Ken Breen Scholarship in History

Cherelle and Glenn

The Ken Breen scholarship prize for best performance in history at level 3 was awarded to Cherelle Nightingill on the 7th October 2014 by Glenn Richardson. Cherelle was an outstanding undergraduate student who wrote a first class dissertation on Tudor History.

The prize, worth £500, was founded in 2009 by Mr Stephen Gilham in memory of Ken Breen who was previously head of History at St Mary’s. Previous winners have included Graeme Ancient, Sam Spranger and Danielle Kemsley.

Well done Cherelle and good luck for the future

Review of ‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’

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‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’

Delivered at the Institute of Historical Research on 9th October 2014 by Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

(Doctoral Research Associate, University of Bielefeld) and reviewed here by Peter P Icke

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This autumn’s series of IHR ‘Philosophy of History’ seminars was launched on 9th October with the delivery of a paper by Zoltán Boldizsár Simon bearing the captivating title ‘A Quasi-Substantive Philosophy of History’. And I must say right away that I was impressed with both Zoltán’s assured style of presentation, his enthusiasm for his arguments and, indeed, his unswerving defence of those arguments during the post-paper debate; a debate which revealed the somewhat splintered nature of the opinions and positions of those present.

But to continue with the matter at hand, I want first to very briefly set out my reading of the central stuff of Simon’s argument. Then I will try to equally briefly set out what must surely have been the most apposite of the counter-arguments despatched against it from what, as I have already pointed out, was a divided floor.

Now, to turn to the paper itself which opened with the declaration that there is no longer the need to propose a quasi-substantive philosophy of history because such a philosophy has already entered the discourse through the works of various theorists including, and in particular, Eelco Runia, Frank Ankersmit and Jean-Luc Nancy. And, further, that this “quasi-substantive philosophy of history” differs from its earlier goal and meaning driven “substantive” counterpart in the extent to which it is ‘without a definite goal, without meaning and without a proper substance’. But, and this can be taken as the central motif or perhaps the “narrative substance” of Simon’s argument, notwithstanding these three ‘withouts’, a quasi-substantive philosophy of history is argued here to set a previously static history[1] on the move again. And ‘history’ in this instance, Simon explained, is to be understood in the sense of our coming future or ‘the history ahead of us’[2].

So, how exactly does this argument hang together? Well, the ‘move’ just mentioned rests on a notion of identity-shift brought about through violent rupture or discontinuity in the passage of past events (the French Revolution being often taken as its paradigmatic example) which effects a dissociation with the immediate past and its identity or ‘ontological subject’, the previous ‘them’ as Simon puts it, while giving birth to a new ‘we’. That is to say, the birth of a new ontological subject which, in the fullness of time and midst ruptures arising out of ‘monstrous deeds’ to come[3], would itself become the previous ‘they’ to the birth of the next ‘we’, and so on. All this comprising a ‘movement’ based on discontinuous change since each new ‘we’ is a break with rather than an unfolding of its previous ‘they’.

Thus, this proposal for a quasi-substantive philosophy of history takes shape as a self-repeating mechanism driven by human nature and rooted in rupture and disassociation which, from time to time, imposes change on or ‘movement’ in human affairs. Not a substantive move towards some goal or fulfilment of an ultimate purpose (in other words, not a teleology) but, rather, a movement that’s destined to continually repeat itself contingently, as it were. That, I hope, is a fair reading of the core element of Simon’s much broader and complex position which, along with those of Runia, Ankersmit and Nancy[4], seems to me to be phenomenological in kind and, consequently, I would like to register, right here and now, the not insignificant point that one might thus question the validity of their appearance in the discourse of history. Anyway, I guess that I should best let that contentious issue rest there, at least for now, and promptly move ahead to the matter of the audience response to Simon’s presentation.

Well, it seemed to me that the initial clutch of post-paper questions merely worked around the periphery of Simon’s theory without presuming to dislodge or destabilise it in any way. However, later on in the debate a question was raised which confronted and challenged one of the paper’s primary underlying presuppositions head on, so to speak. And that question turned on the general understanding that all descriptive language is of a metaphorical kind and that Simon’s paper comprised a set of descriptions and, therefore, it comprised a set of metaphors. The paper thus constituted, as metaphors do, an invitation to its listeners/readers to adopt a particular point of view on its subject matter. Or, put differently, an invitation to “a way of seeing” but not “the way of seeing”. However, the paper appeared to be presented as an explanation for its subject matter, as the definitive way of seeing, without the support of any validating authority outside its own descriptive metaphorical constructions. Hence, the central thrust of that questioner’s challenge – the demand to know at what point and by what mechanism the metaphorical language of the paper’s descriptive constitutive elements transformed itself into a sort of “literal” language of definitive explanation – seems to me to remain an urgent question bereft of any sort of answer.

But, as I have already observed, the floor was divided and even a little perplexed by this difficult yet thought provoking paper which undoubtedly sees the current series of IHR ‘Philosophy of History’ presentations off to a pretty good start.

