And continuing…Class 7

My second espresso of the afternoon, comrades, and I am moved to start my reflections with a big question, What do we mean, historical consciousness? How about, “a way of knowing the past,” maybe an unilluminating paraphrase—but it does get the word “history” out of the way, temporarily, and might remind us of all the ways that the past is present, not only in the writing of history, but in art (especially the past of its making, a matter of style, as opposed to the past it represents) and in ritual (with its sense of the long sanction of its liturgies), as well as what we might call the natural past, the way age manifests itself in the physical world as abrasion, ruin, decay, etc. So our interest in the writing of history rides alongside these other ways that we recognize another time in our own. It is also potentially athwart them: history writing is not always respectful of the claims of ritual, in myth or doctrine, and indeed, not always of art, either; there is a project of demystification built into many versions of historicism. (Especially those that lay a claim to “realism.”) So, historical consciousness, of whatever kind, can come at a price. Must it?

And another very general reflection. Our interest in a new or a reformed historical consciousness implies a hope that to know the past better will make for a better future. We saw a whole range of approaches and attitudes to that question in White, who steers us through one crisis of irony (the eighteenth-century historians, and their abandonment of meaning or plot) into another (our own, and ditto). His hope was that by ironizing irony, by recognizing that it is itself a contingent position rather than an inevitable outcome, we might be able to reactivate some of the other available tropes, which guided the thinkers he most admired toward different varieties of historical optimism. What good can a better historical consciousness do us? It might offer the comfort of knowing that history bends towards justice, and galvanize us to act toward that ideal—whether or not our philosophy of history allows for individual agency to have historical influence. (Marx and Hegel, in their different ways?) It might liberate us from concerns about long time, about state and religion, and permit us to exfoliate the gifts of our own moment (Burckhardt?). There is a large question of whether historical consciousness is as it were active or passive, whether it implies or points to action, or to (artistically generative?) knowledge or awareness; and what the relation between the two might be. We know history can be put to desperately evil uses. When it is, is that a failure of historical consciousness? Might other modes mitigate fanaticism, for example, or model or provoke peace and justice?

Which is all just by way of saying, what ways of living and acting are implied by the varieties of consciousness that we are entertaining?

Right! Class this past week—I thought we did an especially thorough job with Lukacs; that article gained a lot of force for me as we read. Not least thanks to Greg’s opening wager that it cut a little close to his art-historical object-fetishism (if I may paraphrase!); and, as I think all of us would uncomfortably allow, to shared vulnerability to what Nietzsche might dismiss as a descriptive antiquarianism. Lukacs’ historical consciousness demands of epic narrative that it select the important details and shed the unimportant, where importance is a matter of the relation of narrated events and actions to the “motive forces of social development and their unremitting influence on even the superficial phenomena of life” (122). Description is leveling, and “contemporizes everything” (131), so is poor for doing the kind of history—history as vital change—that matters, that gets us somewhere. It was very interesting to test this, however swiftly, against the claims of Speculative Realism or Object Oriented Ontology, as that philosophical project is variously called; what good comes of the kind of attention that does away with the distinction between subjects and objects (or extends the franchise of the subject universally across existent things)? Is description potentially itself a mode of justice? One might set this question alongside Barthes, whose account of the “reality effect” entertains the object-in-novels that has nothing more or less than the real itself as its signified. (The real in novels, and perhaps in houses?—do you own anything that is there just to show that you belong to your time; that you are real?) The realist object, it should be said, is not a particular desideratum for Barthes. (He is more interested in what he elsewhere calls the punctum, one tributary of our term, the secret center of interest and pleasure in a photographic image, the occasion of the species of uncategoried pleasure he calls jouissance.) His realism still may be a mode of historicity more interested in presence than progress—and that perhaps considers presence to have more emancipatory potential than any emplotment could give us.

I hope the Jameson will come back. In some ways, his account of realism puts Lukacs and Barthes together, defining realism as the dialectic of narrative and affect, where affect is the present tense of feelings that have not been reduced to name (as the repertory of passions and emotions have).

