Rethinking History 7:3 (2003), pp. 413437
What is boring has become interesting, because what is interesting has become boring.1
1 Getting to the bar
When Alun Munslow invited me to write an autobiographical essay for Rethinking History, I most happily and gladly decided to accept the invitation. I felt much honoured by it; moreover, I regard Alun highly as founder and editor of this journal, admire him as a historical theorist and respect him as a friend. So, understandably, I had no hesitations. But now that the moment has come to sit down and write the essay, I am beginning to have my doubts about the wisdom of my decision. I mean, many if not most of the readers of this journal will not be familiar with my writings: so why should they be interested at all in an account of my intellectual biography (Domanska 1998) and in how I arrived at what I have written in the course of the past two decades?
When thinking of how to negotiate this awkward problem I opted for the following compromise. Suppose you participate at a conference and meet a colleague at the bar after one of the sessions. While sipping a glass of whisky you get to talk with each other about your work, your interests, what you wrote in the past and what more or less ambitious hopes you still cherish for the future. You will then try to convey to the other something of the nature of your interests, about why you think certain things to be more important than others and so on. In short, you will present your interlocutor with a catalogue of your prejudices, insofar as these prejudices have inspired most of what you have been doing over the years. Are not our prejudices the matrix within which all our plans, beliefs, certainties and ambitions originate? Are they not the truest mirror of our mind? So, this kind of discussion at the bar, familiar to all of us, will be my guide here; so, what I shall do is, essentially, to give you a list of my prejudices - though, unfortunately, this essay will have the character more of a monologue than of a real exchange. I apologize for this; but obviously there is no remedy.
Before embarking on this task, a few comments on the notion of prejudice are in order. Even though Gadamer has been remarkably successful in
undoing some of the damage, the notion has had a poor reputation since the Enlightenment.2 For is prejudice, if only we think of its etymology, not simply ill-considered opinion, the kind of misguided opinion we may have on an issue, if, out of intellectual laziness, conservatism or sheer stupidity, we did not spend on the issue in question the mental effort it demands? And, admittedly, this is certainly true of many of our prejudices, social, political -and, moreover, even in the field of scholarly research.
But not of all of our prejudices. For as we know since Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and his On Certainty, even in the most responsible and painstaking research you always and inevitably reach a point where you stop. I shall not consider here the question whether or not the decision to stop is consciously made; it will probably, in practice, often be a strange and paradoxical mixture of both. But whatever the case, we will reach, under such circumstances, the level of what Collingwood once described as our 'absolute presuppositions' and which he defined as follows: 'an absolute presupposition is one which stands, relatively to all questions to which it is related, as a presupposition, never as an answer'.3 Indeed, prejudices must be very similar to Collingwood's absolute presuppositions, insofar as prejudices share with absolute presuppositions the property of being points of departure for further thought and whose own truth or viability remains unquestioned. But there is a difference as well. For, in contrast to Collingwood's absolute presuppositions, prejudice determines endings no less than beginnings. For example, if our argument has led us to a certain conclusion, it may well happen that we nevertheless reject the conclusion (and hence the whole argument itself) because it is at odds with one or more of our prejudices.
This is where prejudice resembles Kuhn's paradigms, insofar as a paradigm may also prevent us from accepting a certain theory, even though it has its support in empirical fact. But here a difference emerges as well. For the interaction between prejudice and the surface of our beliefs is different from that between the paradigm and the scientific theory. We continuously rearrange and adapt our prejudices and are far more pragmatic about this than ever could be the case with paradigms because of the logic of the latter notion. The explanation is that the rearrangement of prejudices is guided by our wish to maintain or achieve a certain balance among these prejudices themselves, whereas such a wish would be a very strange one in the case of paradigms. You accept this paradigm or another, but looking for a 'balance' between them simply makes no sense.4 Perhaps one might consider the issue of a balance between the paradigms presently obtaining in physics, chemistry, biology and so on (the utopia for the advocate of a unified science, perhaps?). But even this untoward construction would be of little help. For such a balance would have its ultimate basis and support in what best agrees with the facts about the world - and this is the direction into which one would
have to look for such a balance. Whereas the balance of prejudices is determined only at the level of these prejudices themselves and not at that of what the world is like - and this requires us to look in the opposite direction.
But as such it is absolutely indispensable. For mental sanity is possible only if a certain amount of coherence of our prejudices is carefully maintained.5 Put differently, the relevant part of the mechanism of our mind has not just two layers - that of our rational beliefs and that of our prejudices - but three. For apart from these two, there is a still deeper third level of where we negotiate the most satisfactory balance of our prejudices. None of these three levels is decisive, but no account of the working of this aspect of our mind is satisfactory that fails to consider the rules determining this regime of our prejudices at this third level.
So, this may give an idea of what I intend to do when presenting to the reader, as candidly and as honestly as I can, the web of my prejudices.
3 What are we doing and what are we doing it for?
When trying to execute my enterprise, I think I had best start with the two questions mentioned in the title of this section. Hence, what is it like to write history and historical theory, and what is the use of these disciplines? Since the days of Thucydides, Cicero, Machiavelli and Nietzsche many eloquent and perceptive answers have been given to these questions. Nevertheless, these questions never quite ceased to be slightly embarrassing to historians: they have always been most painfully aware that you cannot build bridges or cure diseases with historical knowledge. So, what is the use of disciplines such as the writing of history and of historical theory - why should they be more than simply some atavistic excrescence of the dismal reign of the priest and the monk in the no-nonsense world of the beginning of the twenty-first century? And right now there is even more reason for embarrassment than ever before. For until some two to three decades ago, when the ideological battle still raged between West and East, when politics still mattered, when ambitious plans were still developed for achieving what one saw as the assignment of history, nobody could doubt the relevance of history. History gave us our collective fate - and who could be indifferent to this?
