Letters Archive
Fall 1996, Vol. 5, No. 1
  • The Question of Culture
  • Politics, Ethics, and Terror
  • "History" and its Relation to Place
  • "History" and its Relation to Place

    Gordon Hull

    The 1995/96 Fellows Program, which was titled "The Apocalypse Seminar: Fin de Siècle, Millennium, and Other Transitions," sponsored "The End of the World" graduate student essay contest last spring. Students from a variety of Vanderbilt programs submitted essays about different concepts of the apocalypse. Gordon Hull won the contest with his essay, "Kundera, Kant, and the Synsk Khanty: Thoughts toward Reading Benjamin's Theologico-Political Fragment." Mr. Hull is a University Graduate Fellow in the doctoral program of the Department of Philosophy. What follows is derived from his essay.

    I would like to sketch some thoughts about one understanding of "history" and its relation to place. This sketch represents part of my ongoing research into the ways in which contemporary political values have acquired the meanings they have, even as these meanings are now taken for granted. Such instigation is timely not only in the context of discussions of Martin Heidegger's "destruction of metaphysics," Michel Foucault's "philosophical archaeology," and Mikhail Bakhtin's "philosophical anthropology," but also because much of contemporary discourse is pervaded by a sense of the end of a certain understanding of "politics" and "history." Yet, if we are to proclaim the "end of history," as Francis Fukuyama has done regarding the collapse of the Soviet bloc, then we would do well to understand what is said to have ended.

    In Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, when Sabina speaks in exile at a meeting of Czech dissidents and èmigrès, she does so from a point outside of the dialectic of history, and thus apocalyptically. At this meeting, she already sees through the dialectical progression to a repeating pattern of marches and parades (for the Communists, against the Communists, for the liberation of Prague, for another liberation of Prague, and so on); this repetition calls itself "history." In April 1968, in events imaged by Kundera, the awkward synthesis of "socialism" and "a human face" was broken by a Soviet army that would not be sublated. Also broken was the arrangement that would lead Prague into a socialism with any face. In rejecting the èmigrès, then, Sabina turns away from marches and from what might be called a evolutionary spiral: the synthesis of global utopia had devolved into the Communist bloc, and then into the understanding that socialism does not have to have a human face.

    We may thus, in addition to the sense of repetition, mark a sense of dispersal in the wake of the march to build socialism, which is to note that the effort to build history, thought from a point outside it, carries with it a sense of dispersal, despite its own insistence on unity. Kundera's image of marches and "identical syllables in unison" brings to mind Foucault's observation that "discipline had its own type of ceremony. It was not the triumph, but the review, the 'parade,' an ostentatious form of the examination." I do not wish here to discuss Foucault in any detail, but merely to mark a congruent moment in imagery: Foucault attaches disciplinary to the march, which suggests a sense in which it involves a conscious molding of events.

    What these reflections suggest is that history, understood as disciplinary history--the effort to mold historic events toward a unified purpose--entails as its inevitable byproduct elements of its own nullification. There is some thing excessive to efforts to mold events into history. The full realization of this excess would mean the end of the effort, and therefore from the standpoint of history, such a realization must be thought as apocalyptic, an ending of history without its reaching fulfillment. So too, from the standpoint of this excess, from the standpoint of events and characters which are not yet historic, becoming historic would be a similar sort of end, of an ending as excess by becoming, instead, historic. Therefore, whatever is involved in this byproduct, that is, whatever is involved in the generation of disciplinary history that carries with it its own nullification, emerges from either standpoint as a matter of an ending. What is at stake is literally the end of history and of the world it constructs. More precisely, what is at stake is the status of Kant's claim that a "philosophical search to work out the general world history after a plan of nature must be respected as possible and even as capable of furthering the purpose of nature itself."

    In Kant's "Ideas for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose," we find an early and definitive formulation in which history has two essential elements. He writes: "history is concerned with giving an account of these phenomena [the manifestations of the will in the world], no matter how deeply concealed their causes may be." First, a successful history presents an account of phenomena. Second, this account must be causal, perhaps not in the narrow sense of demonstrating the prior physical mechanisms that bring about a given event, but in the more general sense of providing a sufficient explanation for why one event occurs after another. Thus, such an account exists, and in it, events are construed as strung together in sequence. For Kant, history, in a general sense, is constructive. The bringing about of history in order to fulfill a natural purpose involves constructing a causal account of phenomena.

