender- or class-based terms, even though only a fractional amount of its extensive modern representations and reception could be covered. However, the task at hand was primarily to highlight the benefits of studying the Mbh in the broader context of Global Intellectual History, rather than providing sufficient answers. To invite the academic audience to join in and further develop this research on the Mahabharata, a publication is currently being planned.
Michael Kinadeter is a PhD student in Japanese studies and Buddhist studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. His research interests are Japanese history and East-Asian religions (Shinto, Buddhism). His current dissertation project is a comparative study of Buddhist commentaries and their reception, based on Medieval manuscripts of the Buddhist Sanron school in Japan. You can reach him via email to email@example.com.
Here is the second installment of our reading recommendations to kick start your summer…
A few scattershot things I’ve read, am reading, or plan to read this month:
Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten: Welcome to the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants whose pedagogy consists entirely of the textbook What is the Purpose of the Benjamenta Instituteand the ubiquitous Rules of the same. A lyrical little dream-monologue of a book by an unjustly obscure Swiss author from whom Franz Kafka learned many of his tricks.
Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister: Speaking of Kafka forces me to mention this dive into the Nabokovian back-catalogue, as the protagonist possesses a beetle-shaped shoehorn named Gregor. I shall also quote Nabokov’s prefatory warning about a sudden break in the narration toward the end of the novel, sure to delight those, like me, allergic to psychoanalysis: “The intruder is not the Viennese Quack (all my books should be stamped Freudians, Keep Out), but an anthropomorphic deity impersonated by me.”
Brian Evenson, A Collapse of Horses: An early number of the horror comic The Haunt of Fearincludes “A Strange Undertaking…” in which the cemetery caretaker Ezra Deepley exacts revenge upon the bodies of the doctor, dentist, banker, and politician he feels ruined his life, symbolically mutilating their corpses (for example, inserting pennies where the banker’s brain and heart had been). When Deepley himself dies, the cadavers rise from their graves to get their own back. The result is never shown or described, only the horror and disgust of the townspeople. The narrator explains, “Want to know what they did to Ezra? What’s the most horrible thing you can think of? Hee, hee! That’s it!” What the authors of The Haunt of Fearknew, or at least intuited, was that the most intricately described horror pales in comparison to what a reader’s imagination will concoct when given free rein. Think of A Collapse of Horsesas an extended meditation on this insight: more a series of finely drawn sketches than short stories, disturbing evocations of horrors only hinted at and all the more disturbing for it. The first tale in the collection, “Black Bark,” is a masterpiece of unspoken menace.
Albert Woodfox, Solitary: Unbroken by four decades of solitary confinement. My story of transformation and hope: Albert Woodfox endured thirty-six years in solitary confinement, one of the Angola Three whose decades of isolation on trumped-up murder charges attracted international attention. Woodfox, a living testament to the power of the human spirit, speaks with an unyielding determination and a radical commitment to justice that can only ever partially express the unfathomable ordeal he and his comrades Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King endured. Other worthwhile attempts to reckon with the unspeakable include Rachel Aviv’s profileof Woodfox in The New Yorkerand Herman’s House, a documentary about The House That Herman Built,a collaborative project between Wallace and artist Jackie Sumell, after the latter asked “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over thirty years dream of?” and then resolved to realize Wallace’s dream.
Last but never least, audiophiles really ought to invest in James Earl Jones readingthe King James Version of the New Testament. The Voice of God indeed.
Much has been said about the surprising resurgence of the term “socialism” in American political discourse in recent years. Judging by the strong pejorative connotations it still holds in many spheres, it has been said that the Cold War ended well after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So-called “epistemological McCarthyism” kept a wide range of economic questions off the American political agenda until recent years. Quinn Slobodian’s 2018 Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism argues that this was no accident: Neoliberalism can be succinctly conceived as the protection of market economics from the demands of politics, often drawing upon state power as “market police” against social needs and democratic demands that might challenge the primacy of markets. The result is what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”: the charge that any alternative to free market capitalism is unrealistic or utopian. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “there is no alternative.”
