U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Rose By Any Other Name

A Rose By Any Other Name

by Gregory Jones-Katz

[Editor’s note: this is the third in a series of roundtable essays on Kerwin Lee Klein’s From History to Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011).  — LDB]

My essay first examines Klein’s central interventions. It then assesses Klein’s defense of scholarship—specifically historical scholarship—against what he considers the dangers of reenchanted language. I focus on Klein’s self-described polemic against the overlap between reenchanted academic and non-academic discourse, chiefly “memory talk.” I believe Klein’s excessive concentration on keywords and linguistic patterns weaken his polemic. The third section of my essay explores recent work that rethinks our relationships to the world and the past. This new scholarship gives historical explanations for the public’s, historians’, and, more broadly, contemporary academics’ longing for reenchantment and explores experiences of “presence,” of “being in touch with the world.” This recent work, which Klein does not address, opens important avenues for rigorous historical writing and research, avenues Klein’s methodological commitment to discourse and political investment in the modern, scientific, and secular worldview foreclose.                  

I

From History to Theory should be required reading for any historian. In the six carefully crafted chapters that comprise his text, Kerwin Lee Klein revises the standard accounts of the key changes in the conceptual language of the humanities during the twentieth century. The first account is epitomized by Richard Wolin[1] for whom “the literary and philosophical discourses that materialized as ‘theory’ in the North American academy…all descended from Joseph de Maistre, the counter-Enlightenment, and Catholic reaction” [164]. The second account is represented by François Cusset,[2] who argued that “[French] ‘theory’ was co-opted by consumer capitalism…and [the] entrepreneurial organization of the American University system…[and then] diverted into identity politics” [164, 166]. Wolin’s and Cusset’s narratives, despite their differences, emphasize that foreign-born debates about language and linguistics imported to and then domesticated in the United States during the sixties and seventies fundamentally changed the theoretical language of the humanities. In contrast to Wolin’s and Cusset’s accounts, Klein reveals that the landscape of the American academy had been transformed by homegrown discussions about language and linguistics since the early-twentieth century. He shows that the linguistic habits of this North American intellectual landscape deeply informed and paved the way for later analytic and post-structural linguistic turns.

Klein also rereads the orthodox account of the history of American historiography, a story that portrays U.S. historiography as a stronghold of positivism until the arrival of linguistic radicalism in the sixties [12]. He demonstrates that the conventional narrative of U.S. historiography overlooks decades of arguments about language and cultural difference in the North American academy and how these debates constructed linguistic traditions that shaped the ways new vocabularies, either imported from abroad or originating at home, “resonate[d], circulate[d], and proliferate[d]” [12] in the discourses of the discipline of history. From History to Theory nicely complements Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream.[3] While Novick offers an institutional history of American historians’ debates about “objectivity” in the past century, Klein provides an episodic history of history and theory in the twentieth century that focuses on “words” [5], because, Klein notes, historical theory and the philosophy of history lacked an institutional home.

Klein’s most compelling chapter is his third, “Going Native: History, Language, and Culture.” There, he explores how, during the thirties and forties and thus well before the arrival of ‘theory’ on American shores, U.S. anthropologists fostered “democratic and even radical senses of culture” [167]. Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict displaced “race” with “cultural difference” [63], while Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf claimed “language as a way of world-making” [78]. Klein also shows that American analytical philosophers’ confrontations with and borrowings from the work of these U.S. anthropologists, such as W. V. O. Quine’s “radicalization” [78] of the SapirWhorf hypothesis, facilitated established semantic patterns in the North American academy that later aided U.S. cultural historians’ reception of French structural linguistics and post-structuralism. And, Klein points out, American cultural historians in the eighties and nighties, often unaware of this heritage, borrowed linguistic habits derived from analytical philosophy’s encounters with popular anthropology’s discussions of language and culture, unknowingly promoting “ethnographic vocabularies and rhetorical practices long associated with Boasian anthropology” [167]. Klein therefore reminds U.S. historians, but also North America academics in general, that the humanities never ruptured from its linguistic habits in the sixties and seventies, but continued indigenous discursive traditions developed during the early- and mid-twentieth century.

