U.S. Intellectual History Blog

James Livingston’s Reply to Rivka Maizlish

The following is James Livingston’s latest contribution to a vigorous debate on the uses of history.  Please see the other posts in this exchange by Ben Alpers, Jim Livingston, and Rivka Maizlish.

I’m grateful to Rivka Maizlish for her brave, angry, and hilarious response to my post on the usable past, the originary blame for which I happily assign to Ben Alpers—who somehow noticed that I’ve been rethinking the relation between radicalism, reform, and revolution.  And Tim Lacy, Kurt Newman, fuck you, too, for unruly if not unlawful incitement.  Sorry to leave Dan Wickberg out this time.  Anybody else I missed?  L.D.?

My complaint about historians in that brief post, as in my “review” of Paul Murphy’s fine book, was, I thought, quite straightforward—we have been reproducing the past in what Nietzsche called the monumental and antiquarian modes, not teaching our fellow citizens how to learn from it, and thus to act on it, as it now appears to us in profile, in present relief.  To clarify this complaint, I’ll quote myself, not for the first time, from a 2007 piece I wrote on Richard Hofstadter for boundary 2:

“The cultural function of the modern historian is to teach us how to learn from people with whom we differ due to historical circumstances (and such circumstances include the range of ideological commitments they can profess with plausibility).  We ‘go back’ to the people of the past in the hope of changing our perspectives on the present, and thus multiplying our choices about the future.  But these people with whom we differ, and from whom we must learn, are, to begin with, other historians; for there is no way to peek over the edges of our present as if they aren’t there, standing between us and the archive, telling us how to approach it.

“No one gets to the ‘primary sources,’ whether they are constituted as the historical record or the literary canon, without going through the priests, scribes, librarians, professors, critics—the professionals—who created them in retrospect, in view of their own intellectual obligations and political purposes.  In this sense, history is not the past as such, just as the canon is not literature as such; it is the ongoing argument between historians, among others, about what qualifies as an event, a document, an epoch [or an idea].  It is the endless argument about what the future holds; for the form and content of the past matter only to those with political commitments in the present, and so to the future.”

Translation: You can’t learn from the past, or change anything in the present, if you assume or insist that the difference between the past and the present is unimportant to your aesthetic purposes, or meaningless in terms of your political purposes—if the weight of the past is not something you can address and adjust, but rather something you must endure or escape. You can’t grow up, either.  Unlike Rivka Maizlish, I want to learn from the past and change some things in the present, and, at this stage of my life, I guess I wouldn’t mind growing up as well.

Yeah, I said citizens.  I don’t see how the use of that word reduces the import of my thinking about History to politics (“the political man,” whoever that is) as conventionally construed—not in context, anyway.  I’ve been arguing for twenty-five years that the cultural-intellectual revolution of the period 1890-1940 is at least as significant as the contemporary political-economic transformation historians call the rise of corporate capitalism.  I’ve also been arguing that cultural (or identity) politics have superseded the state-centered, programmatic, electoral kind.  I got this idea from Antonio Gramsci, who plotted a war of position as against the Leninist war of maneuver, which required the seizure of the state.

But look, the point I was trying to make is that if all you can do is replicate the wisdom of the past, you have nothing to say to your fellow Americans about how to get beyond this moment, this crisis.  That’s why Madison is cast as the hero of the piece.  I expect that Maizlish will object to my use of the word “Americans” here, because the implication, from the standpoint of her beautiful soul, would probably be that I think only US history is relevant to the designation of a usable past—rather than the trans-national, border-crossing, cosmopolitan History real professionals now compose because they think that either Tom Bender or Tony Negri got it right.

That’s OK, I’m parochial enough to believe that Lenin’s best book was The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899) because it demonstrated a command of his country’s actual history, and, oh, that my extra-academic constituency, if there is such a thing, will never consist of, say, Hungarians.  Still, I can’t wait for the sentence Maizlish will soon produce in protest against my parochialism: “Americans, Livingston wrote.”  OMG.

