Review of Dariusz Gafiejezuk’s ‘IHR’ paper “The Inhabited Ruins of History”

pier

“The Pier” Photograph by Pete Kyle – for more see http://www.petekyle.co.uk

Guest blog post by regular contributor Peter P. Icke

The evening of Thursday 12th December saw the last of the current series of Philosophy of History papers delivered at the Institute of Historical Research. And for this occasion it was Dariusz Gafiejezuk who, drawing from the writings of the cultural philosopher Georg Simmel, talked on the subject of ‘The Inhabited Ruins of History’, an audio-visual presentation that rested on ideas gathered and expressed in his earlier published article, ‘Dwelling Within: The Inhabited Ruins of History’, (History and Theory, May 2013, pp149-170), the central and governing elements of which I shall now attempt to capture in the following brief paragraph.

Well, we have the ‘ruins’ of both titles to consider which, as Gafiejezuk explains, are to be taken not ‘as piles of rubble’ but, rather, as ‘living ruins [which occupy] ….the spaces we continually inhabit’. And, further, that these ruins are ‘intimate to our modern constitution’ which, apparently, is in ‘a process of ruination’. Now, I take it that what Gafiejezuk is probably characterising here is a particular state or “situatedness” of mind which, he then goes on to claim, affords the occasion for ‘….the past to emerge in the moment of our encounter with the “afterlife” of various events, inscribed in texts, photographs, or, in their most extended range, architectural edifices [his punctuation, not mine]’. Furthermore, it would appear that it is Gafiejezuk’s own experience, or close experience, of such a supposed ‘emergence of the past’ (or perhaps many such experiences) that allows him to champion his central and key notion which he calls virtual witnessing and which he describes as ‘a special form of modern perception through which the past and the present encounter each other’. The balance of his text, which is rich in exotic metaphors of description but wanting in any style of explanation, philosophical or otherwise, for me adds nothing at all that might better illuminate, less still validate, Gafiejezuk’s belief that a past that no longer exists and that is beyond apprehension can, of its own volition and intent, get up and tumble into the present in such a spectacular manner.

And, indeed, these claims were generally poorly received, although in fairness to Gafiejezuk I should point out that one of those present actually turned out to be a vociferous supporter of his position. Nevertheless, the speaker and his enthusiastic acolyte failed to adequately counter damaging challenges to that position, one of which, simply put, runs as follows: Could those claimed ‘moments of encounter’ with the actuality of the past be nothing more than the reflections or replications of Gafiejezuk’s own imaginative projections on to one or other of his so called ‘inscribed’ artefacts of transmission? However, the plausibility and explanatory effect of this counter-proposal was lost on Gafiejezuk who, rather forcefully, confounded matters by denying the existence of any distinction between description and explanation, these two words being synonymous for him. Thus, in effect, Gafiejezuk takes the view that his uninvestigated descriptive claims can stand alone and above any need for their explanation. But it seems to me that while both description and explanation are, at bottom, metaphor-bound, explanation differs from description in its function. The point to be stressed here is that explanation operates within a particular strategy, the purpose of that strategy being to sustain the credibility or plausibility of the proposal in question, and to do so in relation to what for now I shall simply call ‘practical consensual knowledge of how things are’ – a sort of informed common sense. Any move beyond this general consensus would be in urgent need of some style of vindication or plausible explanation if it’s to have any chance at all of eventually gaining acceptance and joining that consensus. Accordingly, it is, not least, the lack of any such ‘plausible explanation’ that excludes this arguably bizarre thesis from its chosen discourse, whichever one that might be. And in this connection it should be noted here that – despite Gafiejezuk’s use of the noun ‘history’ and its adjectival companion ‘historical’ throughout both his article and his presentation – virtual witnessing is of a singular, private, non-verifiable existential kind and not of a historical kind. It has no place in the discourse of history. Rather, I would suggest that it might be better suited to and situated in some remote and mystical corner of the discourse of memory studies broadly construed.

Now, this review is already lengthier than intended but I’m not quite finished yet, for there was one particular argument presented from the floor which, for me, eloquently questioned the unexplored suppositions on which the speaker grounded his case for virtual witnessing.

The argument goes as follows: Much of the evening’s paper, and its defence in the discussion that followed, depended on there being a dialogue between the past and the present; that somehow the past could speak to us, make its presence felt and that the historian could thus allow the past to impress itself on him/her. It is on this basis that Gafiejezuk invoked the notion of having an active ‘encounter’, ‘exchange’ or ‘engagement’ with the ‘emergent’ past. But the problem here is that such an active encounter depends implicitly on there being two active agents, or agencies. That is, the past on the one hand and the historian on the other. But if the past is dead, and can only be read by the historian who endows or projects onto the dead/mute past a ‘voice’, then what we have here is a monologue not a dialogue; the historian is the only agent because the past is passive, it has no will of its own, it cannot literally speak to us and it doesn’t come to meet us. The idea of a dialogue, an encounter, cannot then be a literal encounter but only a metaphorical one – the past as if it speaks to the present, and therefore not being a literal, active presence, then the basis of the speaker’s argument fails. To some extent the notion of virtual witnessing, fragmented in the article on which the paper was based, is more nuanced than the presenter’s paper, but not enough, one feels, to prevent the above argument from calling into question its basic, guiding assumptions.

Can this be the final word on virtual witnessing?

Peter P Icke