But this is quite different now. Recall the paradox of Saint Simon (not the diarist, but the utopian socialist) according to which it would make not the slightest difference to the well-being of France if the King and all the pairs of the Kingdom would be killed overnight, whereas chaos would immediately result if all the engineers and businessmen were to die. Now, think of what the sudden death of all the Thierrys, Michelets, Rankes, Droysens,
Treitschkes would have meant to nineteenth-century France and Germany -these nations would truly have felt politically and culturally decapitated. But what would happen if next year some virus emerged which, for some strange reason, attacked historians only but was fatal in all recorded cases? Surely, the newspapers would not fail to mention this on their front pages, one would deplore the loss of cultural capital and lament the personal tragedy of these historians and of their families. But nobody would regard the fate of the historical trade and of its practitioners as particularly serious, and society would quietly go on with its business as it had always done. A repetition of 11 September, though probably killing far less people, would unanimously be considered incomparably worse. Which leaves us with the question why history has become so much of an irrelevancy in our contemporary society.
There are many obvious answers to this question. For example, one might argue that the forces of globalization, the triumph of communication technology, of economic rationality and so on have effected an unparalleled break with the legacies of the past. As a result, the past's grasp on the present will become ever more tenuous to the point of actually disappearing, with the inevitable result that the past will, in the end, wholly lose its meaning for the present. So, this is how and why history came to be reduced to the lowly status of a colourful curiosity without any real significance for the present and the future.
But whatever variants of this apparently so plausible argument one might devise, they will all fail for the same reason. For far from reducing history to irrelevance, these new social and technological forces should be expected to do exactly the reverse and to extol history to the status of the most meaningful, or rather supremely 'meaning-giving', discipline. For observe that these forces create a distance between ourselves and what the world used to be like, and hence give birth to the past as a potential object of investigation. Without these forces there simply could be no past at all and, the stronger they are, the more history do we have. Only in the completely static society, a society without any social, technological and political change, would history cease to be of any relevance. But whatever claim one might wish to make about the contemporary world, one could impossibly maintain that it should be static. So, in fact, never have circumstances been more favourable to the historian than now. Moreover, the argument is squarely at odds with the facts about the history of historical consciousness. For the great periods in the history of our discipline have, indeed, been precisely those periods where history went faster than ever before. Think of how in the hands of historians such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini modern Western historical consciousness emerged and of how it was born from the awareness of a radical break with the medieval past. Or think of how the French revolutionaries actually attempted to abolish the past in the most literal sense of the
word. But the net effect of their effort was, instead, an unprecedented explosion of history, the birth of historicism and the coming into being of the intellectual matrix within which we still experience the past. So, as these two examples suggest, it is precisely the reverse: history loses its cultural relevance when the pace of history slows down, and its cultural role and value is greatly enhanced in periods in which the present emancipates itself from a now obsolete past.
But precisely considerations like these must make our problem all the more urgent: how is it possible that there is, on the one hand, more history than ever before in the sense that our society simply secretes history through all its pores thanks to its unparalleled changeableness, whereas, on the other hand, history as a discipline has almost completely marginalized itself?
When attempting to deal with this question, one conspicuous difference between the Machiavellis, the Guicciardinis, those great nineteenth-century German and French historians on the one hand, and their present descendants on the other, cannot fail to strike us. For the historians I mentioned above shared an acute sense of urgency; they were deeply aware of the challenges of the present, challenges provoked by the loss of the past and of all that used to be natural, obvious and self-evident. They were all convinced that the map they would draw of the labyrinthine course of history from the past to the present would show their contemporaries how to orient themselves in the present and that from the resonance of the past in their minds the future would be born. Like their contemporaries they felt displaced into a new, unknown, strange and often even hostile world - and history was to them the only instrument at their disposal to make sense of the threatening complexities of the present. They had internalized the great conflicts and tragedies of their time in their own mind, they had wrestled with them and had experienced them as if they were their own, most personal problems.
4 The discontents of contemporary culture
Now, this sense of urgency is wholly absent from the writings of contemporary historians. I would not know of any contemporary historian who still has the pretension to provide us with such a map for our collective future; the attempt to do so would be considered a ridiculous overestimation of the historian's cultural assignment and, even worse, as an abnegation of the historian's duties towards the cause of objectivity and of scientific truth. Contemporary historians no longer recognize that relevance and truth (as they understand it) cannot live in the presence of the other. They have thus allowed to come into being a deep and gaping abyss between the present and a past about which they most eagerly and assiduously collect a mass of data
all having in common that they have little or no bearing on the most urgent question of how we came to where we currently are. The present is an incomprehensible miracle against the background of what historians have said up until now about its antecedents, a little like the Goddess Athena spontaneously arising from the head of Zeus.6 In this way, their whole effort seems to aim not at the overcoming of the immense distance between past and present but rather at collaborating with all those forces increasing it as much as possible. No contemporary historian experiences any longer any urgency about this paramountly 'urgent' problem of how our past and our boisterous and so dangerously improvident present are related. The contrast with the historians I mentioned above, or for that matter, the Bodins, the Hobbess, the Kants, the Hegels and the Marxs of the past, could not be greater. Perhaps the last historian to recognize this reponsibility of the historian towards the present and the future has been Foucault - which might make us forgive him his sometimes outrageous blunders.
The obvious question is: How could this happen? Since this is an autobiographical essay I may be forgiven when recounting at this stage of my argument a recent experience of mine. A few months ago I spoke at a conference in Berlin dealing with the theme of 'Aesthetics and politics'. My own paper was, essentially, a plea for the rehabilitation of the notion of (aesthetic) unity in politics: in it I expressed my worries about the fragmentation of the contemporary political domain and argued that nowadays we can no longer distinguish between the important and the unimportant and that we will remain unable to bring any order to our list of (political) priorities as long as we have no conception of this unity. For only against the background of such a unity can we compare and order our social and political desiderata. We have all heard about the death of politics, about the incapacity of politics to address the big issues of the present and of our collective future, and my argument was that we can only breathe new life into politics again if we abandon our distrust of the notion of (aesthetic) unity. Now, this surely is a big theme for a paper and I shall be the first to recognize its many weaknesses, so I was prepared for the flak I anticipated from the audience. However, much to my bewilderment and even disgust, I discovered that nobody really cared about the main aim of my paper and that discussion of it immediately turned into a debate of the more abstruse aspects of Derridian deconstruction. I must confess that I could not quite hide my irritation and anger about what I could only see as a sad abortion of a, for me, absolutely crucial and most 'urgent' issue.