I do admire the broad range of citation in this little essay, from Guicciardini to Goethe, from Lewis Mumford and William Faulkner to Alan Bloom.  But I don’t think Maizlish understands her own sources.  At any rate they don’t serve her purposes if she wants to be a historian—don’t get me wrong, I mean someone who does not inhabit the past, by donning the costumes and reenacting the battles or conversations, but rather studies and learns from it.  I mean someone on the level of a dentist, humble and competent.

Maizlish thinks historicism is our enemy—us historians, I mean, and I suppose she does, too.  I don’t get it.  I can’t even begin to understand the complaint until she arrives at the Past, having revved herself up with Friedrich Nietzsche and Warren Susman, two of my favorite part-time philosophers of History.  (But I have to ask, how can Maizlish say “we pay far too little attention to the philosophy of history” and then ignore Hegel, especially in view of the use and abuse of him by Hayden White, Erich Auerbach, Kenneth Burke—and me?  What, is he too historicist?)

At this late moment in the essay, Maizlish finally tells us how “history for the full man or woman, not just the citizen”—history written to “enrich our souls, guide our longings, and broaden our imagination of what is possible”—might actually work.  It sounds pretty wonderful until you realize that the extreme sport of romanticism she peddles would erase the past.  But don’t take my word for it:

“I suggest that historians focus on moments in the past when our subjects have protested against the tyranny of linear or representational time, when they have tried to forget, or to remember, when they have tried to escape into the past or to deny its pastness, to erase it altogether, or to live outside of time.”  As exemplars of this sensibility, Maizlish cites, in order, Thomas Paine, Lewis Mumford, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alan Bloom, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jonathan Edwards, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Not Charles Bukowski?

By this time, Maizlish has already lingered over Warren Susman’s 1964 essay on the Young Intellectuals (Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford, Waldo Frank, Harold Stearns, Floyd Dell, et al.) and their notion of a usable past.  And she approvingly cites Mumford’s 1929 study of Herman Melville—a book that has meant as much to me as The Golden Day (1926), which, along with D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1912?) and Brook’s two volumes, Letters and Leadership (1917) and America’s Coming-of-Age (1918), made the case for a literary canon centered on what F. O. Mathiessen would soon call the American Renaissance.

But notice what Mumford does in that book on Melville—he denies any temporal or sensible difference between himself and the writer he wants to rehabilitate.  Practically speaking, he impersonates his subject, or rather, he becomes both subject and object of an ostensibly biographical inquiry.  “In describing Melville’s experience and state of mind, I have taken the liberty of using his own language wherever possible,” he announces in the preface, “and I have done this so freely that, except where I have quoted whole passages, I have omitted quotation marks.”

Mumford self-consciously denies himself any critical distance on his subject—he forsakes all irony in the belief that any differences between the past and the present, between Melville’s alienation and his own, are unimportant.  He concludes with this memorable passage: “It is not that we have to go back to these writers [of the 1850s]: it is, rather, that we have come abreast of them.”

In the name of “presence, longing, enchantment,” Rivka Maizlish urges the same anti-ironic attitude toward history upon us.  She thinks the differences between past and present are not just unimportant; she believes that to acknowledge them as constraints on our thinking is to impose unnecessary impediments on our historical understanding, to the point where they get in the way of living.  She thinks Nietzsche is on her side, of course, and gleefully cites The Use and Abuse of History as her warrant.

I would suggest to her, and to her comrades, that she’s fundamentally mistaken about this.  Nietzsche is no more a partisan of what he calls critical history—“judging and annihilating a past”—than the monumental or antiquarian kind.  But the point is not that Nietzsche and his ineradicable irony are on my side, wherever that might be today.  The point is that the deployment of sameness along a chronological axis is not much different, in terms of intellectual consequences, than the deployment of sameness along a spatial axis.  In the name of exciting intentions like abandon and release, it becomes imperial.

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “it demonstrated a command of his country’s actual history, and, oh, that my extra-academic constituency, if there is such a thing, will never consist of, say, Hungarians. Still, I can’t wait for the sentence Maizlish will soon produce in protest against my parochialism: “Americans, Livingston wrote.” OMG.”

