Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism.
Dissolution is the fate of "isms," and "the" linguistic turn always contained so many "isms"--logical positivism, logical empiricism, structuralism, poststructuralism, postmodernism--that it is vaguely surprising that historiographers ever thought of it as an "it." Even a simple account distinguishes analytical and continental linguistic turns. The analytical turn came first and provided the name, and Carl G. Hempel's covering law model generated two decades of debate in philosophy of history. Of the various linguistic turns, however, analytical philosophy has had the least impact on historical writing partly because most historians lack the basic competence in propositional calculus necessary for a serious engagement with Ludwig Wittgenstein or Donald Davidson. For historiography, the linguistic turn has largely meant French structuralism and poststructuralism as filtered through American literary criticism. This better-known linguistic turn has left its primary mark in the form of a new cultural history that has little real interest in textuality or linguistics. Even in what is vaguely termed "theory," linguistic matters find less and less space.
One need not read very far in recent literature to learn that many of the leading lights in what used to be called philosophy of history have grown weary of semiotics and narratology. To put it bluntly, the market is saturated; readers, writers, and publishers alike demand novelty. How many works can we read about history and language, history and narrative, history and tropology, history and postmodernism, or history and deconstruction? It is roughly a half-century since Gustav Bergmann credited Wittgenstein's Tractatus with having initiated "a linguistic turn" in philosophy. It is more than thirty years since Richard Rorty edited The Linguistic Turn and Hayden White published the article that began the writing of Metahistory. More than twenty years have passed since Gayatri Spivak's English translation of Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology helped to make "deconstruction" a word used and abused in departments of history.(1) And the scandalous revelations of Paul de Man's wartime journalism are starting to fade into footnotes. The linguistic turn appears to be history.
Two recent movements promise to dominate history and theory in seasons to come. The first is an aesthetic or cultural turn, although by "aesthetics" historiographers mean something different from what Immanuel Kant had in mind. The new aestheticism is extremely broad, for aesthetics is now sometimes used so as to include the older, "linguistic" concerns along with a host of other issues. Our aesthetic moment in history and theory thus takes in literary criticism but also engages with film, television, music, and mass media, and the sort of topics and projects that interest cultural and social historians rather than the narrow circle of high intellectual historians and philosophers who participated in the linguistic debates. The aesthetic turn thus offers to enlist a mass audience, at least by the modest standards of history and theory, where selling out a printing of eight hundred is considered a good monographic run. Even the American Historical Review has begun to publish film reviews.
The second trend is the emergence of a veritable industry in scholarship on "memory." Here, too, a new vocabulary has begun to displace the key words of deconstruction and narrative that dominated theory in the 1970s and 1980s. And here, too, a new set of theoretical interests offers to reach a wider circle of readers, for the memorial turn encompasses a growing number of historians who identify primarily as cultural rather than intellectual historians and theorists. Thus new technical journals, such as Representations and History and Memory, emerged in the 1980s as supplements (or alternatives) to the older venues for historiography, namely History and Theory and Clio. More strikingly, both "memory" and "aesthetics" have made it increasingly common to find the cultural history varieties of "theory" in Journal of American History and other mainstream venues that had shunned deconstruction.
Two recent works comment upon historiography's shift away from linguistics. Ewa Domanska's Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism consists of interviews with ten leading historiographers--from White to Arthur Danto--whose best-known works were part of the linguistic turn. Aestheticism is the book's organizing concept, and the expansion of the word to subsume the linguistic debates of previous decades is a good measure of how important aesthetics has become. As Allan Megill remarks in his introduction to the volume, Domanska's topical choice "is no patri pris," but rather reflects the present state of historical theory (3). While her questions return time and again to aesthetics as means of commenting upon historiography's linguistic moment, Encounters also documents our new memorial consciousness. Although "memory" and its cognates and associated vocabularies do not dominate the theoretical discussions, Domanska's book is pieced together out of shared memories. The volume ventures quite far into informal collective memoir, for the interviews all tend toward autobiographical accounts of the salad days of the linguistic turn. (Where were you when you first read Metahistory?)
