Thursday, 22 May 2014
Whoever you normally vote for, whatever your view of austerity, state spending, bank bonuses, the welfare state, if you are a decent human being, please go out and vote today. If UKIP do really well, as predicted, that will only mean one thing. That the Tories will lurch to the right to chase the UKIP vote, and the Labour party will lurch meekly along behind, in spite of Miliband's noble attempt to fight this one on policies. So, even if you vote Tory (especially if you vote Tory), if you don't want British politics to drift into being driven by nasty petty-minded little Englanderish xenophobic bigotry, please exercise your hard-won constitutional right, and vote. Thank you for listening.
Monday, 19 May 2014
[This is the paper that I gave yesterday at the very enjoyable conference, Subterranean in the Medieval World, organised by Meg Boulton and Heidi Stoner. As it says at the start, just a few rather basic points. I will add some pics and links in due course.]
My paper is essentially stating the bleeding obvious, or what ought to be: just a few basic but important points by way of some conceptual ground-clearing. The first is to associate two aspects of early medieval burial. One is the use of features of the pre-existing landscape as a focus for burial: prehistoric barrows of one sort or another, standing stones or Roman buildings or monuments. This is common across a wide swathe of north-western Europe, whether we are looking at Anglo-Saxon England, northern Britain, northern Gaul, Burgundy, or trans-Rhenan Germania, north or south. So, my first point is that a single specific explanation, above all one relating the phenomenon to supposedly pagan belief, especially Anglo-Saxon pagan belief, is not going to work. We have must be absolutely clear about that. It is also important to distinguish communal from individual or familial use of these monuments.
The second feature is the trend, beginning around 600 of building new, above-ground monuments to the dead. These too take various forms, from barrows of various shapes and sizes, ring-ditches (whether revealing an original small barrow or just a ring of up-cast earth), stone grave-markers, walls around graves or groups of graves or, ultimately, funerary churches. Again, it’s impossible to study the phenomenon in regional isolation; it is attested in rural districts right across western Europe. The unavoidable conclusion – and although I have stated this repeatedly over twenty years or so it has made not a jot of difference – is that Anglo-Saxon barrows, most famously Sutton Hoo, cannot logically be read a priori as a sign of ‘pagan’ resistance to Christianisation. That conclusion does, alas, consign whole books by nice people to the bin, but logic is logic and, as Derrida once said, the critique of reason can only come from within reason.
Key to my argument is the association of those two elements, individual or familial use of monuments, and the building of above-ground monuments.
To read this, a little more ground-clearing is necessary. Let’s, first, assume that the features chosen as foci for sixth- and seventh-century burial were visible at the time. Howard Williams undertook the necessary ground-work for Anglo-Saxon England, probably longer ago than he’d like to be reminded, and concluded that, though some monuments might have been ploughed out, the data suggested that a significant percentage were still visible when they were used or reused for burial.
The second point which, obvious though it is, hasn’t always been taken into account, is that we have no way of knowing what age early medieval people thought any of these remains were, other than that no one could remember them being built. We have no grounds for assuming that the Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Alamans, Burgundians, continental Saxons or Picts, had any sense of what was or was not Roman. Prehistoric mounds are described in Old English verse in just the same way as decaying Roman cities. In a problematic book that I have critiqued at length before, John Moreland says of Wigber Low that
‘[b]y inserting their dead into the barrow the organisers of the seventh[-]century burial collapsed and sought to command time. By making their dead contiguous with those of remote antiquity, they were making an eloquent statement, informed by oral tradition and memory, about their relationship with the dead and place among the living’
Let’s, so to speak, excavate the sentence. The most obviously questionable element is the phrase ‘remote antiquity’. The good folk of seventh-century Derbyshire did not have C14 dating or a three-age system, or a complex set of typologies to help them evaluate past remains’ relative age. If they were trying to collapse time – and they might have been – we can have no idea of what amount of time they thought was at stake, whether they thought the barrow was ‘Roman’ or from some ill-defined time of their grand-parents, or from some time out of time, a world of monsters, demons and gods, pagan or Christian. The second questionable element is ‘the dead of remote antiquity’. How can we know that the people of seventh-century Wigber Low thought the barrow had had any funerary function? It seems to me that, by purely archaeological logic, they would not find traces of the site’s Bronze Age funerary usage until they dug their own graves into it.