II

Klein has a serious bone of contention to pick with many of his colleagues. At the heart of his concerns is the reenchantment of academic discourse in North America. By the reenchantment of academic discourse, Klein means that U.S. scholars—above all historians of American history—have, beginning in the early eighties and with increasing frequency since, appropriated words from discourses saturated with religiosity [140] to write their history. He lists some of the words used in reenchanted academic language: “Aura, Jetzzeit, Messianic, trauma, mourning, sublime, apocalypse, fragment, identity, redemption, healing, catharsis, cure, witnessing, testimony, ritual, piety, soul. “[T]his is not the vocabulary of a secular, critical practice,” Klein declares [136]. As a historicist [169], Klein wants to provide “a more acute historical consciousness” to help his colleagues “dream of liberation” [159] from this reenchanted language. His aims are also deconstructionist [169], as he wants to help his fellow scholars realize [170] the linguistic affinities and intersections between their reenchanted language and religious discourses.

Klein is specifically worried about the upsurge in academics’ use of reenchanted language, which has, he insightfully observes, “coincided with a far more threatening reenchantment of American public culture” [14]. In chapter 5, “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse,” Klein provides a self-described “polemical account of the emergence of new [academic] uses” of the word memory [16]. He suggests that, despite U.S. scholars’ well-intentioned justifications for their use of discourses of memory, because of the “term’s utility for articulating the experience of subject positions of minority and colonized peoples,” American scholars, cloistered in “enclaves of irony,” have remained “seemingly unaware that much of the[ir] [reenchanted] language” has “open[ed] troubling vistas” [136]. By “opening troubling vistas,” Klein not only means that academics’ reenchanted language has, according to him, transformed their modern, secular, critical practice into a pre-modern, spiritual, unscholarly practice (see below). He also believes that U.S. scholars’ reenchanted discourse sounds uncomfortably similar to the language that religious groups use to usurp secular public spaces.[4] However, Klein’s argument that scholars’ use of the term “memory carried with it a host of associated words drawn from predominately religious discourses could resonate in mysterious and possibly dangerous ways” [16] is not entirely convincing.

What is the source of Klein’s worries, and what makes his “ominous warning[s] [to his colleagues] about the pitfalls of forsaking science for enchantment”[5] ultimately unpersuasive? I believe it is his methodological commitments. As noted above, Klein explains that, “rather than institutions or individuals,” his six essays “trace [the] genealogies of especially important discursive moments” and “linguistic shifts” in the “conceptual language of the humanities, particularly in the discourse of history” [5, 7]. He is interested in raising awareness of the fact that academics’ reenchanted language intersected with religious discourses. Klein writes: “I am interested in the word [“memory”] as a word, not in the various referents…at which it is aimed” [115]. While he historicizes the fortunes of keywords and shows the surprising linguistic convergences between reenchanted academic discourse and religious language in his last two chapters, Klein’s concentration on language undercuts the power of his polemic. Though non-linguistic contexts remain beyond the scope of his study, that reenchanted discourses influenced non-discursive referents, particularly American public culture, clearly trouble Klein. He does not hesitate to suggest in his conclusion that reenchanted academic language—specifically scholars’ memory talk—overlapped with the same language that “mobiliz[ed] powerful antidemocratic forces outside of the academy” [170]. Nevertheless, Klein does not explore the ways reenchanted academic language influenced these extra-textual contexts, even if he recognizes that in order to do so we need “work that mixed the high intellectual history associated with linguistic analysis with genuinely rigorous social and economic history” [166].[6] Klein instead primarily traces the history of keywords and remains on the level of linguistic patterns and analysis. In fact, he explains that his essays explore how “the reenchantment of historical discourse” was “in part a contingency of a variety of earlier linguistic events” [165].[7] Thus, while Klein expressed deep concern about reenchanted academic discourses’ facilitation of religious groups’ encroachment on public spaces, he never explains how this occurred.

Klein’s concentration on keywords also weakens his most polemical chapter—his sixth, “Remembrance and the Christian Right.” There, Klein “takes off the gown” against popular and political reenchanted “discourse[s] about the past in the recent United States.” Among other topics, Klein explores the “rise of a politically engaged Christian commemorative movement” [141] that “appl[ied] their interpretations of Christian renewal to everything from jurisprudence to refusing to dispense birth control medication.” [153]. Similar to his closing remarks in his fifth chapter, Klein notes that “[m]emory provided a language uniquely suited to opening secular public spaces to Judeo-Christian religious tradition” [158].[8] Yet, while Klein very clearly demonstrates the ways Christian conservatives used discourses of memory, he once more does not demonstrate how academics’ reenchanted language helped Christian conservatives colonize public spaces. Surprisingly, he admits that Christian conservatives and scholars had little intellectual exchange, borrowing memory talk from “popular culture” and the “growing self-help and recovery movements of the twentieth century” [159]. In his most polemical chapter, then, Klein undercuts his aim to show that academic and non-academic discourses circulate, while his worry about the dangerous effects of reenchanted academic discourse on public spaces are, as he himself recognizes, unfounded.