This started to change after the financial crisis of 2007–2008. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 began to transform the Amerrican political Zeitgeist. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders adopted the label “socialism” as a solution to the apparently widespread sense that “the system is rigged.” 2018 candidates for local, state, and national offices such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez associated with the Democratic Socialists of America have effectively mobilized new constituents under this banner. Yet aside from a few minimal social-democratic policies such as Medicare for all and vague egalitarian and redistributive gestures, the political future this term points toward remains hazy. “Socialism” now seems to function less as a unified program containing positive elements of social welfare provision, planning, or market regulation, and more as a signpost of the demand to move beyond “neoliberalism” (another contested term pointedly debated last year in Dissent). In many cases, “socialism” seems to function mostly negatively, as a counter-concept to the status quo.
This association of socialism with a post-capitalist future is politically plausible in America because socialism has never been a hegemonic political movement there. By contrast, in Europe and Latin America, where socialist parties have been in power in recent decades, the term has been sullied by historical failures ranging from military dictatorship to selling out to neoliberal forces. In many such places, socialist parties have come to be widely perceived as retrograde and have suffered tremendous losses in recent years. The case of France is illustrative. Édouard Louis’s incisive and moving recent polemic “Who Killed My Father” (an extract of which is published in The New York Review of Books) calls out j’accuse! at all of France’s political elites of recent decades, conservative and liberal, but also socialists such as François Mitterrand, for eviscerating the social welfare state on which his working-class and chronically impoverished father depended.
The Point magazine’s latest issue, “Socialism in Our Time,” features a wide-ranging essay by John Michael Colón called “The Dictatorship of the Present” that explorers the new lives of “socialism,” what the DSA wants, and how new movements have learned from past socialist failures. He writes, “Only a socialism that internalizes the lessons of the twentieth century and puts pluralism front and center can win. We want a socialism where democracy permeates every aspect of our lives.”
Alongside the reemergence of the category of “socialism” is the counter-category of “capitalism,” a Marxian term that also disappeared from popular discourse for decades. Today one encounters the term in the political rhetoric of such figures as Elizabeth Warren. “History of capitalism” is a rising new subfield in history departments and “capitalism studies” programs have emerged at several American universities. This turn has also injected new life into contemporary critical theory.
The recent work of the American socialist-feminist critical theorist Nancy Fraser offers a conceptually powerful map of our present conjuncture. Fraser argues that we find ourselves in a global “crisis of hegemony” in which neoliberalism has lost its ideological appeal, opening the floodgates to reactionary neo-fascisms (see Enzo Traverso’s recent The New Faces of Fascism) but also emancipatory socialist or post-capitalist alternatives. As Fraser cites Antonio Gramsci, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Last year she published an illuminating analysis of this present conjuncture with the German critical theorist Rahel Jaeggi as Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory. The work is structured as a Socratic dialogue in which Fraser usually plays the part of the master, outlining her broad synthetic conception of capitalism, deftly steered by Jaeggi’s pointed objections and provocations. The theorists’ wide-ranging discussion centers on expanding the narrow understanding of capitalism as an economic system into a broader theory of “capitalist society” as “an institutionalized social order.” Fraser synthesizes a vast literature from philosophers alongside historians and sociologists to describe three “hidden abodes” that constitute the background conditions of capitalism beyond the famous one Marx identified: surplus value extracted from workers in the sphere of production. Namely, social reproduction (the unwaged labor that sustains life and historically has often been carried out by women), ecology (natural resources that are extracted and depleted), and politics (the conditions that enable the functioning and regulation of economic activity). In illuminating these three background spheres, whose division she draws from Karl Polanyi, Fraser synthesizes advances made in recent decades by feminist, decolonial, ecological, and democratic theory into an expansive social theory that helps explains the complex crisis nexus today. In our era of impending ecological catastrophe, a crisis of care, and rising populism, she argues, the challenges we face are not simply intra-realm—narrowly political or economic crises—but increasingly inter-realm. Financialization and deregulation in the economic sphere have led to increasingly acute crises in the other spheres, adding up, she argues, to a general crisis. Fraser and Jaeggi’s critical theory rises to the challenge of explaining in lucid terms this increasingly complex social nexus and the historical transformations that brought us here. One step beyond critique, Fraser has also recently offered a minimal vision of what a socialism for the twenty-first century might look like.