But this is getting long and I want to say a few words about Ali Smith. We talked a bit about queerness and history—with Keene and Smith, especially, sexual variety and gender complexity seem to open a more capacious historical consciousness. Why? A question to keep active. Lee Edelman (No Future) and Jack Halberstam (In a Queer Time and Place) are working similar questions, and there’s a lot more writing behind them. Graham’s sense that there is something prophetic in the position of bothness ought to stay with us. There is Tiresias, and also Woolf’s transhistorical Orlando, moving from man to woman (and back) and woman to man, respectively. If not back and forth in gender, why not back and forth in time? Smith may take a step farther with Francesco and George, who are, in their different ways, possibly both at once.

I’ll say a few more words about that basic problem of the relationship between ANALOGY and FORGIVENESS in the book. For the book is pervasively self-referential, so much correspondence of image and event both within its parallel narratives and between them, and it seems to argue that there is something redemptive in that fact about the world, and something beneficent in recognizing it. Why should interconnection itself, including historical interconnection, conduce to the good?

Let’s say that it is a basic wager of the book that a world so structured is a better world than one governed by a sequential, causal, not to say historicist logic. In the most general sense, such patterns of connection mean a) that things (and people) are never truly lost, for they ripple and recur; b) it is as easy to go backward as to go forward, and so no error or injustice or loss is permanent; and c) there is a recurring affect of wonder at coincidence, and play in its discovery, that makes for a kind of antidote or solvent to grief and anger. Such a world tends towards monism, towards everything seen all at once. But the novel, in its two parts, holds that happy metaphorical apocalypse at bay, in favor of an ongoing, miraculous perception not of one but of both, in countless forms. (Another way of answering Jeewon’s question, why no free indirect discourse, which would be something like a completed synthesis of first and third person, rather than a dialectic?—though I could imagine Smith making use of it.)

There is a corresponding promise in Christian doctrine: that Christ’s bothness, man and God, blood and wine (water and wine), is of the essence of His power to forgive, to sacrifice, and that his death and assumption may be paradigmatic of other redeemed losses (and of the rising/falling pattern throughout the book, as with the helical helicoptering maple seeds and their sprouting). So BOTHNESS is a condition of REDEMPTION. The book’s transposition of that sacrifice from a single religio-mythico-historical figure to the sempiternal sacrifice of mothers is one of its strongest moves. As Nietzsche would agree, there is potentially paralyzing guilt for the surviving children in both cases; we must learn to forgive the sacrificer for leaving us, forgive ourselves for hating Him/her, etc.

Something like this recognition allows for the transformation of George’s attitude to history: “History is horrible,” she says to her mother: “It is a mound of bodies pressing down into the ground [not rising]…George is appalled by history, its only redeeming feature being that it tends to be well and truly over” (248). And then later, after her death, “What if history, instead, was that shout, that upward spring, that staircase-ladder thing, and everybody was just used to calling something quite different the word history?” (304-305).

Anyway—I could keep going and going, and that is the point (the point: that great pun for Smith, a singularity with multiple meanings; so, really, a node, as every property in the book is a node). Let me just try to put it in a bigger perspective before this third espresso runs out. Does White have a way of thinking about all this? Not an emplotment, I don’t think; we observed the paucity of plot, and even if there is something comic for George and H, and perhaps for Francesco released from his purgatory, both comedies are dominated by pathways other than the causal/chronological. Nor a mode of argument, which is a unidirectional business as much as plot is. Among the tropes, perhaps metaphor? Insofar as that is White’s figure of both-andness. If How to Be Both is basically metaphorical in its orientation to history, can we link it, for example, with Nietzsche’s ultimate image-frolic? Or Marx’s utopia? It lacks the self-assertion of the former. It does have an interest throughout in equal pay, and asks tough questions about talent and worth. (The conundrum: should everyone be paid equally, or should the better artist be better paid for the better painting? A tough one for us Princeton meritocrats.)