    To return to Sabina and the sense of dispersal, we may also note that the excess to history is often "place." Now is not the time to develop this idea fully, but perhaps an example will indicate it. When the Soviet planners entered Siberia and encountered the "small [malie; the word also connotes inadequacy] people" there, they brought with them not only the things to "modernize" them, but also the things to make their tundral home irrelevant to their future lives. For example, well-insulated trains were introduced so that the Soviets could travel comfortably above the ice and snow. More subtly, the shamen, who constituted the spiritual link to nature, were outlawed in the Soviet march toward a Communist utopia. We should keep in mind that the word "utopia" literally means "no place."

    If the march toward the telos of history produces displacements and motions between constructed history and natural place, then, it is the awareness of these displacements that poses the greatest threat to the march and that can, in a literal sense, bring about its end. More precisely, it is the awareness that the separations are constructed and consciously maintained. That is, there has to be a Sabina to call for the end of marches, and in order for Sabina to be able to do this, she must not only be displaced, but also must exist and track her existence independently of her displacement. The most apocalyptic question, then, is the one that seems the most innocuous. It is the asking of "how did I get here?" To see the emergence of this question, we must now re turn to Kant.

    What, briefly, is the telos of Kantian history, and what is the nature of the insight that allows one to ask an apocalyptic question of it? The first part is the easier to answer provisionally, which would be to say that enlightenment, understood by Kant as "man's emergence from his self incurred immaturity," is a desirable end to the achievement of which thinking should construct history in order that "we might by our own rational powers accelerate the coming of this period which will be so welcome to our descendants." Kant's emphasis on parturition and maturation suggests a thinking that is based on generation and construction, always looking toward the future. Growing up is not so much about where one has been--the "how I got here" question--but about where one is going--the "what will I be" question. One should also notice the moral weight Kant attaches to "self-incurred immaturity." "Incurred" is a translation of verschuldeten, which implies not only being the cause of something, but also being guilty of it. This question is hence a rational one: guilt is the province of morality, which is the province of reason; Kant has thus already brought together history, reason, and parturition.

    Kant continues that "for this reason, [that we might construct a better future] even the weak traces of its approach [die scwachen Spuren der Annäherung] will be extremely important to us." Here we see, in a determinate sense, the emergence of shaping and molding, that is, of discipline. The more a shape is traced into something, the more that something conforms to its shape. Even the weakest tracings help to bring about the molding, because each contributes, how ever minimally, to the actualization of historic shape. Even here, there is a sense of construction at work as these signs and traces have to be drawn. The approach of the historic telos is a matter of inscription. At first, the inscription is weak, but there is a force to it nevertheless. Future drawings, that is, renewed philosophies of history, will strengthen the inscriptions and deepen the marks. Thus, the realization of the historical telos from historic events is brought about by the historic tracing itself. At the same time, however, it is the trace of the approach, and the approach has itself a sense of its own motion: it is an Annäherung, an approaching. It is the conjunction of these two motions that is crucial for Kant, for that is the sense in which the historic and the natural are in some sense together. That putting them together requires a conscious act can be seen in a brief comparison of Kant's and Walter Benjamin's understandings of history.

    As Benjamin says in his "Theologico-Political Fragment," "the profane is indeed not a category of the [Messianic] kingdom, but a category, and indeed the decisive one, of its softest approach [Nahen]. We should note three things. First, Benjamin has here shifted the discussion from tracing to one of categories, which is to say that things are no longer a matter of construction but of noting and correctly analyzing what is already there. Second, the sense of Kant's Annäherung (approaching), which as a gerund stresses the motion, has disappeared in Benjamin's Nahen (approach). Benjamin suggests that the approach of the Messianic is already here, and not something which is itself a motion toward us brought about by our own construction. Benjamin's transition points to the sense in which the Messianic kingdom is the end but not the telos of the historic, and hence suggests that the Messianic is apocalyptic.