For me the experience was paradigmatic of much of what I resent in contemporary culture. To put it into one sentence, it is this lack of a sense of urgency that I so deeply deplore in contemporary culture and that manifests itself primarily in our habit to move almost automatically from a discussion
of problem x to what has been written on problem x, or, worse still, to the problem of the writing about the problem x, or, even worse, to the problem of what others have written about the problem of writing about the problem x. This is what I find so absolutely suffocating about contemporary culture: it has become utterly incapable of any authentic and immediate contact with the world, it finds its centre of gravity exclusively in itself, and no longer in the realities that it should consider, it feels no other urge than to exclusively contemplate its own navel and to act on the narcissistic belief that one's navel is the centre of the world. It is as if a cabinet-maker would think that the secret of his craft lies in lofty speculations about the metaphysical status of his instruments, his hammer, his saw and his chisels. Now, if this has become the state of affairs in our discipline, who would not feel asphyxiated, who would not feel a desperate urge to throw open the windows of this narrow and stuffy room we are living in and to breathe the fresh air of the outside world itself?
Undoubtedly many readers will now exclaim that this is an odd kind of lamentation for a historical theorist. For is not the Wittgensteinian preoccupation with the instruments we use for understanding the world instead of with the world itself, precisely what we have theory for? Is theory not necessarily and essentially a second-order activity? In order to deal with this I would like to turn to a marvellous passage in Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus. As the reader will recall, Mann offers his readers the biography of the fictitious Adrian Leverkьhn, living from 1885 to 1940 and arguably the greatest composer of his time (in all likelihood Mann had Schцnberg in mind when he wrote the novel). The book's title is meant to suggest that Leverkьhn could only achieve artistic genius after having signed, like Faust, a contract with the devil: for such was the state of music at the time that now new and revolutionary discoveries could be made in music only with the help of the devil. Music has moved outside the reach of ordinary human beings; it had made its pact with the devil, its fate was to become inhuman, in a way. It is here that the book is partly intended to be a parable of Germany's fate in the first half of the previous century. In what is probably the most interesting passage in the book, Leverkьhn's Mephistopheles7 comments on the desperate stage in which music and literature (for the book is also partly Mann's autobiography) find themselves now that all that is naпve, natural and self-evident has been tried - and found wanting. Listen to Mephistopheles' bleak account about music in the age of Arnold Schцnberg - for doing so truly is as if one is looking into a mirror: what has been produced and still deserves to be taken seriously bears the traces of its painful birth and of outright aversion. . . . Composing itself has become an arduous task, desperately arduous even. If the act of creation has become
incompatible with authenticity, how can one work? But this is how it is, my friend, the master-piece, the work of art having its center in itself, belongs to traditional art; modern, emancipated art rejects it. ... Each superior composer has firmly in his mind the canon of what is forbidden, of what has been, and must be overcome, and this comprises all the means of tonality, hence all of traditional music. What has become inappropriate, a mere spent clichй, is determined by the canon. . . . Technique has become all-decisive, this is the only challenge the composer has to meet, and technique has become the only source of creative truth. Composing has been reduced to the status of merely being the solution of technical problems. Art has become critique - a most honorable occupation, who would deny this! So there is much disobedience in the strictest obedience; courage and a proud independence are part of this. But the threat of the uncreative, - what do you think? Is that still merely a threat, or has it become the bleak truth about art and music? . . . The dialectics of the history of music has killed the autonomous work of art. It has shrunk in time, it scorns temporal extension that is so much essential to the musical work of art, and thus empties it of meaning. Not out of impotence, not because of an incapacity of artistic composition. But because of the inexorable demand of density and compactness, a demand despising all that is superfluous, which ignores all rhetoric, destroys ornament, and which eliminates temporal extension, the life-form of all becoming. The work of art, time and appearance, are all abandoned to the critique.8
I apologize for this excessively long quote, but is this not an uncannily correct picture of our contemporay predicament? Is this not an apt summary of the glories, and especially of the miseries, of contemporary 'theory'? In short, is this not ... us? Is it not true of contemporary theory that it bears the marks of its difficult and painful birth - and that it came into being without pleasure, without joy, without hope for the future, without the triumph of having opened up new vistas? Does it not bear all over its surface the indelible marks of its own helplessness and ultimate futility? Does it not seem as if we have now completely exhausted the treasure-house of cultural meaning we have inherited from Antiquity, from the Christian Middle Ages and the Enlightenment? Has not all authenticity gone from the fruits of our effort - and is not this precisely the price we have to pay for our unparalleled sophistication, for our continuous awareness of the presence of our intellectual ancestors, of the canon? The canon that we feel continuously compelled to escape from, that we must overcome and transcend, is precisely because of this so overwhelmingly present that even the most revolutionary effort invariably becomes one more sacrifice to the Gods of the reaction. 'There is much disobedience in the strictest obedience', indeed!, we obey when seeming, or hoping and trying to disobey, we are caught in the magic circle of our illustrious ancestors, and the more we try to break loose from them, the more we ultimately prove to be their docile predial slaves. Who has succeeded in saying anything really new and interesting in our field since, let us say, Habermas, Foucault, Pocock,
Rorty or White; who still writes a large, coherent and ambitious oeuvre, inspired by a compelling master idea, in the way these authors still succeeded in doing? We are a generation of epigones condemned to repeat and to vary the work of our great predecessors, not because we do not work hard enough, not because we are less intelligent and less daring than them - perhaps we even work too hard and have become too intelligent - no, it is simply because for some perverse reason truly original work has become impossible. One desperately tries to discover some still untrodden path - only to find that somebody has been there already before us. Perhaps there are just too many of us, so that we all push each other out of business. So, perhaps, the bug killing historians only would not be such a bad idea, after all.