I am myself very sympathetic to Smith’s way of seeing the world, or her book’s, at least. I do think it undercuts the stark, essentialist difference-making upon which unjust acts of scales large and small depend. I feel the wonder of the book’s generous recognitions and I feel better for it, more alive, alert, and generous, forgiving. (It is almost Buddhistic—though bothness, again, is not oneness.) There is still a question whether How to Be Both is answerable, as a mode of historical consciousness, to tragedy, to the worst of the past. The book does not test itself against crime, let alone against crisis or horror, only against loss. And as I said at the end of class—what is the model of this extraordinary, miraculous connection for its own sake, if not the fantastical connectedness of the internet and global capital? Which, um, surely bend to the good if they are only allowed to flourish freely? Don’t they? Don’t they?

And then I’ll restate that final thought, a big one I haven’t processed, but am wondering about. The particular good of studying the past as a kind of alterity is that it cannot trade with us: we cannot exploit it, at least, not the way we can our historical peers. The past stands outside the economy, or can, or should. A useful historical consciousness then would have to recognize that the past happened and that however hard it may be to know, we cannot change it.

Class 7

So here I am on another Wednesday evening, looking back over the notes I scribbled on the flyleaf of Ali Smith’s How To Be Both. Much of what I’m reading here are catchphrases from our discussion in class earlier today:

“What realism does is ask us to pay attention.”

“Connectedness as forgiveness.”

“The ecstasy of self-reference as a mode of historical consciousness.”

Then there is a little mini-essay by me on the question of whether How To Be Both should in fact be understood as an extended riff on Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, where the dichotomous choice is between the ethical and the aesthetic life, between “willing one thing” and “the flight to the charms of the manifold,” between marriage and children (on the one hand), and art and eros (on the other), between (masculine) law and (feminized) sensuality. Not impossible to read Ali Smith as replying to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or with a Both/And.

And then, below all that, circled, one word:


The loose snatches of thought above are all unattributed, I fear — so I invite any of you who wish to claim them to do so here. Failing that, we will treat them as orphans, up for adoption…

Over the last several weeks I have tended to draft these fast write ups as mnemonic exercises, and have endeavored to create mini narratives of the events (contributions, propositions, exchanges) transpiring across our two hours and fifty minutes together. Today, after a class on the narrative tactics of realism, one is immediately hyperconscious of that resort to récit.

 Why wouldn’t I begin with a description of the room? Begin, perhaps, with the way a little bristle at edge the trap door in our seminar table — that small panel that opens onto the electrical outlet — had caught a long human hair, which I noticed when I went to plug in my laptop?

Or begin with what we were wearing, or the sound of the wall clock (which, at one point, during a pensive silence, I heard ticking)?

In fact, I think I’ll experiment here with doing neither a narrative of our seminar discussion (we began by sharing a number of the punctum exercises, we ended up spending a good deal half of the class on Lukács, we touched on Barthes a bit before the break, but only really got to the Jameson and questions of affect when we delved the Ali Smith novel in the last hour of our session), nor with a scene painting of Dickinson 230 as we inhabited it (the blue-green hue of the fluorescent lights, Ismael’s furrowed brow at the far end of the long table), but rather with a gesture perpendicular to the plane of realismus: an “idea.”

It is one of the ideas with which we closed, and it may only merit to be called a ghost or shadow of a proper idea — a shade. What if it is truly and only a Tiresian figure (a both/and figure, a “queer” figure) who can lead us out of the ironic catastrophe of historicism (Hayden White’s master conundrum) and toward some “suprahistorical” mode — not Nietzsche’s version of this, exactly (since that is untenable), but something out that way, in the zones indexed by the Zarathustra-historian. Out there somewhere where, reborn as amphibious hermaphrodites, we can become gloriously unmoored in time, and move within it freely.

I confess that I cannot quite say what I mean by that. But after finishing How To Be Both, I find myself hugely seduced by a vision/fantasy of a kind of labile, polymorphous historicism.

So, in this vein: Why don’t we think more with ghosts? Why the endless “retrospection” of historical “recovery,” and the total absence of a healthy school of historical uncovery whose practitioners haunt their epochs, or endure purgatorial exiles in other times?

I have begun at the end of our class.

Or something like that.