Encounters attests to both the institutionalization and the apparent exhaustion of the questions of language and narrative that have dominated history and theory over the last thirty years. The very idea of the book presupposes a movement sufficiently established that its best-known practitioners now stand atop the field with lists of titles behind them. Hans Kellner and Franklin Ankersmit are the youngest of the interviewees (each was born in 1945), while Danto (born in 1924) is the oldest. The others (Georg G. Iggers, Jerzy Topolski, Jorn Rusen, Lionel Gossman, Peter Burke, and Stephen Bann) all are influential senior scholars. Despite the promise of the book's subtitle and the thrust of many of the questions, the answers tend toward recollection and clarification of past positions.
When pressed to predict next season's historiographic fashion, the respondents frequently mention older varieties of continental philosophy and hint at a vague sense that the linguistic turn has gone too far. White, for instance, noting that Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) was about "historicality," opines that "the people who are thinking about history in the most interesting ways are Heideggerians" (34). Heideggerian ontology may seem unsuited to a postcolonial age, but White is not the only theorist to invoke the memory of modern European philosophy's flirtations with theology of history. German historiographer Rusen offers Walter Benjamin's notion of the "historical moment" (Jetztzeit) and the "time concept" of "kairos" as key words for rethinking our current historical practice (157). (Rusen does not mention the religious freight each word carries, and Domanska does not query him on the point.) Ankersmit is more forthright about his concerns with current trends in linguistic philosophy and his hope that "experience" may "prove to be the notion that will enable us to overcome this `crisis of representation'" (94). He is vague on what he means by "experience," but confesses that he was initially attracted to the study of history by a "strong nostalgia" for the seventeenth century and still believes that sophisticated thinkers may experience the "radical strangeness" of the past with the intensity of feeling associated with "the sublime." As Ankersmit correctly (if disapprovingly) notes, "no philosophical system is so utterly hostile to that kind of experience as Rorty's and Davidson's philosophy of language" (95).
For those interested in the history of historiography's linguistic turns, Encounters is indispensable. Since we lack even a good monographic intellectual history of twentieth-century philosophy of history, Domanska's collection of interviews is an important publication. Many will find the accessibility of these discussions quite appealing. One hopes, probably in vain, that the interviews will serve students as supplements rather than replacements for the primary works. The entire collection is made somewhat less rigorous but somehow more readable by Domanska's bubbly enthusiasm. Her questions meander, run on for sentence after sentence, and leap and dance about. (Confronted with one of Domanska's verbal assemblages, Danto responds, "this seems to be less a question about postmodernism than a postmodernist question" .) Less happily, the interviews conclude with Domanska interviewing herself, a gratuitously po-mo gesture that already seems dated.
Part of the chronological dissonance comes from the book's cultural situation. Domanska represents a new generation of Polish historiographers for whom White's Metahistory and the Francophone debates over deconstruction and postmodernism are recent discoveries, and that sense of freshness gives her interviews a certain energy. One of the highlights of the volume is the conversation with Domanska's mentor, Jerzy Topolski, the great Polish historiographer. In the 1980s, Topolski's seminar was one of the few places in Communist Poland where students could gather to read and discuss recent developments in Western philosophy of history. There, and in a subsequent tutorial with Ankersmit, Domanska conceived of this project. In a way, then, Encounters is a product of one of the great events of the last century, the crumbling of the Soviet bloc.
Unfortunately, the "Second World" is as far off the beaten track as Encounters ever ventures. The selection of interviewees does indeed allow for a collection that may claim to be (in Allan Megill's words) "the best meditation that you are likely to find on the state of historiography at the end of the twentieth century," but that claim says as much about the parochialism of historiography as it does about the field's vitality (1). For a start, it is a fair measure of the marginality of "philosophy" of history that, of the scholars represented here, only Danto trained as a philosopher and practices in a department of philosophy. Even he seems to have been included as much for his work as an art critic as for his brilliant 1965 book, The Analytical Philosophy of History. If there were any lingering doubts about the matter, Encounters shows that "philosophy of history" or "history and theory" or "historiography" has become a subfield of modern European intellectual history.
