Review of Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘Before Now’ symposium

On Tuesday 1st July the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University hosted a symposium on Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘Before Now’ in conjunction with colleagues from the Philosophies of History network based at Leeds University. The event was well attended by students and academics from different disciplines, and the seven speakers presented papers on an interesting range of topics. Alun Munslow (Prof. Research Fellow at St Mary’s University) started the day off with a paper on Irreality and the Aesthetics of Historying in which he applied Goodman’s five ways of ‘worldmaking’ to the subject of irreality and the fictive in the context of historical narratives. aesthetics-postmodernism-symposium-26

Following Alun was Jouni-Matti Kuukkannen from the University of Oulu, Finland. His paper focused on the objectivity-subjectivity dichotomy. He provided a brief overview of the history of objectivity and main literature in the field before arguing that he preferred to think of objectivity and subjectivity in terms of a sliding scale or axis between the two positions. Narratives occupy different places on the scale and for Jouni-Matti, more creative texts (including innovative histories) are found towards the subjective end of the scale. Following the two panels there was a lively discussion. Lance Pettitt suggested that it might be helpful to think of a third concept, that of collectivity or the authorized perspective in addition to that of subjectivity and objectivity. Keith responded to the idea that objectivity might be equated with neutrality by asking why anyone would ever write a history that was not in their interests, that did not reflect their perspective? Mike Phelan commented that he was persuaded by the arguments of Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow and then asked, this being the case, why he should continue with his PhD and how he could incorporate their critiques of the traditional epistemologies employed by historians, into his thesis?aesthetics-postmodernism-symposium-17

The next speaker was Paul Antick (Photographer, Artist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Roehampton). After providing some background information on the British massacre of 24 Chinese-Malay rubber plantation workers near Batang Kali in 1848 he read a section of a draft from his new project on the massacre. His very innovative documentary-fiction or ‘historying’ project centres on the activities of a fictional amateur anthropologist named Willing and a photographer called Smith who go to Malaysia to visit Batang Kali, and record narratives of the event. His work addressed questions of the authority of eyewitnesses, the status of story tellers, the way narratives are structured and how we deal with plural stories. It also challenged the conventions and expectations surrounding academic history papers and provided an example of an alternative type of theoretically aware, self-reflexive history. The final paper before lunch was by Helena Hammond (Senior Lecturer in Dance at the University of Roehampton). Her paper began with an extract from Alexander Sokurov’s film Russian Ark and then explored how the power of the film as a politicized vehicle for the performance of history rests on the aesthetics of its ‘total art work’ vectors fusing visual art, music, dance and dialogue.

Javier López Alós (Lecturer at the University of Leeds) began the afternoon session with a paper on Goya’s ‘Disaster of War’ series of paintings that illustrates aspects of the Peninsular War (1808-1814). He argued that in some ways these paintings act as a forerunner of photojournalism, and that their power derives not from their documentary character, but from the moral message they convey. Adi Efal (Researcher at the University of Cologne) then gave a paper exploring how the concept of ‘habitude’ could be employed with regard to the past. The questions after this session centered on whether historians should take risks with their narrations of the past or whether prudence and a conservative attitude is more useful. Alun Munslow asked why anyone would want to write a history without taking a risk and also asked whether we should worry about getting things wrong. Keith raised the problem of other minds in the context of historical knowledge and suggested that this is why historians’ representations always fail.aesthetics-postmodernism-symposium-05

Kalle Pihlainen (Academy of Finland Research Fellow at Åbo Akademi University and Adjunct Professor of Historical Theory at the University of Turku) ended the day with a paper that brought Hayden White’s narrative constructivist ideas into dialogue with Kenneth Goldsmith’s notion of uncreative writing. Specifically he thought that uncreative writing could help historians break free from the logic of re-creation/recreation – historical narratives as a means representing people or events; and historical representations as a form of entertainment, just another part of consumer culture. For example, if historians simply listed items and presented materials without consciously seeking a narrative or meaning then the responsibility for creating meaning would be placed on the readers who would therefore become aware that there are always significant stories that require acknowledgement outside of their own subjective readings.aesthetics-postmodernism-symposium-21

