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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Getting the point of pointlessness (Or, Back on the piste again. ... In which I dabble in philosophy)

[This is the paper which I gave at the 49th International Congress of Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo MI last Saturday.  It went through at least three versions up to this point, in what might be seen as a miniature example of the general point being made.
My thanks to Patty Ingham and the Exemplaria editorial team for allowing me to speak at the session, which, my piece notwithstanding, was a very good one.  Thanks also to patty for her opening question, which opened up a great discussion, to Elizabeth Scala for chairing, and to Peggy McCracken for rigorous questioning on the humanist point.]

In this paper I am doubtless going to discuss issues and problems that long ago ceased to be critically imperative elsewhere in ‘medieval studies’, and responses to them that I am nervously – painfully – aware will sound naïve, glaringly obvious, or probably both, to the philosophically-aware from those other subject-areas.  Please bear with me; in history the problem I will discuss does seem to me to be an issue.  Perhaps, on the way, I will raise points that resonate with other disciplines’ critical imperatives but I am principally here to hear your thoughts.  As will be clear, this is very much new territory for me.


Of all the humanities, with the possible exception of philosophy, History has perhaps the longest and most grandiose tradition of a sense of its own point, purpose, or transcendent worth, or at least of worrying about it.  From Thucydides onwards, the point of history has exercised its practitioners and produced a galaxy of grandiloquent statements of History’s enormous value to society.  ‘A society with no history is like a man with no memory’; ‘those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it’; that sort of thing.  Whether this obsession is to be understood as revealing a subliminal recognition of History’s absolute lack of utility or value is a question I will to some extent sidestep…. Nonetheless, against this background it is not surprising that the so-called linguistic turn should have had such an unsettling effect.  After all, the arch-empiricist nineteenth-century idea expressed by Leopold von Ranke, that history should be about ‘telling it just as it was’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen) held sway over the discipline ever since, as a foundation for judging the quality of history, in particular as the touchstone of professional historical writing.  The theory wars in literature surely produced their fair share of invective, but perhaps not the panic that they engendered in history.  After all, with so much at stake, over centuries of reflection on the issue, what would be the point of history if the straightforward re-description of the past were no longer possible? What if all history really was fiction?  What if there really were no difference between historians and … … literary scholars?! 

Nonetheless, the historical front of the so-called ‘Truth Wars’ of the 1990s was a fairly unedifying and intellectually low-level skirmish, a veritable festival of point-missing.  (Or, put another way, if you think this paper is bad, you should read what it's kicking against.) On the one side, the more traditional wing maintained a ‘common-sensical’ defence of History as, to some extent, the factual recreation of the past.  Implicitly, on the other side it was too, among the the self-styled 'post-modernists' [no, really]; if the factual recreation of the past wasn’t possible, history itself wasn’t possible. The latter apparently thought and think the writings of Derrida et al authorise the relativist claim that there is no truth even at the lowest empirical level of historical fact; their opponents accepted this claim and then accused them of legitimising holocaust-denial – the continental philosophers upon whose work the ‘post-modernists’  based their argument were caught in the crossfire (egregiously misread or, ironically, unread).  And there the debate – insofar as it ever really was a debate – seems to have stuck, with both sides continuing to talk past each other or, more commonly, not talking to each other at all. Most of the discipline, though, has continued in what Žižek would call an ideological fantasy, the ‘je sais bien mais quand-même’.  Although accepting that writing history ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ isn’t possible, they go on writing as if it were.  Historical method and the standards by which history is judged remain ultimately predicated on the possibility of retelling history ‘as it was’.  Now, modern theory is much used in history – let’s be clear – and well-used, especially in late antique history.  Good medieval historians don’t simply quarry their texts for facts any more.  But this awareness has, it seems to me, tended to operate at the more local, methodological level, deployed to make reconstructions of the past more sophisticated but not transferred to the level of what history can or might be.


My question, providing an answer to which is, for me, a critical imperative, is whether history can play a bigger role than simply describing historical facts (something that most historians at least appear to consider the sine qua non of proper history and which is especially important to me, as someone not from an academic background), without falling into the old trap of believing there is a ‘truth’ or even a true account to be reached about history.  Simultaneously it is whether one can continue to recognise that there is no object history, against which the important levels of historical endeavour can be judged, without lapsing into epistemological nihilism.  This matters in historical dialogue.  As throughout academic discourse, the concern can be to convince everyone else that you are right (and they are wrong), to change the paradigm, and so on.  This does not necessarily take a macho, open, confrontational form; it can be masked by overt statements about consensus, covering operations of power every bit as insidious and frequently working to rule out discussion.  Obviously, though, discussions that hinge on consensus, paradigmatic dominance and so forth are ultimately founded upon a Rankean notion that one explanation can be ‘truer’ than another.