    I started reading your blog because of your Occupy posts, and I’ve heard other people refer to them, so your extra-academic readership is at least minimally there. (Although I’m commenting here because this is where the discussion is going on.)

    But I think that you’re being unfair with the preemptive “Americans, OMG” bit, or perhaps everyone is. The whole question as Ben Alpers set it up was about how radical left historians have talked about a specifically American useable past. This is a U.S. intellectual history blog. I haven’t yet seen signs that people think it’s parochial to respond as the conversation started (although I have seen people widen it without acknowledging that they’re doing so.)

    The whole question of whether there’s anything useful that’s specifically American came into brief focus with Occupy, which largely wasn’t. People consciously modeled it on practices from Spain and Egypt; it existed within a set of similar movements in other countries like the Israeli J14 protests or the Argentine Neighborhood Assembly Movement, and similarly focussed protests are occurring right now in e.g. Turkey that don’t seem to really owe any direct debt to American Occupy. Irrespective of the success or otherwise of anything that Occupy did, I think that that’s where some of the discomfort with the idea of an American usable past is coming from. But if the question is about America to begin with, there’s nothing wrong with answering it.

    • You’re right, I was being defensive, thanks for the reminder of the ghost in this narrative machine.

  2. I would never, ever, ever want to claim that Nietzsche is “on my side,” or that I am on his side. What an abuse of Nietzsche that would be!

    I enthusiastically (okay, “gleefully”!) endorse Use and Abuse as a challenging and thrilling examination of the value of and limits of historicism. I believe the historicist assumptions that drive our discipline have lead us to the same limited, unproductive questions about the “use”– narrowly conceived– of the past, and perpetuate the same paralyzing anxiety about how we will be able to use the past when we can’t, like scientists, ever hope to reproduce the conditions of the past.

    So yes, I do think historicism gets in our way here. As an historian, I think a good way to begin to question historicism or begin to develop other paradigms is to follow or subjects when they have done it, and to ask of them: “how?” and “why?” and even “in what historical context?” We don’t have to put on costumes or write biographies like Mumford’s Melville. But we should listen closely when our subjects do. What Mumford does in the Melville biography and elsewhere is fascinating and deserves serious attention and historical analysis; it should not be dismissed as crazy or delusional. If Livingston is right, and he may well be, that Mumford’s style of history would “erase the past,” that’s fascinating! As an historian, that grabs my attention! If we are historical beings, what does it mean when one of us tries to rebel against time?

    I’m not sure where this idea that I would attack national history on behalf of a transnational perspective came from, but I have to insist that, as a disciple of Perry Miller, I am the last person to complain that a focus on America or Americans is parochial. I am an American historian. My “beautiful soul” is American. I pointed out the word “citizens” because it reflects a bias toward the political aspect of human experience, and because discussion about the “use” of history seems never or rarely to go beyond the political.

    Finally: I am not a fan of Charles Bukowski.

  3. Where to begin.

    1. Jim, you are not allowed to swear at me until my exams are over.

    2. “In this sense, history is not the past as such, just as the canon is not literature as such; it is the ongoing argument between historians, among others, about what qualifies as an event, a document, an epoch [or an idea].” This passage from your previously published piece is marvelous, and I want to think more about it. Last summer I was slouching toward a similar idea, I think — I’m mulling over whether to wade into my essay on the blog tomorrow or use my post to clean Gordon Wood’s historiographic clock.

    3. At the very least, there is something reductive about the connotations of the word “political.” This sentence, for instance, grates: “… the form and content of the past matter only to those with political commitments in the present, and so to the future. People have all kinds of commitments, and while they may all have their politics, they’re not all political. The past matters to people for a vast variety of reasons, and the greatest value of Rivka’s essay is her suggestion that we pay attention to those other reasons, as well as to other modes of relating to the past than historicism.

    4. However, I’m right with you on worrying about what our alternatives to historicism are. Historians are born under the sign of Epimetheus. We can recognize new modes in retrospect when they emerge, but we cannot just announce that we’re going to invent one. Not our table; that’s the revolutionaries’ booth. And I think the problem is that people (you Jim, and Rivka in a different way) want to be a historian and a revolutionary at the same time. But historians only get to be revolutionary in retrospect. However, we can push our current professional conceptions to their limits, so that every inch of ground gained is a patch of land upon which someone else who comes after us can stand and perhaps see a little farther. Into the past.