At this stage no present theorist9 is of more interest than Derrida. What reader of his immense oeuvre will not be deeply impressed by the profundity of his insights, by his truly perplexing erudition, by his capacity to give a decisive twist to all previous discussions of the many authors he deals with? Indeed, after Derrida has read the work of an author, a poet or a philosopher, nothing remains to be said any more. We are then literally left speechless, without words. Derrida truly brings us to a farthest point beyond which we cannot go. This is where his work is truly revolutionary and why he rightly earned his name in the history of philosophy.
In a brilliant essay on Derrida, Richard Rorty argued that we should see Derrida 'as the latest development in the non-Kantian, dialectical tradition -the latest attempt of the dialecticians to shatter the Kantians' ingenuous image of themselves as accurately representing how things really are' (Rorty 1982: 93). Although I agree with the statement as it stands, I would wish to add that it perhaps does not yet go far enough. I mean, in Rorty's picture Derrida is still just one more phase in the 2000-year history of philosophical thought; within this picture he may be seen as inviting a new and still more sophisticated variant of 'Kantian' philosophy that we may expect for the future, suggesting in this way a position 'beyond Derrida'. But I believe Derrida to be more revolutionary than this, that his position is not a mere phase in that history, that, in this way, there is no 'beyond Derrida', and that no new variant of 'Kantianism' can be born from his stance. Here everything truly comes to a grinding halt. So his true achievement is to continuously get philosophy in an impasse, into a position where it becomes irreparably stuck and can no longer move on to a new phase. The whole dialectical impetus of the history of philosophy is then inadequate for moving beyond the impasse - and having found out about how to win this victory over the history of philosophy has been Derrida's immense and unprecedented achievement and why he has done something that was never done before. And that could also never be done again. In this way Derrida is like the French revolutionaries of 1789: the only real revolution is the first, the 'naпve' revolution, i.e. the French Revolution;
all later revolutions could be mere imitations of this revolution and therefore no longer a revolution in the true sense of the word (recall Trotsky always asking himself what 'chapter' of the French Revolution he now was in with his own, Russian Revolution). So, people imitating Derrida (including Derrida himself insofar as he continuously imitates himself) have, in my view, not understood what Derrida's philosophy is all about. You cannot transform a revolution into a tradition and a tradition is never revolutionary.
This is where Derrida is the Adrian Leverkьhn of contemporary culture, and where the impasse of Leverkьhn, of Schцnberg and of modern music, so strikingly resembles the impasse of Derridian deconstruction. In both cases, in that of Leverkьhn and of Derrida, the whole weight of the tradition unleashes, on the one hand, a tremendous force, a force just as irresistible as the inertia of a huge satellite circling the Earth, whereas, on the other, the satellite is also subject to an equally strong gravitational pull from which no escape is possible. And, in both of these cases, these two tremendous forces seem to cancel each other out, and the result is statis, a fixed orbit, an invincible impasse. We must continue, though we know that the journey leads nowhere - or, rather, to the confirmation over and over again that it leads nowhere, and that we got stuck forever in the same cultural orbit. 'What is boring has become interesting, because what is interesting has become boring',10 as Mephistopheles most acutely and perceptively comments on the melancholic predicament of modern music. We became bored by what was done in traditional music, of philosophy, and precisely this made boredom (i.e. the impasse of the Leverkьhns, the Schцnbergs and the Derridas) so supremely interesting to us. To which I should add that from the philosopher's perspective no human mood is so interesting as boredom, since in boredom and ennui the world may show itself to us in its naked, quasi-noumenal quality.11 This is where boredom and trauma come quite close to each other - though from entirely different directions and where both have the sublime as their shared basis. I shall return to this issue of trauma and boredom below.
5 History, aesthetics and politics
I must now recall to mind what was said above about prejudice, namely that prejudice may make us reject an argument even though nothing seems to be wrong with the argument. And, indeed, this is what is at stake here. As I said in the previous section, I can well understand why some hidden but inexorable dialectical logic of Western culture since the Enlightenment has made us end up with the Leverkьhns, the Schцnbergs and the Derridas of the present - but from whatever angle I look at it, this is a position giving me neither pleasure nor satisfaction. Let me put it in the following, admittedly
rather simplistic, way. Why do we read at all the books written by our eminent colleagues, why do we listen to music and why do we visit picture galleries? For me this is in order to get a message that is 'new' to me and that might somehow change my intellectual constitution (for the better, as I would hope). For only such corrective changes can give me the conviction to be in touch with the world in some way or other. But the endlessly repeated message of the Leverkьhns and the Derridas is that 'newness' is an illusion; and the truly unprecedented intellectual effort of the whole of our culture has shrunk into making this point over and over again (as Mann put it so eloquently in the passage I quoted in the previous section). The message always is that we are caught up in some ultimate catch-22 that history has prepared for us and that we will be out of touch with things forever. But if this is the case, why should we listen to modern music any more, why should we read philosophy, literature, why should we be interested in the fruits of modern culture if all that we can expect from the (strenuous) effort of digesting them is having this bleak message repeated to us again and again? What could we possibly gain from this over-laborious nihilist masquerade? I cannot help feeling that somehow, something must have gone terribly wrong. Now, when trusting my prejudices (one's ultimate guide, as I would venture to say) and when asking myself how to avoid the impasses of contemporary culture, how to make history and historical theory interesting and relevant again, I have always had the highest hopes of politics and of aesthetics. The explanation is that history, politics and aesthetics have one shared root - and this is the notion of representation. This is also why the notion of representation has been central in my writings over the past twenty years - together with that of experience it does all the work. The function of the notion of representation in aesthetics will need little clarification - for is not aesthetics the domain of artistic representation? But it has always been my wish to free aesthetics and representation from an exclusive association with the arts and to suggest that new light may be shed on many domains of the condition humaine with the help of aesthetics and representation. That is to say, my effort is emphatically not an aestheticization of these other domains (such as history and politics) but to make us aware that the intellectual operation of representation is omnipresent in our lives and that much of our lives will therefore remain a mystery to us, if we do not ask ourselves how to make sense of it in terms of representation. For one thing, in this way representation is for me an indispensable complement to epistemology. Epistemology asks the question of how language hooks on to the world; and we know how successful epistemology has been in answering this question for well-defined uses of language such as the singular statement or the scientific theory. But epistemology is utterly helpless if confronted with the types of complex text we may find in novels, in historical writing, in articles in the newspapers, in
the kinds of stories that we tell each other daily. And then we must appeal to representation. The statement is epistemological, the text is representational; and whoever tries to understand the text with the means of epistemology is condemned to impotence.