Where do ethically- or politically-committed historians go from here?  It is rather pointless to restrict history to the level of establishing and cataloguing things that did or didn’t happen, and in my view equally pointless to tell stories about the past which offer no basis for action in the present and/or which don’t differentiate historical endeavour from other forms of study.  To anticipate the broad outline of my argument, what I want to explore is the possibility, not of going forward into some kind of post-history, so much as a return to something like the pre-Rankean idea of history as ‘philosophy teaching by example’.  The other key element of these necessarily inchoate thoughts is that Derridian occupation or the Nancéen hesitation on the edge, of, a resistance to, a refusal of, the space/moment of Hegelian Aufhebung.

In suggesting some responses, I am making use of a fairly closely interconnected cluster of philosophers, but principally drawing upon the works of two: Simon Critchley, above all in Very Little … Almost Nothing, but touching upon his other writings; and Jean-Luc Nancy, mainly in La Communauté Désoeuvrée. Critchley and Nancy both draw on Maurice Blanchot as something of a touchstone, and there is not coincidentally a constant circling around the works of Derrida and Levinas.  I confess to not finding these works – especially Blanchot’s – easy, and I am very conscious that I may be mangling them, so you are welcome to call me out on that.  I must also confess that I am not claiming to offer a detailed exegesis or application; I have tended to use these texts in a slightly freewheeling way, as a springboard to my own thoughts, which I hope are at least moderately consistent, between themselves and with the general thrust at least of the ideas that inspired them.

My own confrontation with this problem starts from two unfashionable points: a modified empiricism and a modified humanism.  I adopt the first not out of pragmatism but because all critiques of empirical history that I have read seem ultimately founded upon an ability to make choices to some extent based upon an acceptance of some kind of empirical status for the bases of those choices.  It is impossible to stand outside at least some sort of empiricism.  I espouse a modified humanism because of what I see as the political-ethical demand at the heart of the historical project, to which I will return, and also because of my own political reservations about at least some aspects of post-humanist writing.  No hierarchical distinctions or impermeable boundaries, just the insistence on the importance of recognising a common human experience, in all its suffering and finitude.  That seems to me essential to a committed history.  Does that let a different transcendence in by the back door?  Perhaps.  But to steal Critchley’s formulation, a very little one … almost nothing.

To begin at the beginning, what brings us to the study of history?  What lies in that moment of fascination, when we first think of finding out more about history?  What lies within the moment when we first decide we want to write about the past?  Is it an aesthetic moment?  One of attraction? One of desire?  Or is it rather something more akin to dread?  I think that there is something of all of this in different ratios, but, whatever one may decide to do after that initial moment, it is crucially pre-rational.  It is the moment when, as I was reminded on Thursday, Benjamin says that the past flashes across the centuries – I don’t remember the term Benjamin used but suspect it may have been Schein, with all its Hegelian undertones.  On the whole it may be best to think it through Barthes’ notion of the punctum, which I think it is useful to remember, contains an connection, linguistically at least, with trauma.

What seems to me to be common to any of these options is the sense of a thing which is there and yet not there.  We might want to think this element to some extent in line with the il y a, which Blanchot adapted from Levinas.  Obviously in this context, it is not entirely flippant to see this simultaneously as the il y avait, the ‘there was’, and is not.  There lies one of the many points which so-called post-modern history has missed, in its obsession with endlessly repeating the glaringly obvious point that history is not the past itself, as though this were somehow an epistemological issue limited to history.  The idea that there we feel something out there that talks to us (and of which the material traces, actually are out there and do speak to us) and in the gaze of which we imagine ourselves, seems strangely not to figure.  This does seem to me to be assimilable, in concept or in function, with a number of other concepts, such as, perhaps, the Lacanian Real in at least some of its manifestations, especially if, with Critchley, one wants to insist upon the traumatic nature of the Levinasian il y a.  An exploration of this space of engagement obviously entangles us, or conjures, Derrida’s hauntologie in Spectres de Marx, itself in a way a kind of structuring trace, a différance.

How to respond?

There may be much in Blanchot’s L’Espace Littéraire (however hard…) that can be thought with by historians thinking about the process of writing history.  The issue of fascination – a potentially destructive fascination – is one; the idea of a summons to write a sense of pure exteriority might be another – the past seems to me to be as pure a form of exteriority as there can be.  Then there are, and here I am drawing more heavily on Critchley’s Blanchot, the two pistes or slopes of literature (or history-writing).  One, would be that which seeks to dominate, by reducing to or ordering, classification within language, by shaping into a narrative, to insist upon the rightness of a singular explanation: the similarities with the stage within the Phänomenologie (ch.3?), where the self-consciousness understands itself through its ability to consume is fairly clear.  Ironically, to my mind, it seems to me that both traditional and soi-disant post-modernist approaches can equally – if in different ways – be seen as on this slope.