    4. Rivka, Jim is right — the scope and range of reference in your writings is bracing and heartening. But he’s also right about the Romanticism / idealism (takes one to know one). Broadly speaking, a yearning for the timeless, in our subjects and in ourselves, seems to me to be more an effect of the development of history (or, one might just as well say, modernity). And I agree with those who would suggest that we are not post or past modernity, just like we are not past — and can’t be past — historicism. Any tool we use will come from that toolbox. The trick, I think, is to put old tools to new uses. We might not be able to demolish the master’s house, but we can damn sure bust out a wall and let the air circulate a little bit.

    5. Last — though related to my point above — our criteria for selecting sources, while admittedly a matter of our own judgment, shouldn’t ever (in my judgment) come down to whether we like them or not (or, God forbid, whether they’re “intellectual” or not, or “beautiful” or not, or whatever high/low distinction we might be inclined to make). I mean, if one finds Bukowski so utterly revolting that it’s not even possible to read him, I suppose one shouldn’t rely on him heavily. At the same time, it would be like shirking one’s duty not to ask of any source one came across, “What could I do with this?”

    For example, I read the Genoveses’ _Mind of the Master Class_ back before I figured out you don’t have to read every page of every book in grad school. 800+ pages insisting that I understand the reasons and reasoning behind Southern cultural support for slavery from the Southerners’ point of view. How that book didn’t go sailing out my window I’ll never know. And if I could help it, I would never, ever, ever read a word George Fitzhugh wrote again, so help me God and Garrison. However, I don’t know where my questions will take me, but if it seems that Fitzhugh’s dulcet prose might help me answer those questions, then I have an obligation to put on my muck boots and wade into the mess.

    All that to say that while our histories are always going to disclose who we are — “that every word doth almost tell my name, showing their birth, and where they did proceed” — it is salutary to swim against that current as much as we can.

    Ah, the strenuous life of the historian of thought!

    • Nicely said. By political commitments, I mean something like a willingness to seek change, using whatever devices are available. That willingness is a function of capacity–the ability to see that your efforts could make a difference–and this, in turn, is a product of historical consciousness. And vice versa. You get more interested in the past to the same extent that you get more interested in the possibility of change in the present.

      • “You get more interested in the past to the same extent that you get more interested in the possibility of change in the present.”

        Unfortunately. For too many people, you then spend the next few years reading books, and never get around to attempting change in the present. If there isn’t really an American usable past, then getting people interested in it is not actually helpful if what you’re concerned with is the possibility of change.

  4. I’d swear I posted this comment earlier, but obviously it disappeared into the either, so let’s try again . . .

    “My complaint about historians in that brief post, as in my “review” of Paul Murphy’s fine book, was, I thought, quite straightforward—we have been reproducing the past in what Nietzsche called the monumental and antiquarian modes, not teaching our fellow citizens how to learn from it, and thus to act on it, as it now appears to us in profile, in present relief.”

    What does it mean to act “on” the past? Does it mean to use the past as the basis for action, as in “I’m acting on my beliefs,” or does it mean that the past is the object of the action, what is being acted upon? Absent access to a TARDIS, I’m not sure how the latter is feasible. I suspect I’m missing something, but I can’t figure out what.

    • To act on the past is to decide in and about the present, in view of the choices made available by your understanding of the past. Notice that it is your understanding of the past, not the past as such, that produces those choices. Kierkegaard was right, we live forward but we understand backward.

  5. I don’t know what historicism means. I tweeted this as a joke, but I am beginning to honestly believe that it has no meaning, or so many meanings that it doesn’t mean anything.

    In any event, “historicist” seems to be being used here as a floating signifier or shifter in the absence of some more concrete ethical term, which leads me to my first point: what we are dancing around here is “ethics.” It s a sign, I think, of PTSD, from bullying from Derrideans and the Right, that most of us won’t just lay out what we think is a good thing to do with history and what we think is bad thing to do with history. Broad, vague, Romantic claims count, in my book, as saying nothing (the Noonan Corollary).