The day was very enjoyable and provided a good opportunity for affiliates of the centre to meet with some of the organizer of the Philosophies of History network. There was lots of animated discussion and cake. For the record the cakes were: coffee and walnut, a chocolate-digestive refrigerator cake; and ginger and sultana oat cookies. We hope to organize future events in collaboration with our colleagues from Philosophies of History in the near future.

Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘before now’

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Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘before now’

One-day symposium on 1st July 2014

St. Mary’s University

Senior Common Room

Organisers: Claire Norton and Mark Donnelly The Centre for the Philosophy of History (St Mary’s University), and Michael J. Kelly Philosophies of History (University of Leeds)

Generously funded by the School of Arts and Humanities at St Mary’s University

Is historiography akin to (theories of) objectivity or closer to subjectivist expression? What happens if we assume that while there well may have been an ‘extra-textual’ past reality, history is always an ‘intra-textual,’ imagined and fictive enterprise? While accepting a narrativist philosophy of history requires acknowledging the irreality of historying, it also legitimises a multiplicity of possible experimental forms that could be deployed to engage with the time before now: surreal, Dadaist, altereality, uncreative, documentary-fiction historying? Is it fair to argue that the more innovative and original a historian desires to be the more subjective her output will be, whereas in contrast, the less she is willing to say, the more objective her result will be? Has postmodernism, in its rejection of universality and foundational truths, provided history aesthetically and functionally with a more radical or emancipatory platform than its objectivity-centred Modernist predecessor? Or have postmodernist aesthetics simply reinforced the status quo and thus marginalized alternative ways of engaging with our pasts?

Papers given by philosophers, historians, and artists at the one-day symposium Aesthetics, Postmodernism and the ‘before now’ will consider such questions as these. Responding to narrativist theories of history, developments in contemporary literary theory, and experimental forms of narrating or performing pasts in the visual arts they will explore the aesthetic possibilities for history writing in theory and in practice.

The symposium will take place in the Senior Common Room at St Mary’s Strawberry Hill campus. The symposium is free and everyone is welcome. For more information about the event and to book a place, please contact Claire Norton on or Mark Donnelly on


9.15am – 9.40am Register
9.40am – 9.50am Welcome
9.50am – 11.10am Panel 1: Chair – Mark Donnelly
Alun MunslowIrreality and the Aesthetics of Historying
Jouni-Matti KuukkanenHistoriography between subjectivity and objectivity
11.10am – 11.25am Refreshment break
11.25am – 12.45am Panel 2: Chair – Claire Norton
Paul AntickSmith @ Batang Kali: Letter B to Cohen.
Helena HammondDancing in the museum: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) and the politics and poetics of the aesthetics of the St Petersburg total art work as historical representation
12.45pm – 1.30pm Lunch
1.30pm – 2.50pm Panel 3: Chair – Michael Kelly
Adi EfalHabitude and archaeology
Javier López AlósRhetoric, Representation and Apocalypse: The Peninsular War as Religious War
2.50pm – 3.10pm Refreshment break
3.10pm – 4.30pm Panel 4: Chair – Helena Hammond
Kalle PihlainenHistory as uncreative writing
Robert DoranHayden White and the Practical Past
4.30pm Closing remarks

For more information contact Claire or Mark

An Afternoon of Arendt

Review of The future of History: cake and theory seminar series – An Afternoon of Arendt