(This week’s featured image is a close up from Jan Van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele)
Last year, philosopher Graham Priest published an article in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association titled “Marxism and Buddhism: Not Such Strange Bedfellows.” In the article, Priest aimed to highlight the complementary elements of Buddhist philosophy with Marxist political theory, while acknowledging that, as schools of thought, these two ways of looking at the world diverge drastically. The crucial similarity between the two, Priest rightly points out, is the fact that both schools “reject the existence of a self/soul; both see being human as being involved in natural processes and natural laws; and both move toward thinking of people in mostly structural terms,” (Priest 7). They also, according to Priest, both make the argument that people are subjected to illusions about the true nature of reality, and provide a framework by which people can see these illusions. Priest suggests that the structural analysis of capitalism provided by Marxism can help to elucidate the philosophy of the human condition presented by Buddhism, and vice versa. A comparative analysis along these lines appears to be possible, and there has been a long tradition of comparing Marxism to religion. The following essay will be a brief history of the relationship between Marxism and religion. It will attempt to highlight, through Hegelian philosophy, another similarity between Marxism and Buddhism, as well as describe the relationship between Marxism and Christianity.
The keystone which links Marxism to Buddhist philosophy is Hegel. Hegel’s conception of reality, as a series of dialectically intertwined processes, was reinterpreted by Marx and Engels as a framework by which all of reality could be explained without theology. The important element here is that these men believed that all the things and processes that make up reality could not be understood in isolation, but only in relation to other things and processes. Hence, in Hegel’s Logic, the very mention of “Being” implies the existence of “Nothing,” (Hegel, Logic, 82) This fundamental inseparability of objects and processes appears to be the primary way in which Marxist thought, which was inspired by Hegel, is similar to the Buddhist thought that Priest presents. In fact, the philosopher Michael Allen Fox’s book The Accessible Hegel presents the Hegelian dialectical framework as sharing this same fundamental quality with not just Buddhist conceptions of reality, but Taoist ones as well. Both of which, Fox argues, present reality as being a collection of interrelated processes, by which nothing can be understood in isolation. Fox says that “the idea that opposites are interrelated and define one another, as we have seen, conveys an insight that is truly cross-cultural,” because of its appearance in Hegelian, Buddhist, and Taoist thinking (Fox 48).
Despite this apparent connection between his philosophical framework with Buddhism, and Taoism, Hegel argued that Christianity was the highest expression of religious truth in Phenomenology of Spirit (Fox 99-100). According to Fox, Hegel wanted to merge Christianity with the belief the reason governs the development of the universe, although this caused major backlash from non-Christians and Christians alike such as Marx and Kierkegaard (Fox 100). Hegel was not unaware of the existence of philosophical frameworks from Asia. In fact, in Reason in History, Hegel suggested that the “highest thought” of the metaphysics that came from Asia rested in their proposition that “ruin is at the same time emergence of a new life, that out of life arises death, but out of death life,” (Hegel, Reason in History, 88) However, despite this acknowledgement, Hegel argued that the religions of China and India “lack completely the essential consciousness of the concept of freedom,” which, he argued, was what separated these philosophies from those of Europe (Hegel, Reason in History, 86) Today, we consider this to be regarded as an expression of orientalism, à la Edward Said. But it’s important because it denotes the limits of what Hegel and his contemporaries could appreciate from systems such as Buddhism. According to Nicholas A. Germana in a recently published article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Hegel believed the religions of India and Asia morphed into Christianity over time.