Instead of justifying his fears in his sixth chapter, Klein focuses on the keyword “memory.” He recounts that “academic enthusiasms for ‘memory’ emerged in tandem with a variety of conservative Christian commemorative discourses” [141]. By noting the coincidence of memory talk among scholars and conservative Christians, Klein, again, establishes linguistic overlaps, but not causal links, a task he does not appear interested. And, juxtaposing academics’ and the Christian Right’s discourses of memory—provocative, but not enough to warrant his “ominous warnings” to his colleagues. For example, after noting that Pierre Nora’s reflection that “‘Whoever says ‘memory,’ says ‘Shoah’” is accepted in “academia, and in polite and most especially secular company,” he reminds readers that “at most times and places…where the wings of empire have carried the English language, whoever says memory says Christ” [159]. Klein notes the violent power “memory” has “massed” outside the academy in name of Christianity, but, like in his fifth chapter, neither connects this keyword to non-linguistic contexts nor shows how contemporary scholars have, albeit unintentionally, aided this violence. Rather, Klein explains toward the end of his sixth chapter that a comprehensive history of memory talk in the North American academy and the rise of a new Christian Right requires attention to “demographic shifts,” the “institutional fabric of Christian schools, universities, and think tanks,” and “the democratization of radical fundamentalism” [158] and that this work remains beyond the scope of his study. This research could have verified the consequences of scholars’ reenchanted discourses outside the academy and vindicated Klein’s anxiety about these consequences.

Klein’s investigation into how reenchanted language underpinned academics’ memory talk in his fifth chapter and then his turn to the political consequences of memory talk among groups to which these academics would neither wish to belong nor support in his sixth chapter feels like rhetorical manipulation. He seems to hope that juxtaposition will support his commitment to discourse and allow him to avoid exploring causal links or engage the philosophical reasons behind academics’ reenchanted language.

III

Despite his many useful interventions into the historiography on history and theory, Klein’s book unfortunately performs a disservice to readers unacquainted with recent scholarship. In his last sentence, he declares: “[T]he convergence of deconstruction, decolonization, and dominion theology at the end of the twentieth century will not recur eternally. There will be new words” [170]. Klein gives the impression that we await new historical discourse.[9] Expecting new (modern) words is already to embark on the wrong path according to what theorists during the past decade or so have argued. These theorists compellingly explain the public’s, historians’, and, more generally, academics’ recent desire for reenchantment and explore historical actors’ as well as historians’ experiences of “presence,” of “being in touch with the world.” Unfortunately, Klein’s commitment to discourse and political investment the modern, scientific and secular worldview seem to prevent him from seeking out this new scholarship’s insights.

Two key thinkers of this group of scholars are Dutch historian and philosopher of history Eelco Runia and German-born American literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. Runia argues that Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) inaugurated “a process in which philosophy of history was emptied of reflection on what had actually happened in the past” and turned to representationalism, “[t]he practice of putting historical reality within parenthesis.” In the 1970s and 1980s, Runia notes, representationalism was extraordinarily successful in the European and American academies, but “by now [then 2005] it has lost much of its vigor and it lacks explanatory power,” especially when confronted with “recent phenomena such as memory, [Pierre Nora’s] lieux de mémoire, remembrance, and trauma.” Runia argues that, because representationalism is geared to recognize “meaning,” “the connotative side of art, of consciousness, of life,” it cannot explain what academics pursue in “books and articles about monuments, commemorations, remembrance, and memory (collective or otherwise).” Nor can representationalism explain what the public yearns for when visiting “the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” “in the reading of names on the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center,” in touristic pilgrimages to battlefields or sites of concentration camps, or even “the craze for reunions.”[10] One also might add: representationalism cannot explain what Christian conservatives pursue when applying their interpretations of Christian renewal.

Runia argues that what academics and non-academics alike seek, long and yearn for, is “presence.” “Presence is ‘being in touch’—either literally or figuratively—with people, things, events, and feelings that made you into the person you are.”[11] Runia’s “presence” is a keyword that—paradoxically—points to what is before all other keywords, as presence does its work prior to representation. Presence, Runia theorizes, is “the unrepresented way the past is present in the present,” “unintentionally present on the plane of time,” a “presence in absence,” “in the sense that in the absence…that is there, the thing that is not there is still present.”[12] As a “stowaway,” presence is difficult to account for. According to Runia, however, presence is housed in metonymy.