The first of the two papers this afternoon was presented by Marije Altorf (Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at St Mary’s University) and was titled “Arendt, Herzberg, and Mulisch: Rereading Eichmann in Jerusalem” In the paper Marije discussed the controversy sparked by Arendt’s book that gave an account of Eichmann’s trial: Eichmann in Jerusalem. The debate centres on whether Arendt was right in arguing for ‘the banality of evil’ and also whether her assessment of Eichmann was correct. However, rather than focus on what Berkowitz has called the ‘Yes and No reading of Arendt’s judgment – that Arendt was correct in arguing that people can commit monstrous deeds without much thought, but incorrect in her assessment that Eichmann was not a monster, Marije argued that it might be more interesting to ask instead what kind of book Eichmann in Jerusalem tries to be, assuming we do not agree with Susan Neiman that it constitutes not only an incomplete sketch in moral history, but it is also a faulty piece of historical writing.

Marije’s paper is part of a broader research project in which she reads Eichmann in Jerusalem alongside works by two Dutch authors Mulisch and Herzberg. In the paper she first discussed in brief the three key authors, the knowledge they had of each other, and similarities between their works. She then explored Arendt’s response to the controversy her work caused in a “Note to the Reader” and “Postscript” that she added to later editions. Here Arendt reiterated her argument that Eichmann was not a sociopath or fanatic, but an unremarkable person who was looking out for his own advancement. In these later additions to the work Arendt stresses that it is important to base one’s discussion on the facts and that the book is essentially a ‘trial report’ based on sources and trial transcripts. Marije then explored in a little more depth Arendt’s understanding of a fact and the relationship between fact and interpretation before reconsidering the controversy as one arising not from differences of fact, but of storytelling.philosophy- of- history- event-10

In his paper entitled “Hannah Arendt: History, Causation and New Beginnings” Richard King (Emeritus Professor, University of Nottingham) gave an excellent introduction to Arendt’s views on history both in the context of the crisis of modernity and with regard to her concept of the ‘unprecedented’. He argued that Arendt was largely suspicious of the philosophy of history because she identified it with Hegelian and Marxist future-oriented visions, because she believed it left little room for freedom of thought, and because she was distrustful of theories that purported to explain and thus predict human action and thought. While she considered history to be a process she did not think that there was a determining telos or meaning to history. She was also concerned that history could potentially be used to justify what has happened – that when we record what has happened, it can then be seen as in someway inevitable. For her, history was a process or story that we use to construct our worlds – if we turn the past into a story in the present then it is possible to come to terms with it. Richard also discussed Arendt’s theory of politics and the political, arguing that she saw history as providing examples of authentic politics where humans remember glorious deeds, but also act and begin things anew – thus conceptualising history as a process that encompasses both the old and the new. Influenced by Nietzsche she thought that historians should use examples, ideas, or actions from the past against the present: they should use such examples to disrupt and challenge the present. Trying to avoid the pitfalls inherent in the notion of historical causality, Arendt argued for the possibility of historical elements being crystalised into something new and unprecedented. Therefore, for example while crystalisation cannot explain the cause of totalitarianism, it can tell us what historical factors were required to produce it and what was unprecedented about it – namely the bureaucratic and industrial nature of extermination, the creation of superfluous humans, and the free agency behind the camps’ creation.

Towards the end of his paper Richard King explored the change that occurred in Arendt’s historical thought between the end of the war and the Eichmann trial. While she doubted that a trial could do justice to the atrocious crimes committed she did think that the testimony of those on trial could provide a type of historical knowledge. In response to the trial she modified her notion of evil to encompass the idea of the banality of evil and thus Richard King argued new historical knowledge forced her to change her way of thinking. Considering her argument for the banality of evil in some depth King argues that her lack of knowledge of the unconscious and theories of mind meant that she perceived post-war German disassociation of the holocaust as evidence of the shallowness and thus banality of evil, rather than as a means of unconscious denial.

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Dan Stone then provided some lucid reflections on the papers and on Arendt’s work in general, suggesting that there was a degree of tension between her theoretical stance towards historical knowledge and her practice as a historian. Following this there were a series of questions from the audience and a lively discussion before we all retired for tea and homemade cake – the cakes were lemon polenta, honey spice cake, and chocolate chip cookies with Maldon sea salt.