Ailcy Hill, Ripon is a useful comparandum. Widely believed to have been a motte or barrow, this mound is a natural glacial feature. Middle Saxon dead are buried there, however. Of course, the people of Anglo-Saxon Ripon, ‘informed by oral tradition and memory’ might have wanted to make their dead contiguous with those of the past, but there were no dead of the past, remote or otherwise, to be found there. The actual past function of a monument provides no grounds for establishing what early medieval people thought they were doing when they reused it. You could use Wigber Low and its many comparanda to argue that the local Anglo-Saxons thought Ailcy Hill was a burial, but you might as easily use Ailcy Hill to argue that Wigber Low and other sites were chosen because they were visible mounds, marks on the landscape, not because of any funerary associations. Many other types of folklore could account for an unusual mound – a devil’s spade-full for example – and we are unduly second-guessing early medieval people when we assume that they thought that monuments were things from the past with religious or funerary overtones. There might have been any number of other, archaeologically invisible, features of the landscape that early medieval people associated with the past, the divine or the monstrous, all of which makes it, logically, entirely illegitimate to select a particular class of feature as allegedly revelatory of these concerns. Finally it is no more than an assumption that ‘memory and oral tradition’ played any part in determining the choice of site. If it was, then it could equally have featured in any other choice.
No. This won’tdo, by any standards of rigour or logic.
That means we have to take Ockham’s razor to a lot of recent work, not just on Anglo-Saxon but also mainland European archaeology. Frans Theuws has argued that usage of old landscape features manifests a concern with ‘ancestors’. This invocation of ancestor veneration is becoming quite common in early medieval archaeology, but critique is overdue. It isn’t attested in early medieval data.
The only piece of evidence that I can conjure up is the well-known story of Radbod of Frisia. You know the story: he would rather be with his ancestors in hell than go to heaven on his own, right? Wrong. It’s another one of those famous textual snippets that ‘everyone knows’ but no one reads (other than Ian Wood probably). Here is the text. It was written by a Frankish monk, nearly 100 years after the event, in Latin, describing an exchange that, if it took place at all, certainly didn’t take place in Latin. There is no way of seeing through this later text to a pagan reality. This is all we have and all we can do with it is try to unravel what its author wanted to say about pagans, and that was not that they were obsessed with ancestors.
Radbod has asked Wulframn where the greater part of the kings, principesor nobles of the people of the Frisians are (ancestors doesn’t come into it): in heaven or hell?
‘Then the blessed Wulframn [(rather stupidly), said] ‘Do not stray, shining prince; it is certain that with God are the numerus [which can mean number or a military unit, a band or following] of his chosen. But it is certain that your predecessors, the princes [or the foremost men] of the Frisian people who have died without the sacrament of baptism have received the sentence of damnation; but henceforth he who shall have believed and shall have been baptised will rejoice with Christ in eternity.’ Hearing this, the unbelieving duke – for he had processed to the font – drew back his foot from the font, as they say, saying that he could not lose the company of his predecessors, the princes [or foremost men] of the Frisians, to go and live with a small number [or a small band] of poor people in that kingdom of heaven.’
Radbod doesn’t decline to leave his dead ancestors; he doesn’t want to spend eternity among horrible poor people. The opposition is between princes and paupers rather than ancestors and strangers. Praedecessoresis a fairly neutral term for those who predeceased him, as easily encompassing currently-living or recently-dead friends amongst the principesas long-dead relatives. And it is the wealth issue is what Wulframn harps on about throughout ch.10: all these fine principes live out eternity in the dark, not in the bright, shiny, gold-plated House of the Lord. This is about class, money and status, not family. In this ninth-century reconstruction, the pagan thinks he can take status and wealth with him when he dies.