    Relatedly, there are some theoretical problems that critics of historicism never seem to get around to answering. If historicism is epistemologically imperialist (and in many of its forms, of course, it is, terribly so), we nevertheless don’t gain much ground by saying: instead of one history, many histories. It’s not hard to see how, in this case one becomes two (the old history, in one corner, and the set of all the new histories, in the other), which is bad, or how two becomes one (the old history + the new histories get collapsed into a new master set, also called “history”), which is also bad. But the alternatives are worse. Like many Hegelian things, that is, we’re kind of stuck with “history.”

    Finally, I have sworn off “usable past” but today I am going to post a response to this blog post http://clrjames.blogspot.com/2013/06/prism-surplus-sociality-and-crisis-of_3786.html because I think it is wrong, in almost every particular, when read against the evidence from US economic, political, and cultural history. I also think it is deploys the typical left rhetorical frame of “now, suddenly, things in capitalism are different” which, in the absence of any historical evidence, is basically an example of fabulism of some sort.

    If I argue: they are not the way you say they are; and the things you say are new are old… am I being a “usable past” dude? A historicist? A Swedenborgian? A Jansenist? Something worse?

    PS: Rivka–requesting an essay by you on David W. Noble’s Death of a Nation at some point when/if you have time/interest. Wondering what you’d make of it.

  6. L.D. (and others):

    If a yearning for the timeless is an effect of an historical development– perfect. That’s exactly what I’m suggesting we historically examine. My methods are historical. I advocate listening to and following sources when they struggle with questions of time and history and asking historical questions about their ideas and their lives. This is why I brought so many voices into my piece. My intent was not “hey everyone, look how much I’ve read!” but rather to bring in sources that demonstrate a wealth of opportunity for historians to investigate different philosophies of time among different types of thinkers in different contexts. This is not ahistorical. It would be ahistorical to assume that our subjects share our assumptions about history and time, or to dismiss them as crazy/delusional and unworthy of historical examination if they don’t.

    I realize that I used words like “longing,” “soul,” and “life” in my post– words that are apparently “brave” or maybe “hilarious” for an historian to employ. I understand these words are provocative, and I think that’s good. But they should not always sound the alarm of “Romanticism” or “idealism.” Those words, feelings, concerns can and do coexist with serious historical inquiry. It was historical inquiry that lead me to learn from the past and question my own assumptions about time, periodization, and context.

  7. Rivka, I’m glad for this comment, because you and I are peers, and that makes discussion and debate a little less fraught.

    The dynamics of debate on this blog can become very difficult if a senior scholar calls out / critiques a junior scholar, or a professor critiques a grad student. That challenge can signify high praise — e.g., in this post Livingston is treating you as an intellectual equal. Here you have a senior intellectual historian who believes you can go toe to toe — and you are proving him right.

    At the same time, it can look and feel pretty outrageous to have a well-established historian come out swinging — especially a historian with such a “cute” fighting style as Livingston’s. Ask me how I know.

    And what we end up with sometimes is critique by proxy. Sometimes I get called out and challenged on stuff, as if what I think on this or that historical problem is some big frickin’ deal, and I know good and well the challenger is really aiming at my advisor. (I know this not just because it’s glaringly obvious at the time, but also because people have owned up to it later.)

    I think that’s some of what is going on in this post of Livingston’s, with his grousing about too much of the wrong flavor of Nietzsche and his grumbling about the transnational v. the provincial, when he’s the one who dragged Thomas Bender et. al. into the argument in the first place. He’s talking to you, but he’s talking at your advisor there in Wisconsin.

    Somewhat analogously, though you framed your response above to me (and “others”), most of it seems to be directed more at the stuff that “others” said, so I don’t feel like I need to reply to that, except to say that you certainly don’t need a proxy. You’re the one who called out Livingston in your Wednesday post, and now here he stands with his guard down. Swing away! That’s the plus side for the junior scholar — we never run the risk of looking like we’re not fighting fair.