    Finally, note that the question of place, which is the question of the gap between nature and history, emerges as an almost necessary byproduct of Kant's conjunction. Each tracing, each moment in which the telos of history is brought nearer by its motion toward greater determinacy, involves the creation of a drawing, a history. This drawing, however, is itself not historic--as Benjamin puts it elsewhere, "no fact [Tatbestand] that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became that posthumously." Tatbestand connotes both existence and place: it is a deed, an act; it is existing, which is to say that it stands at some place. For it to become historic, it has to lose exactly this character--it has to be part of the tracing. Each effort at inscription, then, each trace from the weakest onward, slowly dislodges the fact from its place. For Benjamin, there is no reason to think that the relation between traces (Spuren) and approaching is a correlation or a linear one. That Kant holds them together points to the entry of a gap between nature and history; that this gap is the product of tracing points to the element of construction present even in maintaining the separation itself.

    When we turn, therefore, to a transition from Kant to Benjamin, it is a transition in which the connection between nature and history is rethought. In this rethinking, history from the standpoint of tracing experiences its end. As the connection breaks down, so does the construction that holds it together, and with them the very possibility of history reaching its telos as the realization of a natural purpose. The question, then, becomes: what about Benjamin's approach renders it apocalyptic? That is, what about Benjamin's thought points to the end of history? Of obvious import is the issue of comportment, since the consequence for the historian in recognizing that events become historic posthumously is that, as Benjamin says, he "stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary" and rather "grasps the constellation in which his own epoch is entered with a completely determined earlier [one]." Two elements should be highlighted: first, the gesture becomes one of grasping, and not one of tracing. It is a motion toward something which is already there. Specifically, what the historian grasps is a constellation, which is to say that the structure as a relation is already there, and not created through repeated tracings. Second, the earlier epoch regains its sense of place: it is completely determined, independently of the historian's tracing. In other words, this recomportment releases events from the historic to their places. In allowing the release, it thus makes possible the asking of the apocalyptic question, "how did I get here," by restoring a sense of "here" independent of the historic telos. The historian thus, in Benjamin's words, "establishes a concept of the present as the 'now time' in which splinters of the Messianic are shot through." In other words, the recomportment is itself apocalyptic in the sense that it already allows the entry--experienced as a sudden jump and therefore as an end and not a fulfillment, that is, not as repeated tracing--of the Messianic.

    Here we must be very careful to avoid a misreading. Benjamin is not indicating that the study of history should begin again from a new perspective. To do so would be to continue in the manner of construction, and to interpret Benjamin in this way would miss the reason his thinking is, from the point of view of history, apocalyptic. The march, after all, can accommodate new origins: these are antitheses, and their resolution is inherent in the dialectical process itself. Benjamin's consideration proceeds from outside dialectic: it is a comportment to the past in a way that denies the possibility of having an original zero point or origin as first. The historian who realizes the incompatibility between the historic and the causal "grasps the constellation" of his own epoch and other, rather than finding a new telos or causal chain.

    As these remarks suggest, there is much involved and much at stake in what one means by "history" and its "end." Perhaps an other brief example will serve to indicate the direction one might take in this regard as well as the relevance of these reflections to contemporary discourse. The Soviet Union of the 1930s involved the forced separation and dispersal of ethnic groups from their traditional territories in the name of "progress," "the workers," and "history." One was supposed to cease being "Kazakh" or "Russian" and to become "Soviet." On the other hand, the collapse of the Soviet Union has been presented as the end of dialectical history, not just in the trivial sense indicated by Fukuyama, but in the more subtle sense of the re turn of calls for a return to place. There are now groups in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere which assert claims to historic homelands, often by denouncing the "West," which is understood as "progress" and the "historic." One example is the conflict in Chechnya, which suggests that the "rise of nationalism" is intimately connected with the "end of history." It is this connection that needs to be thought, if we are to understand either.

    Letters Archive Index

    For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.

    [ RPW Center for the Humanities | About the Center | Visiting Fellowship Information | Howard Lecture Series | Seminars and Programs | Programs since 1987 ]

    [ Vanderbilt University | Site Index | Search Vanderbilt | Help ]

    Created by Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.
    Photo credits: Gerald Holly and Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.

    Copyright © 1998, Vanderbilt University
    URL: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/
    Last Modified: Tuesday, 9 May 2000
    For more information: rpw.center@vanderbilt.edu