If there are "others" in Encounters, it is the Poles or, perhaps, the two women represented in the volume: interviewer Domanska and the cultural historian Lynn Hunt, who contributes a postscript. The problem is not that Encounters fails to achieve racial or gender balance, but that the tendency of historiography to collapse into modern European intellectual history limits the range of discussion. Analytical philosophy is conspicuous largely by its absence, for Domanska queries Danto mostly about aesthetics and postmodernism. And postmodernism seems to be a matter of a handful of French and American male academics who wrote a few books in the sixties and seventies. While nearly all the interviews make some gesture attributing the "crisis of representation" to the proliferation of narrative perspectives in the late twentieth century, and more than a few specifically invoke Jean-Francois Lyotard's critique of metanarratives, none offers any evidence that historiography has taken a serious account of decolonization. Nothing in these interviews suggests any real engagement with postcolonialism or feminism or queer theory. Most of the book's few references to feminism come from Danto, but he volunteers that he is unable to name a single feminist historian. White's claim that education and scholarship are intrinsically conservative seems to apply no less to historiography.
Strikingly, Domanska did not interview either of the two American historians most closely associated with deconstruction, Dominick LaCapra and Sande Cohen. That decision has some consequences for the tone of Encounters: where Domanska's interviews make the linguistic turn into a site of memory, Cohen's Passive Nihilism: Cultural Historiography and the Rhetorics of Scholarship remains defiantly semiotic. Cohen, a former student of White, who now teaches at California Institute of the Arts, here continues his campaign against the multicultural Left, the feminist Left, the traditional Left, neoconservatives, and academic liberals by channeling Friedrich Nietzsche through Gilles Deleuze. His writing has always been polemical, and this, his third book, does not disappoint. He gleefully trashes the heroes of the moment (describing Benjamin as the "penultimate humanist spellbinder") while holding out Paul de Man as an authorial model (184). But this is a kinder, gentler Cohen, at least so far as prose is concerned. He still writes mostly in passive voice--he believes that metaphor and active verbs are fascistic--but this book is his most accessible.
Passive Nihilism's subtitle, "cultural historiography," suggests a shift in emphasis from Cohen's first book, Historical Culture: On the Recoding of an Academic Discipline (1986), which argued that historical discourse created a reactionary scholarly culture.(2) The more recent study claims that culturological discourse generates a reactionary history. Accordingly, Passive Nihilism reads like a line-by-line criticism of Encounters. "[C]lose reading may well be a symptom of what is passing away," says Cohen, "because it is a `tool' unwanted in many of the new configurations of scholarly writing" (192). The new configurations of scholarly writing are nihilistic, and aesthetics is part of the problem. Cohen's rhetorical strategy is the ancient one of stealing an opponent's critiques. All of the common denunciations of poststructuralism--that it is nihilistic, aestheticizing, and apolitical, or even reactionary--appear here directed at post-structuralism's critics. But the strategy is not "merely" rhetorical. Like Nietzsche, Cohen imagines nihilism as the product of a Platonist-Judeo-Christian metaphysics that does its worst work precisely when it claims to oppose nihilism.
Since nihilism is what we live, there is no alternative to nihilism. But accepting that claim need not drive one to despair, because nihilism is not monolithic. Cohen's title points us toward note 22 in The Will to Power where Nietzsche claimed that nihilism is essentially ambiguous:
A. Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit: as active nihilism.
B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit: as passive nihilism.