It was Hegel’s support of Christianity that Marx first took issue with in Hegel’s schema, which he himself was heavily influenced by. In 1844, Marx published Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In the introduction, Marx wrote the now famous line, “[r]eligion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,” (Tucker 54). Here, as elsewhere in this essay, Marx is clear in what he believed to be religion’s function in human society: a human-constructed refuge from the suffering of life. A few lines down from this oft-repeated quote is a fundamental claim made by Marx which helps contextualize his later work:
“The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form. Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” (Tucker 54)
The self-alienation in its “secular form” that Marx claimed existed, appears as the form of commodity fetishism in Capital Vol. 1, published in 1867. Here, Marx argued that the pricing of commodities depended on the total aggregate relationships between people, and not the utility of the object itself (Marx, Capital, 165). This reality, according to Marx, tricks people into thinking that commodities have an autonomous value, independent of the sum of human relationships. An illusion of the mind which Marx liked to the illusions of reality brought upon by theology. Capital, as a project, was an attempt to demystify the pricing of commodities and the capitalist system of production as a whole, in a similar fashion to the deconstruction of Christianity that he participated in during the 1840s. The mystification of capital, for Marx, created alienation in people in the way that he argued Christian theology did. In Marx’s world, capitalism and Christianity were not so strange bedfellows (Marx, Capital, 174-175).
But, as numerous scholars have pointed out, Marx and further proponents of Marxism carried on the legacies of Christianity in several respects. William Clare Roberts, for instance, argues in Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital that Marx based the structure of Capital on Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno. Even though Marx rejected the Christian moral ontology, espoused by Dante, that “[n]o one is responsible for their sins but themselves,” Roberts argues that he replicated the structure of Inferno in order to liken capitalist society to a social hell (Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, 21). Then there is Bertrand Russell, who in 1946 published History of Western Philosophy which clearly cast Marxism as a secularized substitute for the Judeo-Christian understanding of history. Russell argued that Marxism simply cast the theological understandings of history’s teleological trajectory in new terminology:
“Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah = Marx
The Elect = The Proletariat
The Church = The Communist Party
The Second Coming = The Revolution
Hell = Punishment For The Capitalists
The Millenium = The Communist Commonwealth”
It stands to reason that Russell’s typecasting of Marxism as a new form of Christianity was influenced by the rise of the Soviet Union. Vaclav Havel, the last President of Czechoslovakia who presided over the collapse of the Soviet system, also likened the practical application of Marxism to a modern form of theocracy. In his masterful 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel argued that the “hypnotic charm” of the Soviet ideology was due, in part, by its insistence that its legitimacy derived from the authenticity of the social movements that gave birth to the system, and the supposed objective righteousness of those movements (Havel, Open Letters, 129). This created a situation whereby ordinary people within the communist world, including Czechoslovakia, consigned “reason and conscious” to the state, who were the sole possessors and arbiters of truth. Which, for Havel, directly reflected a Byzantine-esque theocracy because the “highest secular authority [the state] is identical with the highest spiritual authority,” by having authoritarian control over truth and a claim to a sacred history (Havel, Open Letters, 130). These works indicate in differing ways the extent by which Marxism, in Marx’s Capital and in twentieth-century communist practices, bore resemblances to Christianity.
It is thus clear that there is sufficient cause to acknowledge similarities between Christianity and Marxism. Today, in the twenty-first century, there is a striking trend in Christianity that is adopting political positions that would be considered Marxist not so long ago. This is expressed most potently in Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home in which he argues that wealth inequality, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity are interconnected with the rise of global capitalism. Pope Francis considers this to be an issue that transcended national boundaries, and he advocates on global cooperation in order to adjust our value-systems in order to move toward ecological balance and wealth equality. Graham Priest forces us to recognize that there is a deep philosophical relationship between Marxism and Buddhism as well. These similarities are very different from the aforementioned similarities between Marxism and Christianity, but both sets of similarities invite us to reconsider the history of Marxism itself. Marxism has often been understood as an atheist political ideology, whose practitioners took drastic measures to curtail the influence of Christianity and Buddhism. But the work of Priest, Russel, and Havel beg the question: to what extent was Marxism a religion?
Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and a musician. His essays on his personal experience with music can be found at jakenewcomb.tumblr.com
On November 16th, Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, made an important announcement: the bones of Michel de Montaigne have been discovered.