So, if we rule out or at least think of less mystifying terminology for this ancestors stuff – and we should – where do we go? My answer is essentially that we should think about all this not so much in terms of the past as of the future. The shifts under discussion take place in the decades around 600, which have been the focus of my work for the past few years. I suggest that behind them lies, partly, a change in concerns about time and partly (where I come closest to current interpretations) a new élite seeking legitimation.
The problem is in the future perfect: what will have been. That seems to me to lie, understandably, behind of a number of muddled treatments of the issue. If there is a concern with the past or even with ancestors here it is in the sense of looking forward to what will have been: the past in the future. If we think, comparatively, about the Antique world what is far more frequently attested is an overwritingof the past. The obvious example is Rome itself. What is Rome if not a massive, complex architectural palimpsest? Of course, this is making an association with the past but it is not a simple legitimising association. Each generation writes itself over the last, looking to the future. The Church overwrote all sorts of classical pagan monument, not so much temples but the other crucial areas of pre-Christian Roman life: bath-houses especially, theatres, and amphitheatres. Especially in the 75 years or so after the Western Empire’s disintegration, new powers sometimes reused Roman sites to express legitimacy. [pp] Far more usual around 600, however, is the stamping of the new over the old. Gregory of Tours’ writings are full of the church overwriting the pagan past in ways fundamentally no different from the use of monuments for cemeteries. The evidence from the period suggests that the use of ancient monuments for burial was as likely motivated by a concern to overwrite, bury it. I will, however, back-peddle from this position slightly, at the end.
There are widespread cases of sixth-century Gallic cemeteries located near monuments, especially villas but, as with the case of St-Vit, also other types of site. Placed alongside other aspects of the sixth-century burial ritual, however, what seems to be at stake is the use of a local landmark as a focus for a new, communal cemetery, itself a focus for a fairly dispersed community. The communal reuse of prehistoric sites in England, like the barrows used as communal cemeteries, seems analogous. But the main focus of the burial rite is transient – even if, as Howard Williams entirely correctly pointed out in a very valuable and pertinent critique of my work, the multi-sensory performance of these burials probably left a very rounded memory for participants. Nonetheless, once a grave is filled in, once it is rendered entirely subterranean, that statement was no longer visible and thus it had to employ a rich and clear semiotics. Furnished burial is about competition and social instability. Differences in the lavishness of graves cannot be read off as differences in wealth and power.
What happens around 600 – and it happens in all sorts of regions across the West – is a shift from this transient form of commemoration to more permanent forms. The point about investing, in relative terms, more resources in the above-ground monument than in the in-ground (subterranean) is that it is intendedto be there permanently. Unlike ancestors-veneration we can document this concern in actual European evidence from the period. I have written about this at some length before but I want to put a slightly different spin on it in the light of more recent thinking on the subject. The period saw the beginning of the retention and survival of written documents (I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: that that is as true for Gaul as for England should make us think twice before assuming that pre-Augustinian England was illiterate), seventh-century Frankish law, unlike sixth-century, projects situations into the future and is concerned with mechanisms whereby legal transactions might be remembered – one of which is through the use of written records.
I have previously associated this, in Francia, with a solidification of the social structure at this period. The sixth century’s potential fluidity and competition made it difficult to project status and a place in the landscape into the future; that became much more possible around 600 with the emergence of a more secure aristocracy north of the Loire. The personal or familial occupation of monuments, prehistoric or Roman stands alongside the creation of new above-ground monuments, as I mentioned at the start: gravestones and inscriptions, walls around burials, sarcophagus-lids visible at surface level, sarcophagi standing above ground, barrows and churches.
The material signature of these processes is very similar to that in Anglo-Saxon England which is why I have repeatedly argued that we ought to see analogous processes at work, and not get too hung up on the issue of conversion. Although the record takes a different form, the archaeology of Northern Britain suggests something similar. Indeed right across north-western Europe, the written and archaeological data show the emergence of more locally intensive forms of lordship and a weakening of earlier, broader but perhaps looser kingdoms. Local aristocrats were able to inscribe themselves onto the landscape in permanent form, just as we see them undertaking all sorts of other measures to preserve their place into the future, and as we become, in turn, able to identify their families over time.