After all, at the end of the class I found myself dreaming of jumping out of time altogether


But, really, that was where we started: with James’ lovely punctum exercise about David Smith and sculpture and time (the jangle of those coins in the pocket like a little alarm-clock; the thermos in the photograph made a genie-lamp that, rubbed, made time run both ways). It was James who most strongly felt that the problems of realism were ultimately problems of time-management in text-form: memory, presence, artifacts, documents all arbitrage the distance between then and now, between me and that. The realism in his punctum exercise was, in a sense, that of momentary disorientation occasioned by the mind’s mobility in time.

Oh, wait, perhaps that strange vision of the time-amphibious-hermaphrodite was really just me invoking the mind all along.

For what is the mind if not a time-amphibious-hermaphrodite?



(Something to think on there).


Class 6 again

I’ll start by taking up per Graham’s suggestion that question of what we get trying to abstract Nietzsche’s arguments from his style—it gets close to the motives of our exercises, which have aspects both of praxis (let’s try this ourselves) and pastiche (let’s see what it does for us, to us, to sound like this thinker/writer). We postmoderns tend to dismiss out of hand the idea that style and substance can be separated, and we’ve got some good reasons for that. Practically speaking, however, the distinction is often a useful heuristic, and White, who rarely if ever sounds like Nietzsche, nonetheless translates his argument into usefully alternative terms; and you can go back to your Nietzsche and find your way around better, even if you do not take White’s account to be comprehensive or always true to its subject. So, White succeeds in being about Nietzsche without being like Nietzsche. Substance yes, style no.

I think it gets interesting when the question is, does a given thinker offer their work to translation; is it written into a preexisting vocabulary, within which it can be received, argued, modified, etc.; or is it written to resist such appropriation, such ready and open commerce? Can you easily criticize it in its own terms, as you can with most academic writing (by producing academic writing in response), or does it encourage or oblige you to refashion your own idiom, even to begin to engage it? One might measure the ambition of a poetics of history (as opposed to a philosophy of history) by its wager on the latter possibility. Nietzsche has certainly been digested into patient argument, but he has also produced many stylistic outliers among his readers, from Derrida to Kristeva to Nehamas.

And another angle on the problem: there are some philosophers for whom the reform of linguistic usage (not just our terms, but how we understand language itself to work for purposes of argument) is basic to the philosophical project. That’s a question I’ve brooded about in my book about style, so forgive me quoting myself briefly:

A philosophy that believes in changing minds by argument, once and for all, need not cultivate a style. (It may, but it need not.) A philosophy, or a theory, that understands itself as a therapy for intransigent habits of mind cannot do without style, may even consist in style.

That’s to say that systematic philosophy could be and certainly wants to be the notation of an abstract structure of argument; translation should not be a problem. Philosophy post-Hegel is no such thing. Style cannot vary across different accounts of the system; rather, it is the way of thinking proposed to the reader. The historical split (and we’re talking Western philosophy here) isn’t clean. Socrates (especially as opposed to Plato) might have to fall on the nineteenth-century side of the divide, if it were. But the difference nonetheless might help us see why something happens to Nietzsche when we try to propositionalize his insights. Not something fatal, but something important, maybe diminished. Contempt is part of his critical energy, part of the work he is doing to jolt us out of our historical malaise; and enthusiasm even more, a human, all-too-human bid for the post-human, a deeply historical yearning to overcome history, or at least, historicism. It is at moments hysterical, as Graham says, but I am partly held in Nietzsche by his humanizing irony, his mighty effort to bring us in on a joke he tells on himself, to be laughing with us and us with him, a laugh which is both triumphant and knowing. (As you can see, Graham is a binary thinker, and I am not.)