Or, at least, the bones might have been discovered. “Let’s keep our cool,” said Juppé at a press conference that morning. “We haven’t yet found Montaigne. But if it were the case,” he continued, “it would be a great moment for Bordeaux.”
Montaigne, two-time mayor of Bordeaux, minor aristocrat, and inventor of the essay form, died in his tower in 1592, cause of death unknown. The next year the essayist was interred in a chapel on the west bank of the Garonne, the current site of the Musée d’Aquitaine. Montaigne’s cenotaph—a gaudy white marble affair—has been on more or less continuous display since it was carved in 1593. But his physical remains were lost in one of their 19thcentury translations to and from the nearby Chartreuse cemetery, for safekeeping when a fire devastated the chapel. No one seems to have looked for them until last year, when a curator at the Musée, Laurent Védrine, decided to investigate a mysterious crypt in the museum’s basement, sealed since 1886. Miniature cameras returned grainy images of a dusty wooden box, with the big black letters “MONTAIGNE” clearly visible beneath some chunks of fallen plaster. Researchers announced their intention to inventory the contents and to track down a descendant for DNA confirmation, but we’re still waiting for the results.
After the announcement, Juppé sounded a philosophical note in a mid-morning tweet: “In a world in which we speak of anger, and where we confront violence, we must return to our heritage and to the values that are dear to me [sic]. #tolerance #balance #Bordeaux.” Juppé of course knew that the Gilets jauneswould march for the first time the next day, flooding the streets of cities across the country in protest against the economic policies of Emmanuel Macron.
Michel de Montaigne
“C’est moy que je peins,” Montaigne writes in his opening preface “To the reader.” “It’s me that I paint.” The Essays are an intellectual portrait of one of history’s great minds, whose gentle humaneness and grinning wit are as familiar as the high forehead, ruffled collar, and thin moustache with which he is depicted in paintings and on frontispieces. But the book is also the portrait of one of history’s most average bodies, a very particular specimen that readers get to know with the intimacy of a doctor or a lover. We learn, among other things, that Montaigne didn’t like salad but was fond of melon, that he liked to ride on horseback, preferred to make love lying down, not standing up, and walked with a firm gait. This is a book, after all, “consubstantial with its author” (Villey-Saulnier edition, 665C). Finding bones, then, is almost as good as finding a manuscript.
Montaigne’s idiosyncrasies give the Essays much of their charm. They’re also one important source of what might be called Montaigne’s philosophy—a philosophy, or at least an ethics, that is rather accurately summarized by Juppé’s hashtags. “There is no quality so universal in our image of things than diversity and variety,” he writes in “On Experience,” his final essay (1065B). Human beings are simply too complicated to be theorized: “I study myself more than any other subject. It’s my metaphysics; it’s my physics” (1072B). Metaphysics and physics collapse when “every example limps”—every case is peculiar, every example is imperfect—and therefore every inference and every assumption is a kind of violence (1070C).
Even literary interpretation is risky, particularly when books are, like Montaigne’s, “members” of a life, and memorials to it. Montaigne learned this the hard way from the fate of Etienne de la Boétie, the friend of the famous essay “On friendship.” de la Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Slavery praised republican Venice and critiqued monarchy, arguing that, since people willingly grant a tyrant power, people can willingly take it away. The treatise was naturally appropriated by anti-monarchists in the Wars of Religion. But this was a misreading, Montaigne claims: if you knew de la Boétie like he did, you’d see that there was never a better subject, “nor a greater opponent of the disturbances and innovations of his time” (194A). If de la Boétie had written his own Essays, you would never have so misunderstood him. It’s possible, of course, that Montaigne himself was the one willfully misreading de la Boétie. Either way, his polemical interpretation reminds us that we should never entirely trust the fiction of artlessness that the essayist so often affects.