I said earlier that I was going to back-peddle slightly from my point that this is not about a connection with the past. The changes I have just alluded to come, themselves, out of a crisis in connection with the past. The touchstone of legitimacy, up to the middle of the sixth century, had been the Roman Empire. After Justinian’s wars this was no longer possible in the old ways. People now knew they weren’t in the Roman Empire any more and any claim to legitimacy staked on imperial office wasn’t going to work. That meant crises for all sorts of power, from the royal down through society, to gender relations and the meaning of Roman ethnicity, outside the former Empire as well as within it. And indeed it meant some profound rethinking in the east as well as the west. New reference points were needed.
Those new reference points, largely biblical, Old Testament, worked not via simple lineal (ancestral) descent, as earlier legitimising touchstones had. Instead they worked typologically. That is to say that something in the present was foreshadowed by, was a ‘type’ of, something in the past. This is very visible in thinking about history and time in the late sixth century, when some people seemed to think they were in a time after time – after linear time – a time when causation worked vertically according to the type of situation. The beauty of the typological as a legitimising touchstone is that it is always already there, and it requires no claim about lineal descent, ancestry. Not, we are them, but we are like them. They don’t even have to have been here. Whoever these people were, who put these marks on the landscape, we don’t know – they aren’t us – but we are here now, like them and we will make our mark, beside theirs, over theirs. Nonetheless, although that takes a look back at a strange other past, its primary concern is with when the present would be the past, in the future, and creating for the new elite, a future perfect.
Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Getting the point of pointlessness (Or, Back on the piste again. ... In which I dabble in philosophy)
[This is the paper which I gave at the 49th International Congress of Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo MI last Saturday. It went through at least three versions up to this point, in what might be seen as a miniature example of the general point being made.
My thanks to Patty Ingham and the Exemplaria editorial team for allowing me to speak at the session, which, my piece notwithstanding, was a very good one. Thanks also to patty for her opening question, which opened up a great discussion, to Elizabeth Scala for chairing, and to Peggy McCracken for rigorous questioning on the humanist point.]
My thanks to Patty Ingham and the Exemplaria editorial team for allowing me to speak at the session, which, my piece notwithstanding, was a very good one. Thanks also to patty for her opening question, which opened up a great discussion, to Elizabeth Scala for chairing, and to Peggy McCracken for rigorous questioning on the humanist point.]
In this paper I am doubtless going to discuss issues and problems that long ago ceased to be critically imperative elsewhere in ‘medieval studies’, and responses to them that I am nervously – painfully – aware will sound naïve, glaringly obvious, or probably both, to the philosophically-aware from those other subject-areas. Please bear with me; in history the problem I will discuss does seem to me to be an issue. Perhaps, on the way, I will raise points that resonate with other disciplines’ critical imperatives but I am principally here to hear your thoughts. As will be clear, this is very much new territory for me.
Of all the humanities, with the possible exception of philosophy, History has perhaps the longest and most grandiose tradition of a sense of its own point, purpose, or transcendent worth, or at least of worrying about it. From Thucydides onwards, the point of history has exercised its practitioners and produced a galaxy of grandiloquent statements of History’s enormous value to society. ‘A society with no history is like a man with no memory’; ‘those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it’; that sort of thing. Whether this obsession is to be understood as revealing a subliminal recognition of History’s absolute lack of utility or value is a question I will to some extent sidestep…. Nonetheless, against this background it is not surprising that the so-called linguistic turn should have had such an unsettling effect. After all, the arch-empiricist nineteenth-century idea expressed by Leopold von Ranke, that history should be about ‘telling it just as it was’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen) held sway over the discipline ever since, as a foundation for judging the quality of history, in particular as the touchstone of professional historical writing. The theory wars in literature surely produced their fair share of invective, but perhaps not the panic that they engendered in history. After all, with so much at stake, over centuries of reflection on the issue, what would be the point of history if the straightforward re-description of the past were no longer possible? What if all history really was fiction? What if there really were no difference between historians and … … literary scholars?!