See here for an interview with Hannah Arendt – in German, but with English subtitles

One of the key research areas Marije Altorf is currently interested in is Socratic Dialogue. She has recently published an article on Socratic dialogue entitled “Selling Socrates, or the Unexamined Life and the University,” which can be found here

Richard King co-edited the collection of essays, Hannah Arendt and the Uses of History: Imperialism, Nation, Race and Genocide (Oxford: Berghahn, 2007)  He is about to complete a major study of Arendt in America.

Dance as Historical Discourse: Forsythe, Foucault, Brecht, and the BBC

On Wednesday 28th January, Dr Helena Hammond (Senior Lecturer in Dance at the University of Roehampton) gave a very interesting paper entitled ‘Dance as Historical Discourse: Forsythe, Foucault, Brecht, and the BBC’ as part of the Futures of History: cake and theory seminar series held by the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University. Twickenham.

See here for an interview with Dr Hammond on performative histories.
dr-helena-hammond-23Beginning with, and responding to, Historian Robert Rosenstone’s comment that:

“While professional historians continue, with but a few exceptions, to write in a highly traditional manner, some little-known filmmakers and videographers have begin to create a kind of history that we can truly label postmodern, producing works that provide a distinctly new relationship to […] the traces of the past.” (Rosenstone, 1995, 201-2)

Dr Hammond’s paper investigated dance as a possible alternative praxis for historical representation. Helena explored how William Forsythe’s ballet Steptext, performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in 1997 just before its closure for renovation, generated new strategies for exploring or reading the relationship between the Royal Ballet and its institutional home at the Royal Opera House.

After showing an 8-minute clip of the BBC recording of this performance of Steptext as an introduction to the work, Helena outlined the theoretical framework she would use to explore the relationship between the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House employing some of the key ideas of Foucault, and notions of Brechtian critique. She then explored how Forsythe, influenced by his reading of Foucault has over the past few decades worked “to reconceive ballet as the vehicle for staging a certain kind of new, iconoclastic history” (Hammond, 2013, 125). In particular she argued that Steptext, through its narrative rupture, worked to unsettle and disturb ballet’s embodiment of institutional history.

Helena discussed how Steptext and also the BBC’s coverage of the 1997 performance worked to dismantle the tradition of ballet and audiences’ preconceptions through a juxtaposition of the performance of Steptext with footage of the pre-show ceremonial performances by the front of house staff and audiences, and images of the cranes that were poised to begin the remodeling of the Royal Opera House. Helena then went on to explore why the Royal Ballet, rather than the Royal Opera was so suitable a vehicle for staging such a Brechtian critique of a quintessential British institution. In answering this question Helena argued that it was the highly feminised identity and liminality that has been imposed on the Royal Ballet in a post-war British arts culture that meant that it was able to fulfill such a role. She contended that although the Royal Ballet was certainly an integral part of the Arts Council cultural establishment its feminised or subaltern status enabled it to be read as analogous to the marginalized, female characters who articulate estrangement in Brechtian theatre. She then outlined a new feminist history of post-war British ballet through this perspective focusing on how despite being financially self-supporting (unlike its sibling the Royal Opera) the Royal Ballet was, to a large extent, perceived as marginal and subservient to the Royal Opera, to the extent that the artistic director of the Royal Ballet although answerable to the Royal Opera House’s board of directors, was excluded from discussions. The ballet toured extensively, yet were excluded from the decision-making process to the extent that scheduled ballet dates were frequently changed.

After the paper there was an interesting discussion followed by tea and home made cakes.

For those interested in the topic, there are a number of suggested books for further reading:

Robert A. Rosenstone “The Future of the Past: film and the beginnings of postmodern history,” in Vivian Sobchack (ed.), The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, (London: Routledge, 1995) 201-18.