As he got older, Montaigne seemed to realize that his skepticism was, like de la Boétie’s Discourse, potentially dangerous, so in the Essays “I leave nothing to be desired or guessed about me” (“On Vanity,” 983B). Exhaustive self-description is not only a means to self-knowledge or literary immortality. It’s also an insurance policy: The flood of Montaigne’s words will overwhelm reductive misreadings with their sheer copiousness, as indeed the sheer size and labyrinthine complexity of the Essayshave defied all critical attempts at a unified interpretation. Eschewing systematic argument or organization, Montaigne prevents us from using his book, though we may profit from it. Just as we will never know if Montaigne’s representation of de la Boétie—grounded, he tells us, on intimate knowledge that is inaccessible to readers—was accurate, so we will never know for certain just what the Essays are supposed to mean, just what Montaigne is about. And that’s the point: the Essays, like the person who wrote them, ultimately prove to be something of a black box. “What I can’t represent, I point to with my finger,” he writes (983B). In the end, the Essays do no more and no less than point to their author, that infinitely peculiar human being, who, even with all the ink the world, could never be fully incorporated into his book.
Readers tend to remember Montaigne as individualist,as pioneer of a certain kind of Renaissance egoism. But in the final sighs of the Essays, Montaigne concludes that “the most beautiful lives to my mind are those which hew to the common human pattern, orderly, but without miracles or eccentricity” (1116B/C). When things are this complicated, the best policy is to mind your own business. Don’t assume you know better than anyone else (a lesson for Macron, who has publicly proclaimed that the French people never meant to kill their king)—and (for the Gilets jaunes) don’t try to rock the boat. Think of politics in human terms. Read your opponents charitably. Most of all, don’t be cruel.
The newly discovered box, like the cenotaph, may be empty. Part of me hopes that it is, and that readers have to keep searching for Montaigne’s bones in the Essays, reading them quite literally as a portrait, a vivid depiction of a “you” en chair et en os, in flesh and bone. This fleshly Montaigne has all too often been replaced in memory and imagination by a Montaigne made only of words. But you can’t separate the body from the book.
Max Norman studies literature at the University of Oxford.
Here is the first installment of our reading recommendations to kick start your summer…
For teachers and students the promise of free time that comes with summer brings along the existential stress of how to spend it. That question of how to use a short-lived surplus of time isn’t just an opportunity for us to choose among preferences, but rather the ultimate expression of our commitment to the work, political causes and personal relationships we value. This is the argument that Martin Hägglund builds over a deep exploration of philosophy and literature ranging widely from St. Augustine to Proust to Karl Ove Knausgaard in his new book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon, 2019). He sharpens this point about the significance of our limited time and the way we spend it by distinguishing his secular philosophy from theological conceptions that project the time of our life endlessly, beyond death. He recovers our moral intuitions as reflections of this secular ethics, and on top of it elaborates a compelling critique of a capitalist economy that converts our time into dollar values and demands more and more of it to the point that we’re powerless to spend it in the way that matters to us. He reads Hegel and Marx as the most profound thinkers on the political implications of our limited time and interprets them for the present. In his review in Jacobin, Samuel Moyn praises Hägglund as a profound example of how supposedly dormant and dusty “Marxist theory” can guide practical ethics and collective politics in a moment when the meaning of “democratic socialism” is debated noy just by scholars and pundits, but committed activists.
The best account I’ve read on that place of theory in daily practice, and activism as a spurr to thought, is Alyssa Battistoni’s recent personal essay “Spadework” in n+1. Battistoni reflects on her time working to organize the graduate student union at Yale between 2016 and 2017. It was, she recalls, in the department graduate meetings before the union election when the political theories that the Political Science students were in school to study finally felt alive and urgent. It was through the daily work of organizing one-on-ones and recruiting potential activists that that limited time in the day, which graduate students always experience as even more fleeting, appeared to Battistoni in all its political significance — “You have one body and twenty four hours in a day,” she discovers, “An organizer ask what you’ll do with them, concretely, now.”