Nonetheless, the historical front of the so-called ‘Truth Wars’ of the 1990s was a fairly unedifying and intellectually low-level skirmish, a veritable festival of point-missing. (Or, put another way, if you think this paper is bad, you should read what it's kicking against.) On the one side, the more traditional wing maintained a ‘common-sensical’ defence of History as, to some extent, the factual recreation of the past. Implicitly, on the other side it was too, among the the self-styled 'post-modernists' [no, really]; if the factual recreation of the past wasn’t possible, history itself wasn’t possible. The latter apparently thought and think the writings of Derrida et al authorise the relativist claim that there is no truth even at the lowest empirical level of historical fact; their opponents accepted this claim and then accused them of legitimising holocaust-denial – the continental philosophers upon whose work the ‘post-modernists’ based their argument were caught in the crossfire (egregiously misread or, ironically, unread). And there the debate – insofar as it ever really was a debate – seems to have stuck, with both sides continuing to talk past each other or, more commonly, not talking to each other at all. Most of the discipline, though, has continued in what Žižek would call an ideological fantasy, the ‘je sais bien mais quand-même’. Although accepting that writing history ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ isn’t possible, they go on writing as if it were. Historical method and the standards by which history is judged remain ultimately predicated on the possibility of retelling history ‘as it was’. Now, modern theory is much used in history – let’s be clear – and well-used, especially in late antique history. Good medieval historians don’t simply quarry their texts for facts any more. But this awareness has, it seems to me, tended to operate at the more local, methodological level, deployed to make reconstructions of the past more sophisticated but not transferred to the level of what history can or might be.
My question, providing an answer to which is, for me, a critical imperative, is whether history can play a bigger role than simply describing historical facts (something that most historians at least appear to consider the sine qua non of proper history and which is especially important to me, as someone not from an academic background), without falling into the old trap of believing there is a ‘truth’ or even a true account to be reached about history. Simultaneously it is whether one can continue to recognise that there is no object history, against which the important levels of historical endeavour can be judged, without lapsing into epistemological nihilism. This matters in historical dialogue. As throughout academic discourse, the concern can be to convince everyone else that you are right (and they are wrong), to change the paradigm, and so on. This does not necessarily take a macho, open, confrontational form; it can be masked by overt statements about consensus, covering operations of power every bit as insidious and frequently working to rule out discussion. Obviously, though, discussions that hinge on consensus, paradigmatic dominance and so forth are ultimately founded upon a Rankean notion that one explanation can be ‘truer’ than another.
Where do ethically- or politically-committed historians go from here? It is rather pointless to restrict history to the level of establishing and cataloguing things that did or didn’t happen, and in my view equally pointless to tell stories about the past which offer no basis for action in the present and/or which don’t differentiate historical endeavour from other forms of study. To anticipate the broad outline of my argument, what I want to explore is the possibility, not of going forward into some kind of post-history, so much as a return to something like the pre-Rankean idea of history as ‘philosophy teaching by example’. The other key element of these necessarily inchoate thoughts is that Derridian occupation or the Nancéen hesitation on the edge, of, a resistance to, a refusal of, the space/moment of Hegelian Aufhebung.
In suggesting some responses, I am making use of a fairly closely interconnected cluster of philosophers, but principally drawing upon the works of two: Simon Critchley, above all in Very Little … Almost Nothing, but touching upon his other writings; and Jean-Luc Nancy, mainly in La Communauté Désoeuvrée. Critchley and Nancy both draw on Maurice Blanchot as something of a touchstone, and there is not coincidentally a constant circling around the works of Derrida and Levinas. I confess to not finding these works – especially Blanchot’s – easy, and I am very conscious that I may be mangling them, so you are welcome to call me out on that. I must also confess that I am not claiming to offer a detailed exegesis or application; I have tended to use these texts in a slightly freewheeling way, as a springboard to my own thoughts, which I hope are at least moderately consistent, between themselves and with the general thrust at least of the ideas that inspired them.