Helena Hammond, “Dancing against History: (The Royal) Ballet, Forsythe, Foucault, Brecht and the BBC,” Dance Research 31.2 (2013), 120-143.


Centre for Philosophy of History welcomes Prof. Alun Munslow


Following the launch of the Centre for Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham earlier this year, recently appointed Professorial Research Fellow Alun Munslow talks about his new role.

“Can I say ‘thank you’ for the invitation to join the Centre for the Philosophy of History. My welcome has been very warm and colleagues have quickly smoothed my path – even to sorting out which trains to catch to get me to and from Euston! I shall certainly do what I can to make the Centre a key feature in the landscape of history thinking and practice in the UK and further afield. The initiative of staff is splendid and funding by the University College is far sighted. I am convinced that the Centre will quickly establish itself as a major UK and international focus for advanced thinking on both the theory and practice of history.” Prof Alun Munslow.

The Centre launched in September and is a hub for organising conferences, workshops and seminars whilst providing a base for recruiting postgraduate research students, as well as for making regular applications for external research funding.

Student Review of the Opening of the Centre for the Philosophy of History

Centre-OpeningLydia Birch reviews the opening of the Centre for the Philosophy of History at St Mary’s University College

On my way to the lecture, I have to admit I was especially sceptical about the post-modernist view of history and believed entirely that I would always remain a constructionist historian. Having had numerous cups of coffee, which I thought was essential so that I could pay attention, I sat down. After spilling coffee all down my front, Prof Alun Munslow, one of the lead thinkers in post-modernist history, began his lecture and whilst taking notes I started to become lost in his theory of history and the idea that there is no history in the past, there is only the past and history is what we make it today. Before, this had always seemed as a radical approach to me because throughout my education, history had always been a solid and definite subject, but Prof Munslow made me question this in a way which I had never approached before. After five minutes of being in the lecture I realised that the coffee was not necessary at all because the theory was incredibly endearing and engaging, it was a thrill to listen to this anti-narrative theory of history.MunslowProf Munslow touched on the idea that historians turn the past into a narrative and it was the imagination of historians that turn something that didn’t exist into existing, and as a result of doing this the history went from being fact into story. Thus creating the suspicion that there is no certainty anywhere, and I started to doubt something that had always been cemented fact in my mind, that the study of history is actually the study of historians and their judgements. He argued that not all history is fact because we will never be able to produce an exact representation of the past. Overall, my scepticism at the beginning seems completely irrational, and this lecture simply made me look at history in a completely new light, it leaves you with the question what it is to be studying history? And why would you study history?

Lydia Birch

Centre Launch

centre-opening-blog-1On Tuesday 1st October our new Centre was officially launched. A number of very eminent philosophers and theorists of history had agreed to give short papers and participate in a Q&A session, but before the talks began there was time for a sandwich lunch and some refreshment. At 1pm after some introductory words by Head of the School of Arts and Humanities Prof Lance Pettitt and myself, the event began with a fascinating paper by Prof Alun Munslow. This was followed by a Q&A session where Alun and Prof Keith Jenkins expertly fielded a variety of questions asked by the audience including some by our students.CakeThere was then a short break to cut the cake (expertly iced by Pauline) after which Dr Glenn Richardson awarded Graeme Ancient the Kenneth Breen Memorial Prize for History. We were pleased that the winner of the prize in 2012 (Sam Spranger) and the 2013 winner Graeme were both present at the launch. In fact the participation in the day by so many of our students was a highlight for us. The day concluded with very interesting papers by Martin Davies and Prof Nur Masalha who from different perspectives explored the intersection of politics and history. After the official close of proceedings a number of us retired to the Dolcé Vita Cafe for more cake and animated discussion. We would like to thank everyone who not only made the day such an enjoyable event, but also those people who have provided guidance and support in the establishment of the centre.Claire