Peter P Icke

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[1] See ‘History Set into Motion Again’ which is available in its final manuscript form here http://uni-bielefeld.academia.edu/ZoltanBoldizsarSimon . It’s in this paper that Simon explains more fully his own notion of ‘history in suspension’.

[2] Simon has a number of uses for the word history (something I find rather confusing). Here he uses it in a ‘prospective’ sense, elsewhere he uses it in the sense of historical writing, in other places as things done in the past (res gestae) and finally, following Nancy, he uses the word to signify what he calls the ‘disrupted singular’, the moment or break in which history is on the move again. However, I take the view that ‘the past’, ‘history’ and ‘the future’ are of different ontological kinds and that to gather them together under the single term history is to obscure that distinction. For me the past or the before now happened exactly as it did, it’s fixed, it’s vanished and all we have as evidence of its passing are the traces of its one-time actuality. Histories, by contrast, are the end products of historians’ efforts to grasp at that vanished past through the medium of narrative figures and devices worked up on the back of positioned readings of preferred selections of the often scant traces of that vanished past. Accordingly, histories might best be taken as variously construed, ideologically positioned substitutes for a vanished and ultimately unknowable past which escapes all attempts at its appropriation. And, to complete my threesome, the oft-times radical contingency of our yet unrealised ‘coming future’ consigns it to yet a third category, doesn’t it? Obviously words are empty signifiers awaiting their endowment with meanings which are, in the end, arbitrary – you can always get another meaning – but “for meanings to mean” it helps if they have analytical consistency.

[3] Such ‘monstrous deeds’ are argued here as the inevitable consequences of the human psyche’s subliminal drive to commit horrendous deeds to fellow humans

[4] While the arguments of these three philosophers/theorists appear in the paper alongside Simon’s own arguments and could perhaps be taken to be “of a kind”, I should point out that Simon made it clear that he was not arguing in support of them. Rather, he was presenting his own unique position.

Photo: Grey Glacier Icebergs by Stevage

Lies my Teacher Told Me?

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I came across this interesting ‘comment is free’ article by Jeb Lund in the Guardian last week which is worth taking a look at. He discusses how the majority conservative school board of Jefferson County, Colorado want to make changes to the Advanced Placement American History Curriculum taught in schools in order to ensure that the history taught in the classroom “promote[s] citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights”. To achieve this they have drafted a curricula proposal that will ensure that lessons only present American history in a positive light – any negative aspects will be omitted. Students, teachers and parents are protesting – see here  and here.

This is a great example of how history is used in an educational context for political, ontological and ideological purposes as well as to encourage compliant citizens – a topic I am very interested in. Incidentally James W. Loewen has an excellent book on this subject called Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got Wrong (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) – I recommend reading it.

We could ask whether it is wrong for school history lessons to be so partisan and political? We could ask whether it is wrong that history as taught in schools essentially has political and economic functions – it is intended to promote citizenship, patriotism and the free market – rather than simply conveying the truth about the past.

But I would ask is it ever possible for history to be taught in a neutral, non-political way? Would we really want that?

What interested me about this piece is summed up in this quote “[t]he bind facing the Jefferson County school board and the conservative movement in general is that history happened, and pretending it didn’t takes effort.”

“History happened”.

Well I am not so sure about that. For me history is a literary genre, a way of writing about events, the ‘before now’, the past. As such it offers a perspective on events, an interpretation.  While of course we can make judgements about historical texts – we can check to see if they adhere to the (contingent and temporary) protocols of the history profession and we can comment on their aesthetic, literary and political aspects – we can’t distinguish between politicised accounts of past events and those that simply record what happened.

All histories are politically motivated. Yes, some histories flout the conventions of history writing by deliberately ignoring commonly agreed upon ‘facts’ or ‘evidence’, and some employ interpretative strategies that many would find inappropriate – we consider these to be bad histories or not history at all. However, all histories to some extent either implicitly or explicitly have a political agenda – it is just that this only becomes obvious when it conflicts with our own perspective and political preferences. What we agree with is impartial, what we disagree with is partial.

What do you think?

History, Ethics and Justice

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The next Futures of History: Cake and theory seminar will take place on Tuesday 7th October at St Mary’s University. The seminar will start at 2.30pm in the Senior Common Room – for more details about the series see here

The seminar will consist of two papers by Berber Bevernage and Anton Froeyman both from the University of Ghent followed by a discussion

Berber Bevernage

History courted by law: Some reflections on the judicialization of
history, historicization of jurisdiction

Anton Froeyman

Ethics for historians: an overview

There will of course be cake and everyone is welcome.

The image is of Justice and History a sculpture by Thomas Crawford located above the Senate bronze doors on the Capitol’s East Front – see here for more details.

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 claire.norton@smuc.ac.uk or Mark Donnelly on mark.donnelly@smuc.ac.uk.

Programme:

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 claire.norton@smuc.ac.uk or Mark
mark.donnelly@smuc.ac.uk

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.