My own confrontation with this problem starts from two unfashionable points: a modified empiricism and a modified humanism. I adopt the first not out of pragmatism but because all critiques of empirical history that I have read seem ultimately founded upon an ability to make choices to some extent based upon an acceptance of some kind of empirical status for the bases of those choices. It is impossible to stand outside at least some sort of empiricism. I espouse a modified humanism because of what I see as the political-ethical demand at the heart of the historical project, to which I will return, and also because of my own political reservations about at least some aspects of post-humanist writing. No hierarchical distinctions or impermeable boundaries, just the insistence on the importance of recognising a common human experience, in all its suffering and finitude. That seems to me essential to a committed history. Does that let a different transcendence in by the back door? Perhaps. But to steal Critchley’s formulation, a very little one … almost nothing.
To begin at the beginning, what brings us to the study of history? What lies in that moment of fascination, when we first think of finding out more about history? What lies within the moment when we first decide we want to write about the past? Is it an aesthetic moment? One of attraction? One of desire? Or is it rather something more akin to dread? I think that there is something of all of this in different ratios, but, whatever one may decide to do after that initial moment, it is crucially pre-rational. It is the moment when, as I was reminded on Thursday, Benjamin says that the past flashes across the centuries – I don’t remember the term Benjamin used but suspect it may have been Schein, with all its Hegelian undertones. On the whole it may be best to think it through Barthes’ notion of the punctum, which I think it is useful to remember, contains an connection, linguistically at least, with trauma.
What seems to me to be common to any of these options is the sense of a thing which is there and yet not there. We might want to think this element to some extent in line with the il y a, which Blanchot adapted from Levinas. Obviously in this context, it is not entirely flippant to see this simultaneously as the il y avait, the ‘there was’, and is not. There lies one of the many points which so-called post-modern history has missed, in its obsession with endlessly repeating the glaringly obvious point that history is not the past itself, as though this were somehow an epistemological issue limited to history. The idea that there we feel something out there that talks to us (and of which the material traces, actually are out there and do speak to us) and in the gaze of which we imagine ourselves, seems strangely not to figure. This does seem to me to be assimilable, in concept or in function, with a number of other concepts, such as, perhaps, the Lacanian Real in at least some of its manifestations, especially if, with Critchley, one wants to insist upon the traumatic nature of the Levinasian il y a. An exploration of this space of engagement obviously entangles us, or conjures, Derrida’s hauntologie in Spectres de Marx, itself in a way a kind of structuring trace, a différance.
How to respond?
There may be much in Blanchot’s L’Espace Littéraire (however hard…) that can be thought with by historians thinking about the process of writing history. The issue of fascination – a potentially destructive fascination – is one; the idea of a summons to write a sense of pure exteriority might be another – the past seems to me to be as pure a form of exteriority as there can be. Then there are, and here I am drawing more heavily on Critchley’s Blanchot, the two pistes or slopes of literature (or history-writing). One, would be that which seeks to dominate, by reducing to or ordering, classification within language, by shaping into a narrative, to insist upon the rightness of a singular explanation: the similarities with the stage within the Phänomenologie (ch.3?), where the self-consciousness understands itself through its ability to consume is fairly clear. Ironically, to my mind, it seems to me that both traditional and soi-disant post-modernist approaches can equally – if in different ways – be seen as on this slope.
The other piste is the attempt, so to speak, to see through language to what lay before, to get back to the original. Clearly, this is very frequently what traditionalists think they are doing. Rather than the triumphal domination of the other slope, this is an attempt to erase writing, to merge the description with its object. But crucially these aren’t really choices. The point of Blanchot’s two pistes, in Critchley’s reading, is that one never knows which one is on, without thereby switching to the other. Here, for my purposes, lies important ambiguity and potential irony.