Passive nihilism, with its empty moralism and petty frills disgusted Nietzsche, and Cohen has inherited that distaste. He has also taken up some of Nietzsche's hubris along with his active nihilism. The Ubermensch surfaces in Cohen's book in the form of the "excessive reader" who, unlike the "last reader," can willfully oppose passive nihilism. Cohen is his own ideal excessive reader, and his critical readings project an author hoping to succeed Nietzsche as the "perfect nihilist." Like Nietzsche, our excessive reader is "unfaithful to his memories.... And what he does not do for himself, he also does not do for the whole past of mankind: he lets it drop."(3)
Cohen sets himself apart from the original perfect nihilist in two distinct ways, one political, the other stylistic. The politics are easier to grasp if we imagine Passive Nihilism building on Cohen's second book, Academia and the Luster of Capital. There he tried to reclaim Nietzsche from those "leftist" critics who accused the German philosopher of underwriting a reactionary politics with an "extreme subjectivism."(4) According to Cohen, Nietzsche successfully defined capitalism in terms of nihilism, a definition more useful than the traditional reckoning of "capital" as alienation of labor. Where the Left identifies itself with history in order to oppose capital and nihilism, Cohen imagines a very different set of relations that reduce to something like a set of equivalences: Capital = Nihilism = History. If that equation sounds more like Paris 1968 than Germany 1888, Cohen puts Nietzsche behind him entirely when it comes to prose. Where Nietzsche attacked passive nihilism with poetics, Cohen hopes to dispense with metaphor and mythopoesis. Passive Nihilism takes no literary cues from Zarathustra.
Passive Nihilism works through four major, critical chapters, each loosely centered on a specific academic fashion and dominant figure: "postconventional historiography" (Derrida); "science studies" (Bruno Latour); "neopsychoanalysis" (Judith Butler); and historiography (Carlo Ginzburg). Cohen is always at his best when trashing an academic bestseller, and many of these readings are highly entertaining. None reduces to paraphrase. But since so much of Cohen's text concerns itself with "violence toward deconstruction" and hostility to "close reading," his critique of Derrida warrants a brief discussion.
What precisely is, or was, deconstruction? Can we still plausibly imagine deconstruction as a critical genealogy in which Nietzsche's philosophizing with a hammer was taken up by Heidegger as Destruktion and finally appeared as deconstruction in the writing of Derrida and de Man? Who will inherit deconstruction? After the de Man disaster, who would wish to? Like his mentor, White, Cohen has been associated with Derrida and with almost as little justification. White is no deconstructionist--his early writing on Derrida was distinctly critical--and although Cohen claims the label, he has always shown more affinity for Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and Deleuze than for the author of Writing and Difference (1967). In Passive Nihilism, the text at issue is Specters of Marx (1993) with its recurring metaphors of haunting, mourning, trauma, and obligation.(5) Like many other readers, Cohen believes Specters marks an important shift in the French philosopher's work, but he is not much impressed with what Gayatri Spivak has called Derrida's "ethical" turn.(6) Cohen believes the archdeconstructionist is now "giving historicity back to Europe" (33). Differance once deconstructed history, but now haunting reconstructs "historiography."
Cohen does not attack the obvious weak links in Specters of Marx, namely, its occasional gestures toward sentimental autobiography and 1968 nostalgia, but instead takes on its refiguration of difference in terms of "messianism, specters, and death" (41). For Cohen, this reworking of Hegel's Geist aligns Derrida with our fashionable enthusiasm for Benjamin's dabbling in mysticism or Pierre Nora's reckoning of memory as sacrality. And the spirit rhetoric ends--as it began--in eschatology. Reworking, rethinking, revising, all are symptoms of the current dominance of a "re" that invariably codes a return of the dead past: "Re pertains to passive nihilism, for it makes things `come back' (return) in words ..." (6). This is terrific stuff, even though it carries Cohen into the sort of word-play he usually avoids (is the "re" in revision really the same as the "re" in revelation?). The critique of Specters of Marx is the highlight of the book. It also suggests a very different account of the linguistic turn.
Reading (late) Derrida out of the canon paints an idiosyncratic picture of deconstruction. For a start, we might note that it forces Cohen to project an early, pure Derrida (signified by "differance") rather than one for whom the radicalization of historicity was always an issue. It also seems to be a way of reading out Heidegger and thus breaking the potentially oppressive chain of continuities reaching back to Nietzsche. Instead of a Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida genealogy, we can imagine an immediate relation to the master. The elision has other effects as well, and some readers may suspect an anxiety of influence, for it was Heidegger who most forcefully drew out Nietzsche's association of history and nihilism--and avoiding Heidegger allows Cohen to avoid serious engagement with his own argument. When Academia and the Luster of Capital dismissed leftists who accused Nietzsche of subjectivism, it failed to note that one of the canonical moments in early deconstruction produced a similar critique. Heidegger's 1939 seminar on Nietzsche began with a celebratory account of nihilism as history, but his 1940 lecture ended by suggesting that the relentless self-overcoming of the `Obermensch recreated rather than escaped transcendence.(7) Further, Heidegger's work has implications for Cohen's own excessive claims. Can a perfect nihilist escape metaphysics? Is Passive Nihilism's "excessive"/"last" antinomy more stable than any other binary? Given Cohen's trenchant critique of "re," we should mark Heidegger's elaborate unpacking of Nietzsche's subtitle. That notoriously incomplete project, The Will to Power, was also called "Revaluation of All Values."