That history offers us 'representations of the past' will meet with little opposition (I shall return to this issue in the next section). With regard to politics, one might argue, first, that our contemporary political systems most often are representative democracies and, in the second place, with Machiavelli, that all politics is representational since politics always requires us to see the world (including ourselves) through the eyes of others and, hence, in terms of the representations they have of it. The political domain is a system of mirrors where the representation by one mirror is represented to the next one, and so on ad infinitum. But most decisive is the argument that each political decision, and each political action, presupposes an assessment of the relevant part of the social and political domain, and that these assessments obey the same (representationalist) logic as in the writing of history. Hence, history and politics share the same logic since both belong to the realm of representation. Politics is history in actu; and history is at the basis of all meaningful politics. No history without politics, and vice versa; I am convinced that little would be left of history if all of its potentially political meanings were taken out of it.12
I should add, at this stage, that the nature of (aesthetic) representation as we may find it in the writing of history and in the practice of politics has until now, in my opinion, been insufficiently investigated. What is at stake here is basically this. Most of the contemporary philosophy of language tends to focus on problems occasioned by description - this is where most epistemological discussions on truth, reference and meaning have their origin. One may add that even philosophy of science, for all its unequalled sophistication, is a derivative of the problem of description. Now, the crucial datum here is that description and representation are different things and that each effort to model the one on the other is doomed to failure. The difference is that in the case of description one can always distinguish between reference (subject-term) and predication (predicate-term), whereas in the case of representation no such distinction is possible. Think of a portrait - self-evidently the representation par excellence. Here one cannot tell apart those parts of the painting that refer exclusively from those that have an exclusively predicative function. The same is true of historical representation. Take, for example, a historical representation of the phenomenon known as Enlightened Despotism. You
cannot pinpoint certain parts, or aspects of such a text, that refer exclusively to Enlightened Despotism, whereas other parts or aspects attribute certain properties exclusively to the text's alleged object of reference. The distinction between reference and predication is here just as useless and inapplicable a notion as in the case of the portrait. As a consequence, there is always a looseness and indeterminacy in the relationship between language and the world not having its counterpart in the case of description. To put it metaphorically, in description reference (subject-term) and meaning (predicate-term) function as two screws tying language firmly to the world; whereas such reliable screws are lacking in representation. This indeterminacy is not some regrettable feature of (historical) representation that has to be overcome in some way or other (for example, by changing history into a science). On the contrary, all that is of interest in (historical) representation and all progress in representation (and progress there is in historical representation - who could possibly doubt this!) is only possible thanks to this indeterminacy. Similarly, this indeterminacy and the absence of such 'screws' tying language to the world do not in the least justify the inference that there should be no criteria for representational adequacy; and on several occasions I have tried to define the nature of these criteria.13
Next, with regard to politics, if representation is the notion I would propose for linking history and politics, the implication is that I would tend to relate politics to the question of how politics can or should implement the desires of the electorate rather than to questions of political morality, of distributive justice, of the moral obligations of the citizen towards his fellow citizens or of the political ideologies arising from such moral considerations. So, within the representationalist matrix the emphasis is above all on the interaction between the citizen (the represented) and the state (representation) and not on moral demands outside this interaction. It suggests therefore a kind of political theory that is mainly practical and attempting to deal with issues of political expediency and of how making governance more responsive to the electorate's wishes, and, more specifically, the issue of what is the matrix within which responsive government should be defined. With regard to the latter question, the beginning of all wisdom is that there is always a difference between a represented and its representation. A portrait is not identical to its sitter. And, as Edmund Burke already pointed out in the letter he wrote in 1774 to his voters in Bristol (Burke 1866: 95, 96), the implication is that the state (or Parliament, or the politician) should always possess a certain autonomy with regard to the electorate or the citizen. If one dislikes this conclusion, one should abandon one's confidence in representative democracy. Several conclusions follow from this. In the first place, that all legitimate political power has its origin in this tension between, or in this not being identical to, the represented (the electorate) and its representation (the
state). So, in the first place, legitimate political power is an essentially aesthetic phenomenon and, in the second place, legitimate political power originates in the distance between, or difference of, the represented and its representation. So this means the rejection of both theories of popular sovereignty, where the represented electorate is the source of all legitimate political power and of all variants of despotism locating this source in the divine right of kings, in hereditary monarchy or in ideological revelations (Ankersmit 2002: ch. 4).
Next, since the interaction between the electorate and the state is the heart of representative democracy, the health of a representative democracy is in danger as soon as parts of the political machinery outside this interaction begin to dominate the process of political decision-making. This is not the place for a lengthy and detailed diagnosis of our contemporary democracies, so suffice it to refer here to the phenomenon that has come to be known as 'the displacement of politics', i.e. the fact that the political centre is no longer the place where the political decisions are taken that will determine our collective future. Politics has moved from the centre to the periphery, to Brussels (in the case of EU), to places of contact between the state, the market and civil society (so-called 'co-management') and, above all, to departmental bureaucracies. Two reactions are possible. One can acquiesce in this phenomenon and see it as a perhaps regrettable but inevitable adaptation of democracy to the challenges of the information age - or perhaps even applaud it as giving us a new, higher and more efficient variant of democracy. But one can also see it as a most serious threat to what democracy is and should be, and as a denial of the citizen's right and obligation to decide about his own future. Needless to say, I would opt for the latter, more pessimistic view.