In particular, the imagery of the slope is useful to me because it will bring me to a vision of worklessness, of a commitment to the work – one that is never finished, however one is misled by the production of the finite piece – the book is a ruse – says Blanchot. [Or, the unit of assessment is a ruse. At this point I riffed ironically on the idea that we might rather embrace the REF as an ethical space of Blanchotien désoeuvrement.] Blanchot’s statement resonated with me. I am surely not the only one here who towards the end of a project – and maybe it is just the seemingly interminable tedium of those last stages of checking and footnoting – really feels that when this is done one will have said one’s last word – never again – that’s it from me - and yet, as soon as the manuscript is sent off, somehow races to the idea for the next thing. Therein, it seems to me, lies one means of hesitating between the options of transcendence and nihilism.
This hesitation, as I said, opens up spaces of irony or undecidability. One of the issues especially discussed in Critchley’s account, and crucially important to me, is finitude – as someone who made his name studying cemeteries, I guess it would be. Critchley’s reading of Blanchot finishes with a vertiginous experience of finitude opening onto ‘compassion for suffering humanity’. This is my modified humanism.
The moment of punctum, I would like to suggest, draws its force from its revelation of some other human experience. Here lies my empiricism, in that one assumes that some experience of the world was acting sufficiently upon – had sufficient ‘reality’ for – past people to cause them to react in ways that leave a historical trace. I propose, at the heart of this ‘moment’ lies an ethical demand, to listen to the other person (perhaps broadly assimilable with Levinas’ autrui). This is, to be honest, only a restatement in different language of a standard historical methodological injunction. It is, of course, a doubly – triply – multiply – impossible demand. It is impossible really to listen to that voice (at all sorts of levels); it is impossible to recreate the reality that called it forth; and, with Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding, all ethical demands are impossible.
So how do we respond to the pointlessness to which that multiply-layered impossibility might seem to condemn historical endeavour. Here, I draw yet again on Critchley’s oeuvre but this time his insights in On Humour. Can we suggest a way in which laughing with (again) a shared human futility might be a more productive means of bearing the unbearable ethical weight of being a historian? The value of being able to laugh at the endless futility of rolling Sisyphus’ rock up the hill is that it reminds us that, like Sisyphus’, the task of history is and never will be finished.
Again not coincidentally, there are affinities with the notion of the horizon in Derrida’s work, perhaps especially the open, Messianic horizon in Spectres de Marx. This might be seen as operating in different dimensions. It seems to me that the encounter with the past, in its singularity, should open up ethical reflection on justice, in its universal dimension, just as Derrida discusses in Spectres... But to paraphrase Derrida on Hegel, we will never be finished with reading and re-reading our historical sources. The reflection on justice, though, surely comes via empathy and a notion of iterability, my modified humanism, which in turn enables some sort of political action in the present. That, in turn, provides, for me, a different and more sophisticated ethico-political means of choosing between histories.
[There were two elements of the argument, of which space precluded discussion. One was the extension of this point through writing history, in the ironic mode, see Barbarian Migrations, and also the Gaps Ghosts and Dice musings on this blog. The other was the sense I have that in some ways Gregory of Tours'sense of history is not entirely dissimilar from certain aspects of this argument.]
I would like to propose that this might lead to a somewhat different form of historical discussion, which might move away from the obsession with paradigmatic, explanatory dominance and consensus. Implicit I hope in all the above is an openness of dialogue. With a move away from a striving for consensus comes a purer form of community, such as Jean-Luc Nancy has discussed in numerous writings. What I am arguing for, alongside this sense of history as constant movement in the space of the present, is, in Nancy’s term, an unworked community (communauté désoeuvrée) – une histoire désoeuvrée, if you like – one which recognises and values disagreement (such as, ironically, current post-modern history gurus seem not to) while preserving grounds for critical engagement and response.
The last line of Sellar and Yeatman’s classic 1066 and All That is that, when America became Top Nation, “history came to a .” The irony is that, although to a British reader that said “History came to a [full stop]”, to an American it said “History came to a [period]”. We might also read it, with the French, as “History came to a [point].” But the only way that history can have any point, at any point, is to realise that there is no point to which history can ever come.