The other piste is the attempt, so to speak, to see through language to what lay before, to get back to the original.  Clearly, this is very frequently what traditionalists think they are doing.  Rather than the triumphal domination of the other slope, this is an attempt to erase writing, to merge the description with its object.  But crucially these aren’t really choices.  The point of Blanchot’s two pistes, in Critchley’s reading, is that one never knows which one is on, without thereby switching to the other.  Here, for my purposes, lies important ambiguity and potential irony.

In particular, the imagery of the slope is useful to me because it will bring me to a vision of worklessness, of a commitment to the work – one that is never finished, however one is misled by the production of the finite piece – the book is a ruse – says Blanchot.  [Or, the unit of assessment is a ruse. At this point I riffed ironically on the idea that we might rather embrace the REF as an ethical space of Blanchotien désoeuvrement.]  Blanchot’s statement resonated with me.  I am surely not the only one here who towards the end of a project – and maybe it is just the seemingly interminable tedium of those last stages of checking and footnoting – really feels that when this is done one will have said one’s last word – never again – that’s it from me - and yet, as soon as the manuscript is sent off, somehow races to the idea for the next thing. Therein, it seems to me, lies one means of hesitating between the options of transcendence and nihilism.

This hesitation, as I said, opens up spaces of irony or undecidability.  One of the issues especially discussed in Critchley’s account, and crucially important to me, is finitude – as someone who made his name studying cemeteries, I guess it would be.  Critchley’s reading of Blanchot finishes with a vertiginous experience of finitude opening onto ‘compassion for suffering humanity’.  This is my modified humanism.

The moment of punctum, I would like to suggest, draws its force from its revelation of some other human experience.  Here lies my empiricism, in that one assumes that some experience of the world was acting sufficiently upon – had sufficient ‘reality’ for – past people to cause them to react in ways that leave a historical trace.  I propose, at the heart of this ‘moment’ lies an ethical demand, to listen to the other person (perhaps broadly assimilable with Levinas’ autrui).  This is, to be honest, only a restatement in different language of a standard historical methodological injunction.  It is, of course, a doubly – triply – multiply – impossible demand.  It is impossible really to listen to that voice (at all sorts of levels); it is impossible to recreate the reality that called it forth; and, with Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding, all ethical demands are impossible.

So how do we respond to the pointlessness to which that multiply-layered impossibility might seem to condemn historical endeavour.  Here, I draw yet again on Critchley’s oeuvre but this time his insights in On Humour.  Can we suggest a way in which laughing with (again) a shared human futility might be a more productive means of bearing the unbearable ethical weight of being a historian?   The value of being able to laugh at the endless futility of rolling Sisyphus’ rock up the hill is that it reminds us that, like Sisyphus’, the task of history is and never will be finished.

Again not coincidentally, there are affinities with the notion of the horizon in Derrida’s work, perhaps especially the open, Messianic horizon in Spectres de Marx.  This might be seen as operating in different dimensions.  It seems to me that the encounter with the past, in its singularity, should open up ethical reflection on justice, in its universal dimension, just as Derrida discusses in Spectres... But to paraphrase Derrida on Hegel, we will never be finished with reading and re-reading our historical sources.  The reflection on justice, though, surely comes via empathy and a notion of iterability, my modified humanism, which in turn enables some sort of political action in the present.  That, in turn, provides, for me, a different and more sophisticated ethico-political means of choosing between histories.

[There were two elements of the argument, of which space precluded discussion.  One was the extension of this point through writing history, in the ironic mode, see Barbarian Migrations, and also the Gaps Ghosts and Dice musings on this blog.  The other was the sense I have that in some ways Gregory of Tours'sense of history is not entirely dissimilar from certain aspects of this argument.]

I would like to propose that this might lead to a somewhat different form of historical discussion, which might move away from the obsession with paradigmatic, explanatory dominance and consensus.  Implicit I hope in all the above is an openness of dialogue.  With a move away from a striving for consensus comes a purer form of community, such as Jean-Luc Nancy has discussed in numerous writings.  What I am arguing for, alongside this sense of history as constant movement in the space of the present, is, in Nancy’s term, an unworked community (communauté désoeuvrée) – une histoire désoeuvrée, if you like – one which recognises and values disagreement (such as, ironically, current post-modern history gurus seem not to) while preserving grounds for critical engagement and response.

The last line of Sellar and Yeatman’s classic 1066 and All That is that, when America became Top Nation, “history came to a .”  The irony is that, although to a British reader that said “History came to a [full stop]”, to an American it said “History came to a [period]”.  We might also read it, with the French, as “History came to a [point].” But the only way that history can have any point, at any point, is to realise that there is no point to which history can ever come.