    But in terms of what you’ve written to me, I’ll say this: if I praise something, it’s because I find it praiseworthy. If I commend something, it’s because I find it commendable. If I pay a compliment, I mean it. I don’t do insincerity — life is too short.

    So when I praised your essay for its scope, for the deep reservoir of reading, the breadth of reference and the connections you drew, that wasn’t some backhanded accusation that you were showing off. That was sheer, honest admiration. I don’t do any other kind.

    Now, I do think your terms and your times are a little bit tangled up in your post, or perhaps just more fluid than fixed — but that is fitting for an essay, and it is a great essay. Your readers are challenging you to make it better, and to make it clearer. If people didn’t think you were up to it, we wouldn’t even bother. So take the criticism or leave it, but by all means take it as evidence that people respect you as a thinker even if they don’t agree with your conclusions.

    And when I said that it takes a Romantic / idealist to know one, I wasn’t talking about Livingston, who literally may or may not know his ass from a hole in the ground.

    I was talking about myself. I know an earnest soul when I see one.

    • I was just responding to your point #4, where you caution against too much, or the dangers of, “Romanticism” and “idealism” and argue that some historicism/historical methods can be useful. I wrote “others” because I thought several comments have reflected this concern, and because I wanted to make sure anyone felt free to respond. I didn’t want to make my response too parochial. 😉

      I appreciate any and all comments from you, criticism or praise, and I never meant to suggest that your compliment was insincere, or that my use of sources was flawless and above critique. I particularly appreciated some of the comments on my piece that got into my use of sources, for example questioning my (admittedly bold) claim that Machiavelli wasn’t primarily concerned with politics, etc….

      I know you were referring to me as a Romantic/idealist, I just think you seem to know more about my soul than I do…. I’m tempted to quote an aphorism from Daybreak attacking a Romanticism specifically tied to a longing to recreate the past (its a real shame that Livingston didn’t quote it!!! it would have been perfect for him!), but I think I should be barred from Nietzsche quotes for a while….

    • Literally? The differences between my ass and a hole in the ground are (1) analogous to the differences we’ve aired in these posts, between, say, the subject and the object of historical inquiry, my own self and the rest of the world, understood as a field of both time and space; also, (2) obvious enough to the casual observer, who, regardless of her size, could not trip and fall into my ass, whereas with a hole in the ground, you never know.

  8. But look, the point I was trying to make is that if all you can do is replicate the wisdom of the past, you have nothing to say to your fellow Americans about how to get beyond this moment, this crisis.

    The Burkean might say the current crisis comes precisely because we no longer know or understand the wisdom of the past. All change is not progress; in fact, Burke would argue that precious little of it is.

    [Rivka Maizlish] thinks the differences between past and present are not just unimportant; she believes that to acknowledge them as constraints on our thinking is to impose unnecessary impediments on our historical understanding, to the point where they get in the way of living.

    If so, she would be correct insofar that for the partisan or ideological historian, the past is little more than a list of crimes–punctuated by a few unbenighted souls like themselves who marched with Dr. King; stood up for their neighbors on Kristallnacht; paid their workers half again the prevailing wage when their company struck oil; and who, upon inheriting 100 slaves from their grandfather, promptly manumitted them.

    Or, perhaps we’re not so different from the denizens of the past afterall. If Madison is to be our hero, it was not a belief in “progress,” but the universality of our cravenness that shaped his thinking, to deal with man as he is, not what he ought to be.

    Now, I can see Jefferson glomming on to any and all of the ideological fads of our day, as he did in his own day. But were Mr. Madison to visit us today, I think he’d be saddened but unsurprised that we understand him so poorly, if at all.