Why would a political theorist and journalist, let alone a woman, be justified in putting forward a philosophical account of Thinking? This is precisely the question that Hannah Arendt herself posed at the beginning of her 1973 Gifford Lecture which forms the basis for much of the first section of my recommendation this month, The Life of the Mind. With journalistic precision and philosophical poignancy, she outlines how she came to the subject of Thinking. It is a subject, she reminds us, traditionally left to what Immanuel Kant called Denver von Gewerbe (professional thinkers). However, Arendt feels that she too has a professional interest in the topic of cognition. Not only as a woman in a topic often left to men, but also as both a journalist and a political theorist: her journalistic observation in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the phenomenon of evil can be banal and everyday and her assertions in her works of political theory that the question of political action is often contemplated by men who are dedicated to contemplation rather than action, posed several philosophical puzzles. If human beings are capable of committing unthinking actions universally acknowledged as evil, what exactly is Thinking and how does it relate to action?
These questions set the tone for Arendt’s multi-volume work that I have been gripped by over the past few months. An unfinished book that she was still working on when she died, it is an excellent read to provide one with an intellectual-historical overview of the subject of Thinking (and it’s relationship to action) in the Western philosophical tradition. For while she is never far away from mentioning her own philosophical milieu of Martin Heidegger and Kant, she explores the question of Thinking by tracing the development of the idea through Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Early Modern philosophy. Yet even the books rootedness in its own philosophical milieu tells us something of intellectual-historical interest about the way that post-Kantian European philosophy in the 1970’s related to these earlier periods. In addition, the fact that much of the books content was also derived from both the Gifford Lectures and lectures at The New School for Social Research adds to her writings measured, historical approach alongside the fact that Arendt’s ever lucid style makes for pleasurable reading. A final bonus of this book is that in the Harcourt edition (see link above), the editor has included an appendix of notes from Arendt’s Kant lectures at the New School under the subject heading ‘Judging’. Based on previous conversations Arendt had with the editor, these lecture notes provide a glimpse into what Arendt had planned for the final section of the book that remained unfinished at the time of her death. Taken together, because of its lucid style, it’s intellectual-historical approach, and it’s profound exploration of the highly topical issues of thought, action, and politics, Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind is my recommendation this month.
Reading Niklas Luhmann, whether in the original German or the English translation, can be a profoundly alienating experience. Densely written and difficult to follow, his texts do not offer an easy entry point into sociological theory and are often preceded, if not overshadowed, by the legacy of his extensive archive of notes. [For the curious: Luhmann’s famous Zettelkasten, an intricate filing system for his prolific notes, has recently been digitized and fed into an interactive online system by the Niklas Luhmann-Archiv.] Yet, while slogging through the roughly 350 pages of the first volume of his magnum opus Theory of Society (Stanford University Press, 2012) appears as a daunting task, it can be surprisingly rewarding when contextualized within a longer tradition of sociological theories that imagined society as a system, though were not necessarily classified as systems theory.
Here, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber serve obvious interlocutors, not least because Luhmann himself draws on this very comparison. Though acknowledging both sociologists as founding figures of the discipline and as instrumental in beginning to define the object of sociology, he ultimately contends that both of them, in their shared obsession of the coercive relationship between the individual and the collective, in fact missed their unity indicated by society as a system. More specifically, Luhmann issues a critique of sociology in the Durkheimian sense as a discipline meant to decode modernity through the collection and analysis of “social facts.” Durkheim’s assertion that the psychological and the social are distinct domains that do not overlap—a distinction employed by Durkheim in his Rules of Sociological Method (1895) to separate sociology from competing disciplines—is challenged by Luhmann’s concept of structural coupling between consciousness and communications systems. Weber, meanwhile, is criticized by Luhmann for his dependence on individual action and will, as Luhmann dismisses the relevance of such a cause-and-effect schema for sociology by explaining it as a system-internal function rather than a change induced from the outside.
Effectively, Luhmann argues, sociology has thus not existed as a science with its proper subject. As an alternative, he proposes a radical functionalism that is heavily influenced by cybernetics and information theory and employs the concept of autopoiesis, insisting that the latter constitutes the only way for sociology to understand what it actually is, i.e. a “self-description of society” that is produced not outside of but through society. Yet, it is exactly in this radical functionalism and its denial of any political (and possibly emancipatory) implications for the individuals within said system that Luhmann has clashed most prominently with fellow German sociologist Jürgen Habermas.