Runia maintains that, because our society is frantically pursuing places where presence can be found, historians’ responsibility is to clarify “how finding (and founding) presence can be understood.” For Runia, we must craft languages, derived from religious discourses or not, that address presence. He specifically argues that representationalism, which grasps how “metaphor is instrumental in establishing satisfactory representations” and thus “could account for transfer[s] of meaning,” ought to be retooled to “account for (metonymically achieved) transfer[s] of presence.”[13] Runia offers “metonymics”—a way of reading and writing that tracks the interplay between metaphor and metonymy and therefore, according to Runia, accomplishes what representationalism cannot: tracing the relations between transmissions of meaning and transmissions of presence. Metonymics is also a reenchanted discourse, as it accounts for transfers of presence, which, because they are unintentional, enthrall or captivate.

From a Runian perspective, Klein is a devoted representationalist, even though Klein sympathizes with recent scholars’ dissatisfaction with representationalism [135, 137]. For example, Runia writes: “[M]etonymical monuments [“like Peter Eisenman’s Berlin Holocaust Memorial”] function not by giving an account of an event, but by ‘presenting an absence’ in the here and now.”[14] According to Runia, metonymical monuments are secular relics, in that they bring forth the presence, the absent past, that was always there (at least since the actual event) outside narrative. For Klein, however, the account of an event is what matters. Klein overlooks transfers of presence, and, as a result, neglects the transmissions of presence that memory work, theorized or not, tries to address. The very words soaked in piety Klein considers signs of historians’ uncritical, unscholarly practice—fragment, testimony, piety, soul, for instance, are, from Runia’s view, metonymies of presence.

Klein’s anxiety about transfers of presence may result from his historicist and deconstructionist aims; historicists only contextualize, while deconstructionists focus on words and linguistic patterns. Runia’s “presence”—outside context and language—is antithetical to Klein’s conceptual framework. While Klein does, at times, acknowledge that a similar desire motivates academics’ and Christian conservatives’ discourses of memory,[15] he does not account for what constructs this desire, for what is exterior to declared commitments to “imperfect secularizing programs,” programs which, Klein argues, “remain our best bet for decolonizing and democratizing historical discourse” [170]. Recognition of transfers of presence, at least the way Runia describes them, is not about identifying oneself as either pre-modern or modern, a secularist or theonomist, an academic or non-academic, but accounting for the yearning for and sometimes experience of being in touch with the (collective or otherwise) past. With a reenchanted historical discourse such as Runia’s metonymics, Klein could have written a more sympathetic, less polemical, account of memory talk.

Like Runia, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht explains academics’ recent longing for presence. He argues that interpretation became the paradigm in Western culture for understanding the world during the last eight hundred years.[16] Gumbrecht classifies this type of environment that focuses on the production of meaning as a “meaning culture.”[17] In a meaning culture, the “mind is the dominant human self-reference,” “humans deem themselves eccentric in relation to the world,” and “knowledge can only be legitimate knowledge if produced by a subject in an act of world-interpretation.”[18] Gumbrecht argues that the humanities’ nourishment solely on interpretation not only made it a meaning-culture, but also led to the bracketing of “presence,” when something has an “immediate impact on human bodies.”[19] He categorizes the kind of environment that concentrates on the production of presence as a “presence culture.” In a presence-culture, the “dominant self-reference is the body” which they “consider to be part of a cosmology,” and knowledge is not dependent on interpretation but “just happen[s]” as “’events of self-unconcealment of the world.’”[20] Thus, in a meaning culture, a subject decodes and differentiates oneself from objects, whereas in a presence culture, a human experiences embodied states of being-in-the-world—epiphanies, moments of physical and cognitive intensity, silence. For individuals of a meaning culture, presence is irrational, a state of enchantment.

Gumbrecht argues that the consequence of the humanities’ incessant invention of ways to produce meaning and “progressive abandonment” of the production of presence has been that, while we have increasingly modern and complex representations of the world, “we are no longer in touch with the things of the world.”[21] However, Gumbrecht believes, in “the present cultural situation [then 2003],” appreciation of presence has so “completely vanished” that it now returns in the “form of an intense desire for presence.”[22] For Gumbrecht, this yearning for presence “might have something to do with an everyday mode of being-in-the-world that…fuses consciousness and software—one that suspends the experience of presence.” “Perhaps,” he continues, “this state of withdrawal has provoked an enhanced need—and in increased desire—for encounters with presence.”[23] Extraordinary disenchantment has led to unexpected reenchantment, Gumbrecht argues, and the academy, part of this transformation, has shifted from solely acknowledging meaning effects toward recognizing the powers of presence. The current interest in “affect theory” and “thing theory” are perhaps signs of this change,[24] while smartphones are an example of a technology that quenches as well as creates our desire for presence by syncing us with one another and the world.