Thus, my main problem, as a political theorist, is how to undo the obfuscation of the people's will because of this displacement of politics. One had best deal with this problem, I believe, by substantially enlarging the scope of the activities of the people's representatives - especially by involving them in the departmental preparation of public decision-making. For departmental bureaucracies are the worst contaminators of the interaction between the public and the state; they effect a corruption of representative democracy in the truest sense of the word unequalled anywhere else in the political domain, and one can only be amazed that nobody cares about this. The constitutional barrier between the executive and legislative powers used to be a guarantee of decent democratic government - but under the circumstances obtaining now it may actually kill it by keeping government bureaucracy outside the reach of Parliament. In sum, we must realize ourselves that a dramatic discrepancy has come into being between the official constitutional faзade of our representative democracies and what are the realities of the exercise of
political power. For a convinced democrat (such as I am), it is insane to acquiesce in this absurd situation any longer.
Admittedly, these are all fairly practical questions. But I think that in political theory there is an inverse relationship between abstraction and practical utility, and I wholly agree with Tocqueville's obiter dictum that in politics 'nothing is more improductive to the human mind than an abstract idea' (Tocqueville 1946: 243). But there is no rule without its exception. If we now have to worry about this displacement of politics and how it may pervert representative democracy, this is because of the fragmentation of the political domain and because there is no longer a centre, or a superior point of view from which these fragments can still be organized, either by political decision or even by merely intellectual effort. A necessary first step for regaining control of these fragments is to rehabilitate the notion of (aesthetic) unity that was so much discredited by totalitarianism and by too ambitious ideological systems. For without the notions of unity and/or totality, democracy and creative politics are no longer possible; though we should avoid thinking of unity and totality as something that is given to us. This is the kind of unity that inspired totalitarian systems. Instead, we should recognize that each intuition of unity and totality can only be the result of painstaking research into the facts of social and political life, that such unities as we wish to discern can always be questioned, that they are necessarily provisional and that they can always be improved upon. In short, we must think here of how the historian may give us an understanding of the past by discerning a unity in the manifold of historical phenomena. This is the kind of unity that is politically is not only innocuous, but is even the condition of all responsible decision-making in a decent democracy.14
There is one more issue I would like to discuss. This is the issue of experience - which will be the topic of a book to be published by Stanford University Press in 2004. I hit on the issue of experience after having argued,15 along the lines suggested above, that coherence and unity are the historian's main instruments for making sense of the past. This view was problematized by the so-called 'micro-stories' that were written some twenty years ago by people such as Ginzburg, Le Roy Ladurie, Zemon-Davis or Medick (but that seem to have since then lost much of their popularity). For these micro-stories always focused on one tiny detail and were wholly unconcerned about unity and coherence. This may explain my fascination for the micro-stories at the time: they seemed to be at odds with all that I had been saying about the nature and purpose of historical writing.
Next, the micro-stories exemplified what one might associate with postmodernist historical writing since they so very clearly were the historio-graphical counterpart of the fragmentation thesis proposed by Lyotard in his La Condition Postmoderne of 1978. However, since I found the diagnosis that the micro-stories give us postmodernist historical writing a little meagre, I wanted a more satisfactory account - an account that would relate them in a meaningful way to traditional historical writing. The result was the idea that whereas traditional historical writing exemplified the triumph of language over the world (since unity is a property of the historian's language and not of the world), the micro-stories gave us an experience of the past (in which language makes itself subservient to how the world presents itself to us). For what these micro-stories seemed to do was to break down momentarily the barriers between the past and the present and to make us feel what it must have been like to live in thirteenth-century Montaillou or in the Friuli at the end of the sixteenth century. In this way the micro-stories could be said to give us an 'experience' of the past.
Although I now feel that I may have been too generous in my interpretation of the micro-stories, that the intellectual import of the micro-stories is negligible and that the fashion was little more than a temporary eccentricity, I retained from it a fascination for the issue of experience versus language, and, more specifically, for how the issue would present itself in the writing of history. An answer immediately suggesting itself may be found in the cognate notions of trauma and of the sublime. For in both cases we have to do with an experience of the world that will not fit into the epistemological and psychological categories we have for making sense of the world. This endows the sublime and the traumatic experience with its unparalleled authenticity; for here do we experience the world 'as it is' and not as adapted to the categories normally guiding our understanding of the world. This may explain why I expected to find in trauma and in the sublime a link with what had interested me so much in the micro-stories.
The problem was, next, how to relate trauma and the sublime to historical writing. At this stage it may pay to consider a hypothesis suggested by Koselleck in a recent book. The hypothesis is 'that the profoundest insights in the past are to be expected from the vanquished party' (Koselleck 2000: 68). The idea is, roughly, that the representatives of a social and political elite that is about to be superseded by a new one are in the best position to know and to grasp what we stand to lose by our entry into a new world. They used to rule the world as a matter of course - and were believed to possess the knowledge required for doing so - and now they are forced to recognize that this knowledge and understanding is of no use any more. So when they give an account of the world that they have lost with the emergence of a new social and political dispensation, they are in the best
position to measure the distance between past and present. As Koselleck puts it: it is different with the vanquished. Their primary experience is, above all, that it all went different from how things had been planned and expected to go. Hence, if they demand an explanation, it must be all the more difficult and problematic to them to achieve a satisfactory understanding of why things turned out so dramatically different from what they had hoped for. And this will stimulate in them a search for long-term explanations, that will transcend the whims of pure coincidence.16
The elites vanquished by the inexorable course of history will be most open to and most fascinated by historical fate as manifesting itself in the guise of long-term developments. This is to such an extent that one may well surmise that the very notion of long-term development is itself the indelible sign of the historical consciousness of a superseded elite. To put it provocatively, the best historian naturally is the conservative historian - which does not mean, of course, that all conservatives should be good historians. Far from it. Moreover, it goes without saying that Koselleck's thesis exclusively applies to the 'interesting historians' and in whose writings the drama of history truly resonates, and not to the practitioners of a more modestly antiquarian approach to the past (which is, for that matter, by no means a belittling of the latter's work). One may think here of a Thucydides, a Tacitus or Clarendon. And, especially, as Koselleck points out himself, of Tocqueville (Koselleck 2000: 75ff.). For the aristocrat Tocqueville the new, post-revolutionary democratic order was something of a sublime reality17 that he rejected spontaneously but nevertheless was willing to accept because he understood better than any of his contemporaries that it was, for better or for worse, our ineluctable future. Indeed, no bourgeois could ever have been capable of the supreme historical insight as expressed in Tocqueville's historical and political writings. But the historian who fits the bill best is undoubtedly Jakob Burckhardt - as I hope to demonstrate in my forthcoming book on historical experience.