  9. From the compulsion to historicize to the political commitment to a revolutionary break, the wonderful conversation that has been happening here reiterates the diagnosis that literary and cultural critics of European Romanticism have been proudly spewing out since the 80s: we are still Romantic. Derrida famously criticized modern historicism in “The Law of Genre”: we cannot say we have been delivered from the Romantic heritage…as long as we persist in drawing attention to historical concerns and the truth of historical production in order to militate against tabuses or confusions of naturalization”. The very debate…remains itself a part or effect of Romanticism.” But the transhistoricism offered by Derrida and other poststructuralists is also part of the so-called “uncontainable” character of Romantic ideology (quoting Carol Jacobs), which we often forget is not homogeneous at all (i.e. a Schiller is not homologous to a Macaulay). Moreover, in proposing a break from the “Romantic heritage” Derrida performs a very Romantic gesture, a revolutionary break, the proposition of an event that purports to break away from the “spirit of the age” (to quote Hazlitt). Derrida’s rewriting of Heidegger actually becomes the end of history, there is no outside or future within deconstruction, just the “free” play of the signifier (the late Derrida seemingly understood this and added a transcendental layer to his dialogue, the idea of “the democracy to come.”)

    So, to quote Lenin, what is to be done? Perhaps to grasp that the fantasy of a break, the founding of a new intellectual approach or the production of a revolutionary event, is a fiction, especially a fiction that is constructed retroactively, as L.D. suggested. In understanding the fictionality of historical rupture (alongside the fictionality of the logic of causality implicit in the idea of rupture), we can articulate a more humble historical practice that in thinking about the limits of our enterprise, can intersect with the radical micropolitics we are witnessing throughout the world, without the sacrificial, chauvinistic discourse of producing a “new man,” without actually having to worry about the so-called “newness” of our ideas and ideals.

    • Kahlil Chaar-Pérez—I thought that literary and cultural critics of European Romanticism (Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, Paul de Man [I forget offhand, but wasn’t de Man Jacobs’ advisor?], etc.) have been saying that we are still Romantic at least since the late 1950s or early 1960s. I also believe that your representation of Derrida, that his “rewriting of Heidegger actually becomes the end of history” and that “there is no outside or future within deconstruction, just the ‘free’ play of the signifier,” overlooks how often and explicitly he explains that, for him, “history” is deconstruction—these explanations are all over _Speech and Phenomena_, _Writing and Difference_, and especially, his _Of Grammatology_. In fact, Derrida devotes the first half of _Of Grammatology_ to carefully laying out his view that “history” is the deconstruction of presence.

      • Continued [oops]: And then, in the second half of _Of Grammatology_, performs his “history” through the “deconstructions” of Rousseau, Levi-Strauss, etc.

      • Gregory Jones-Katz, thanks for the comments. You are correct, the “we are still Romantic” bit can be traced back to Hartman, de Man, and company–de Man being the key figure here, I am thinking in particular the influence of the Rhetoric of Romanticism and Blindness and Insight in Romantic Studies–. These text-based literary form of criticism was expanded during the rise of new historicism to think critically about the so called postmodern break, tracing continuities between the Romantics and the deconstructionist endeavor, which seeks to go beyond Romanticism (the boundaries are of course much more diffuse, new historicists did use the tools of poststructuralism–particularly Foucault–to critique the textualism of Derrida and De Man) . This is what I was essentially pointing to, in connection with the worries about the uses of the past that have circulated here, which you see already in the works of historians conversing with poststructuralism such as Dominick LaCapra).

        What you say about Derrida’s writings on history is on point, but I don’t see how it contradicts my observation. In fact, it backs up what I stated. In associating deconstruction with history, Derrida is writing against teleological, lineal visions of history–and thus, against the modern, Romantic practice of history, of periodization, cause-effect questions, issues that pertain to the uses of the (historical) past. Both the practice of history and historical time are subsumed into a transhistorical web of aporias, catachresis, and excess, the free play of the signifier that I mentioned. End of history has a double meaning here: as the logic of history, which can be viewed as an infinite logic, but also, as limit, how deconstruction subsumes history.

  10. My serious study of history is a new thing; but let me suggest two observations on the individual and history: first, Brownian motion- we are like molecules in a jar- for most of us and arguably all of us, our impact and role is limited; second, we like to think of ourselves as individuals realms of our own, transcendent in Kantian sense; but to outsiders we are merely part of the world out there.
    These two factors call into question how much any individual can really effect history. We are random elements and our agency may be limited even if we do have any significant impact

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