From a Gumbrechtian perspective, Klein’s focus on interpretation and investment in the secular, modern worldview ensure that he considers, as Gumbrecht writes about Western intellectuals in general, “the possibility of referring to the world other than meaning…[to be] the utmost degree of philosophical naïveté” and that the very use of the concept of presence as “a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste.”[25] Klein comments in his fifth chapter on “the hypostatization of memory” that many historians, such as James E. Young,[26] have deployed “memory” as “an active agent if not a hero” [125]. For Klein, it seems, belief that the word “memory” can signal contact with and the experience of being moved by a substance outside representations is a pre-modern, enchanted, naïve, and politically dangerous delusion. Gumbrecht suggests that significance in a presence culture is expressed through the Aristotelian concept of the sign, which “brings together a substance (i.e., that which is present because it demands a space) and a form (i.e., that through which a substance becomes perceptible).”[27] Young’s “memory” could be an Aristotelian sign that indicates when the very real and disturbing reality of the Holocaust shapes an agent, though such an interpretation would likely be unacceptable to one immersed in a meaning culture.

Klein’s book is a valuable work, as it rewrites the standard stories of the key changes in the conceptual language of the humanities during the twentieth century. However, Klein’s polemical last two chapters on memory work could have been more sympathetic by using Runia’s metonymics and Gumbrecht’s Aristotelian notion of the sign to interpret discourses of memory. And, Gumbrecht’s meaning- and presence-culture distinction could help explain how individuals, groups, or institutions facilitated or hindered the rise of memory talk. Runia and Gumbrecht offer compelling historical explanations for the recent interest in phenomena of presence. Their work only gestures toward how to write future histories that account for those silent and unrepresented presences that can unpredictably touch us. We can nevertheless begin sensitizing ourselves to these presences that, beyond discourse, lure us and shape who we are. In the historical analysis of the current attraction to reenchantment, we need not become tangled in a web of semantics, for a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.


[1] Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Fascism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[2] François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[3] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[4] Klein appears to assume that public spaces have always been secular. This assumption has been challenged. See Robert Ferguson, Reading the Early Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 81, 82.

[5] These are Louis S. Warren’s words, which are quoted on the back cover of From History to Theory.

[6] Klein does, nevertheless, acknowledge in his intrduction that the “linguistic shifts” he tracks overlaps with the secularization and diversification of the American academy. See Klein, 13-14. He also mentions five different narratives of the “origins of our new memory discourse,” but he believes that “[n]one of these stories seems fully credible” [134].

[7] Each of Klein’s essays is devoted to a “linguistic event.”

[8] Klein presents a softer position about this connection in his introduction. See Klein, 16.

[9] Mark Day points out that Klein has a “liberal’s cautious hope for the future, since the one constant is change.” Mark Day, “Book Review,” review of From History to Theory, by Kerwin Lee Klein, American Historical Review, 117 (3): 820.

[10] Eelco Runia, “Presence,” History and Theory, 45 (1): 1, 2, 3, 5.

[11] Ibid., 5.

[12] Ibid., 27, 20.

[13] Ibid., 17.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Klein, 158.

[16] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 28.

[17] Ibid., 26-30.

[18] Ibid., 80.

[19] Ibid., xv, xiiv.

[20] Ibid., 80-81.

[21] Ibid., xv.

[22] Ibid., 20.

[23] Gumbrecht, Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung: On A Hidden Potential Of Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 7.

[24] Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. The Affect Theory Reader, (Durham,. N.C.: Duke University Press Books, 2010); Bill Brown, ed. Things (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[25] Gumbrecht, Production of Presence, 53.

[26] James E. Young The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

[27] Gumbrecht, Production, 29.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Question: Am I right to assume that, for Klein, that historical language was “deenchanted” after the 1880s with the introduction of German methods (i.e. van Ranke) into American historiography? So the American historiography of “enchantment” goes like this: 1800-1880s = enchanted (i.e. saturated with religiosity); 1890s-1960s = deenchanted; 1970s-present = reenchanted. Yes? – TL

    • BTW: With this review you may have just created a new fan of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. – TL

Comments are closed.