In sum, if we wish to study trauma and the sublime in history we should focus on periods in the history of the West of cataclysmic change and in which the awareness of the loss of the past has taken on the characteristics of the sublime. Two comments are relevant here. In the first place, trauma (and the sublime) are seen here in a context that is quite different from the one we will find in Dominick LaCapra's recent work on trauma (LaCapra 1998). For LaCapra, the subject of trauma are still individual people, though these people may experience trauma collectively, as was the case in the Holocaust. In my approach, however, Western civilization is the subject of trauma; my question is how Western civilization, as such, dealt with its greatest crises.
We may think here of the dissolution of the medieval order as recorded in the writings of Machiavelli and Guicciardini (Ankersmit 1998) or of the tragedy of the French Revolution and its aftermath (Ankersmit 2001b). And there is no evidence, as yet, that the Holocaust has been such a traumatic experience in this sense - perhaps because the perpetrators of this unprecedented crime were vanquished in the Second World War and because their actions did not and could not become part of our collective future. This is where the Holocaust differs most conspicuously from the Renaissance's rupture with the medieval past or from what Eric Hobsbawm has so famously dubbed 'the Dual Revolution'. For the drama of these crises was the fact that the traumatic event could not be discarded, could not be neutralized by refusing it to become part of the traumatized subject's present and future identity (in the way that our present civilization could not possibly conceive of the Holocaust as a part of our postwar identity). What Hitler and his henchmen left to posterity is something only to be avoided and that could under no circumstances be a legitimate part of our future. Put provocatively, it would be a moral infamy if the Holocaust would have unleashed a historical trauma, as I understand this notion. For this would prove that we would have accepted Hitler's legacy somehow.
In the second place, the approach proposed here places us squarely in the field of the history of historical writing. For it will need no clarification that traumatic experiences such as these must belong to the most powerful and decisive determinants of historical writing. Indeed, the Renaissance's trauma occasioned by the awareness that our collective fate is in our own hands (and not in those of God) and that we therefore must assume full responsibilty for the disasters of history gave us, with Machiavelli and Guicciardini, an entirely new kind of historical consciousness and a new variant of historical writing. And, as everybody knows, the collective trauma of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic Wars gave us historicism - hence the historiographical paradigm within which we are still writing history.18
Finally, in the foregoing I closely related trauma and the sublime - and one might well say that trauma is the psychological counterpart of the sublime, whereas the sublime is the epistemological counterpart of trauma. It follows that the issue of historical trauma will also have its spin-off for epistemology. Let me add a few comments to this. Although many definitions of the sublime have been given, the common denominator in all these definitions is that the sublime gives us an experience of the world prior to, or transcending, the kind of experience that is investigated by epistemology (i.e. the philosophical subdiscipline investigating how language and reality are hooked on to each other). Here we experience the world unmediated by our cognitive apparatus and, hence, in its quasi-noumenal nakedness. The sublime experience is thus the most authentic experience of the world that we can think of - and it is a
strange and daunting reflection that the world reveals the truth about itself only under the dark and threatening sky of trauma and the terrible.
Now, since dealing with the sublime and collective trauma (again, not in the sense meant by LaCapra, but as understood here) has been so decisive for the formation of our discipline, one cannot doubt that our discipline is a most appropriate background for raising the question of the sublime and of how the sublime may complicate contemporary discussions of the way language relates to the world. Let me put it as follows. Historical writing gives us representations of the past and where I use the term 'representation' in the sense as defined above. Now, many, if not most, historical representations clearly lack the stamp of the sublime: what could possibly be sublime about a history of Greek pottery in the fourth century BC? So, under what circumstances can representation make us enter the domain of the sublime? As will be clear from the foregoing, experience makes all the difference. Without experience, no sublimity. But, similarly, most experience has nothing to do with the sublime. Thus, the question is this: When is (historical) representation the representation of sublime experience?
In a future book I shall deal with this question at length, and I expect that an answer may be found in that most subtle of all ontologies devised in the history of Western philosophy: Leibniz's monadology. This may surprise at first sight since in Leibniz's system experience has no role of any significance to play, let alone that there should be room in it for so dramatic a thing as sublime experience. No historian writing the history of the notion of experience will feel compelled to pay much attention to what Leibniz said on experience; and one need only think of the Nouveaux essais, in which Leibniz comments on Locke's empirism, to recognize why. But a quite different story may also be told about Leibniz. For one might also argue that a monad's or a substance's perceptions are, in fact, its experiences. But this is only the beginning. For observe that almost all theories of experience distinguish between experience and a subject of experience. Yet in Leibniz's theory monads consist of their perceptions (or experiences) only; or, to put it differently, in his monadology there are no subjects having experiences, subjects simply are their experiences and nothing beyond this. So, in fact, there is nothing outside experience in Leibniz's monadology. Put differently, Leibniz gives us experience without a subject of experience - and this is what we need from the perspective of the sublime, since the weight of a subject of experience preceding experience will inevitably destroy the sublime by forcing it willy-nilly in the history of the subject and by 'domesticating' it as a mere part of this history.
For the historical theorist this is of interest for two reasons. The relationship obtaining between a monad or substance and its perceptions or experience is exactly the same as that between a historical representation and the
statements from which it is consructed. This is why Leibniz's intensional logic is the kind of logic we need for understanding historical writing.19 But in the second place, Leibniz's monadology is mainly an attempt to explain how our conception of the phenomenal world and how our notions of the things it contains arise out of the manifold of the monad's perceptions (or experiences). This is, obviously, exactly the same traject that is at stake in the case of the sublime, insofar as the sublime is also an experience without a subject of experience and an experience preceding our experience of phenomenal reality. Even this is not yet all. Recall that science investigates phenomenal reality and we will then see that Leibniz's monadology reduces us to a stage preceding science, or, more specifically, to a stage preceding the divergence of science and history. As was already emphasized some eighty years ago by Dietrich Mahnke (Mahnke 1925), the implication is that Leibniz's monadology is the ontology that is ideally suited to explaining the logical differences between science and history or the humanities. In addition, though we have been wrestling with this issue for little less than two centuries, we still have no satisfactory answer to this absolutely crucial question. So this is what I hope to devote all my energy to in the future.