Cohen supplements his murky explication of the excessive reader with a fifth and final chapter that offers models of linguistic activism: Wittgenstein; Deleuze and Felix Guattari; and de Man. He also appends a brief conclusion. If the gesture seems modest, even conventional, it is nonetheless considerable for an author whose most recent book simply left off with a paragraph that began: "It is absurd to summarize...." The ending of Passive Nihilism is far from absurd. Indeed, it is uncharacteristically earnest. The final chapter begins with an approving gloss of Wittgenstein's contrast of telling and showing: Some things cannot be captured in propositions, but can only be shown. Cohen is showing the excessive future that we cannot articulate with rules derived from tradition. The reading of Wittgenstein is welcome simply because, as Cohen notes, historians mostly ignore him, but the result is reductive. Passive Nihilism telescopes the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations into the single thesis of "incommensurability between the incommensurables of every human relation, since there is no such thing as a language move, game, or form that is capable of resolving different perspectives" (166). This is the night in which all Wittgensteins are black.
The tonal shift in these pages clashes with the book's critical beginnings. Cohen's critiques turn on painstakingly close readings that work sentence by sentence, and even syllable by syllable. The last chapter, by contrast, follows the path of least resistance. Where he hits his enemies at their point of strength, he glosses his heroes by avoiding difficult texts and passages. Thus we get the de Man of "Shelley Disfigured" rather than the de Man of "Literary History and Literary Modernity" which could easily produce a de Man invested in the radicalization, rather than the denial, of historicity. Much as I enjoy the trash talk of Cohen's critique, I cannot imagine Nietzsche slogging through Passive Nihilism's final descent into moral exhortation.
Encounters and Passive Nihilism are important works, but for different reasons. Domanska imagines a linguistic turn that has done its work by broadening out into a new cultural history that makes aesthetics part of our historical consciousness. Cohen imagines a linguistic radicalism that will subvert cultural history's dangerous aestheticizing tendencies. Where Domanska commemorates the linguistic turn, Cohen chronicles its dissolution. Indeed, despite the best intentions, the linguistic turn finally becomes a historical issue for Passive Nihilism as well. How will we remember deconstruction? Cohen has given us a new genealogy that is as much a claim on our (and his) memory of 1968 as it is a posthistorical manifesto.
(1.) Gustav Bergmann, "Logical Positivism, Language, and the Reconstruction of Metaphysics" (1953), reprinted in Richard Rorty, ed., The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1967), 63; Hayden White, "The Burden of History" (1967), reprinted in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978), 27-50; Jacques Derrida, OfGrammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (1967; Eng. lang. ed., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976).
(2.) Sande Cohen, Historical Culture: On the Recoding of an Academic Discipline (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986). See also Kerwin Lee Klein, "Anti-History: The Meaning of Historical Culture," Clio 25 (1996): 125-44.
(3.) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), 17.
(4.) Sande Cohen, Academia and the Luster of Capital (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993), xv-xvi.
(5.) Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (1967; Eng. lang. ed., Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978); Specters of Marx: the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf(1993; Eng. lang. ed., New York: Routledge, 1994).
(6.) Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999), 426.
(7.) Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche: Volumes One and Two, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); Nietzsche: Volumes Three and Four, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
Kerwin Lee Klein is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His first book, Frontiers of Historical Imagination: Narrating the European Conquest of Native America, appeared in 1997. His most recent article is "On the Emergence of `Memory' in Historical Discourse," Representations 69 (2000): 127-50.
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|Author:||KLEIN, KERWIN LEE|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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