8 Finally: historical theory
I wish to end my story with a few comments about the present state of our discipline, i.e. of historical theory. It cannot be doubted that the discipline has a long though chequered history that is most intricately related to the history of historical writing itself. It achieved its greatest successes in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the hands of the neo-Kantians of the end of the nineteenth century it even became the major preoccupation of all the leading philosophers and intellectuals of the period. At that time the discipline reached the pinnacle of its glory after which an inevitable decline set in. However, a sudden and unexpected upswing took place in the third quarter of the twentieth century, for, whatever one may think of the 'covering law model' debate, it temporarily assigned to the writing of history a most prominent place on the philosopher's agenda. But historical theory soon withdrew again from the main scene of the philosopher's preoccupations because of the renaissance of hermeneutic theories as we may find in the work of theorists such as Dray, Von Wright, Rex Martin, Ricoeur or Carr - whose profundity and intellectual richness I do not doubt for a moment, I hasten to add. The advantage was that historical theory now became a more or less independent discipline; but the price to be paid was that most philosophers soon lost interest in it and that it was no longer involved in the most important debates taking place in the world of contemporary philosophy.
Worse still, since then the discipline has commanded little respect (to put it mildly) among philosophers. Arthur Danto once told me that, in his experience, contemporary philosophers tend to look at historical theory in the same way that musicologists tend to look at military music; hence as a noisy and somewhat silly pastime for less talented amateurs and whose company you should avoid if you wish to be taken seriously by your colleagues.
A new phase began with Hayden White's uniquely influential Metahistory (and with Ricoeur's learned and impressive trilogy Time and Narrative); and one may well say that White's work was a kind of Eiffel Tower in the discipline by being just as dominating as this amazing structure. Even more so, one may well wonder what would have been left of the discipline without his intervention; in all likelihood the discipline would have quietly dissolved some two decades ago and nobody would have regretted its disappearance - or even noticed it at all. Indeed, in the wake of his writings much important work has and still is being done. On the face of it, the discipline is in good shape. It finds a most powerful support in four excellent journals: Rethinking History, History and Theory, Clio and History and Memory. Next, a new kind of historiography came into being thanks to White's introduction of literary theory in the field of historical theory. Last but not least, there is a steady output of books and articles on historical theory, and this production is conspicuous for its erudition, originality, scope, and for the profundity of its scholarship.
Nevertheless, not all is well in the world of historical theory. Partly, the discipline suffers from the kind of cultural lassitude I referred to above when commenting on Mann's Doktor Faustus. Our discipline also knows this melancholic cult of the boring and this lack of a sense of any urgency about what one is doing; as is the case everywhere else historical theorists also prefer to address each other instead of new and real problems. And, in our discipline this has led, again as elsewhere, to this absurd modern cult of the conference and to the wholly idle expectation that huddling together somewhere in order to discuss an issue could ever help to shed some new light on it. Whereas, I suppose, everybody knows in the depth of his or her own heart that in disciplines such as our all that really counts happens in the seclusion of our studies. Conferences serve their purpose in the sciences, but in our disciplines they are a waste of time and money. If I may speak for myself, I have never learned a single thing from a conference; though I readily concede that it is nice to meet one's colleagues now and again.
But this is not all, I am afraid. There is, in the first place, the regrettable fact that an open-minded discussion in which argument is decisive has proven to be impossible in our discipline since the days of the 'covering law model' debate. Everybody speaks only for his or her own rank and file; and in the rare cases where different approaches really confront each other, debate never gets beyond the stage of a wholly predictible reiteration of one's own
theoretical presuppositions. Because of this, discussion in our discipline is dead before it is even born. Furthermore, as was to be expected, this absence of debate has also invited a penchant for idle speculation and irresponsible argument that one will not often encounter in other fields of philosophical research. There is no longer an effective mechanism to correct patent absurdities. This is what I personally find the most depressing feature of our discipline and the most difficult to live with.20
However, the major shortcoming of historical theory since the Second World War is, in my view, that the writing of history was always approached from the perspective of some cognate discipline. Thus the 'covering law model' debate was provoked by the question of how to fit historical writing into the kinds of explanatory structure we find in the sciences; hermeneutics drew its inspiration from neo-Kantian, or existentialist (Heideggerian) anthropology and, at a third stage, most narrativists (though not all - L. O. Mink21 being a most notable exception) discovered in literary theory their intellectual arsenal. I would be the last to say that anything is wrong with this, but it cannot be doubted that this seriously handicapped historical theorists in their effort to make sense of the writing of history. More specifically, it may explain why there has been no real progress in our discipline since White. For let us be quite honest and candid about this: we are still doing essentially the same things that White had already put on the agenda some thirty years ago.22 Progress is only to be expected when some young colleague, still unknown to all of us, will hit upon some hitherto unnoticed field of intellectual endeavour and discover there the tools promising new and important insights into the nature of historical writing.
Finally, since I happen myself not to be a champion of this strategy of borrowing from elsewhere, this may also explain why the ceterum censeo in all my writings has always been an adhortation to return to the historicism of Herder, Ranke, Humboldt and so on, and hence to the only variant of history theory having in the practice of historical writing its exclusive source of inspiration. Historicism is no import from the outside: it was developed by historians with no other purpose than to understand the nature of historical writing. For me, historicism is still the alpha and the omega of all wisdom in our discipline. Of course, I would not wish to imply that historicism should be the last word about the nature of historical writing. On the contrary; it is certainly defective in many important respects. But I remain convinced that no theory of history deserves to be taken seriously that has not somehow or somewhere passed the test of historicism. If you read a book on historical theory and it fails to deal with historicism, you may go on to read it for many excellent reasons, but you can also be sure that it will not contribute one iota to your understanding of the nature of historical writing.
And this last claim sums up, in fact, all of my story here.