Anyhoo, I too enjoyed going in with the exercises, and we’ll do more of that. The second half of the semester will spring us from our philosophers, and make the exercises’ relation to the week’s reading and problems less predictable—application or impersonation of a thinker will still be a possibility, but new variants will arise; and hopefully, provocations to some experiments in medium, too. I think we’re assembling a striking portfolio of cases, which demand a wide range of relations to time and to evidence. A day in Passaic; a time in Maghreb when things must have changed, we know they did, but when, how exactly? An exhibition, a pivotal year, the opening of a particular door. They are coming alive for me as I read and for you all I hope as you, seen so many times and so many ways…

…and then there’s Keene. I thought that toward the end of class, the question we got to of his own sense of historical encumbrance was powerful. On the one hand, why write Counternarratives if you think we already have too much of the past too much with us? Why is it is a book so entailed to fact and record? On the other hand, its freedoms, its departures from and expansions of what the past gives us are equally obvious. Are they superhistorical—that is, are they myth-making? Or does Keene write his stories into gaps in the record, to describe experiences that did not change history, but are nonetheless part of it—a record of epicyclical experiments, against the larger currents of history in a long and unfinished epoch of colonial slavery? Are Keene’s stories too small for Nietzsche? Mere scribbled epiphenomena? (I think again of those “Outtakes,” of Zion who takes advantage of historical disorientation to live a life of musical transgression and racial violence, received and given.) Or are they prophecies, or examples for emulation, a curious genre, which Nietzsche did not quite envisage, but might have, of micro-monumentalism? (A succession not of torches, maybe, but of sparks, from which a great fire might someday be kindled?)

Or do the stories really agree with one another in these matters?—a possibility raised by Jeewon. “The Aeronauts,” for example, gives us the early years of the Civil War from the standpoint of the memory-prodigy Theodore, who sees so much, recalls it all, but understands nothing (from the science to sex to his own desires to the war and so on). Is he a Fabrizio? Is he Keene’s satire of Fabrizio, and of so many other naive heroes who populate the history of the historical novel? What to make of this strategy for doing history, tracking it through a character whose mobility is enabled by his obliviousness? What does that vision of the subject recommend to us, now, as a way to live with the past? This historical consciousness that Keene offers…it clearly has common ground with the contemporary project of writing into the margins, or at least against the existing, big books; and with the longstanding tendency (see Erich Auerbach) of the novel to investigate the lives of ordinary people, to bring the high genres down to earth. What is different about Keene? Does the problem of slavery make that difference? (And what about gay desire, so important in so many stories, so inchoate for many of the men who feel it?) Does White’s dominant question of emplotment help us see Counternarratives? (As a whole, in its parts?) Or is Keene’s book an attempt to escape from the predicaments of emplotment, from the sort of history that participates in the big stories that grind people in their gears? Narratives against the old narratives, or narratives against narrative?

And what a nightmare, the final story. History as a history of rivalry and mutual mutilation, driven by a will to power not to be distinguished from sexual desire—and unlike any of its predecessors, a story with no apparent outside to the postcolonial catastrophe, historical or otherwise. What is it doing at the end? A monitory fable? A bitter allegory? Nietzsche seems implicated in the desire for untimeliness there. Is his strong, creative forgetting a possible antidote to a past that is burned in the minds and written on, or carved out of, the bodies of the two speakers? Or is the only way out the way through, more memory, more context, the sort that might situate the cell and the conversation in it?

I didn’t mean to end so darkly. It was a great class; but I wonder why Keene drops us there and what we can do about it. Tragedy, per White, after all? Or…realism?

Class 6

Over these last few weeks we have tended to launch either from our fictions or from the Hayden White. Which is to say, in a basic way, the structure of these seminars has tended to be either a trajectory from poetics to history/philosophy-of-history, or the trajectory from history/philosophy-of-history to poetics. This has been explicit in the conversations Jeff and I have been having as we prepare for our meetings. Sometimes we’ve said, “let’s begin with the Hayden White, and then talk about the Stendhal after the break,” or we’ve said, “this week, let’s dive in with the Keene, and find our way to the White through the questions that come up talking about the fiction.”

This week we tried something altogether different from either of these moves. We agreed that today we would launch from the punctum exercises that everybody has been working on. The logic there was that, speaking from my own experience, these exercises take up a fair bit of my time and course-thinking every week (I very definitely find myself reading our “master thinker” of the week with a peculiarly pragmatic set of questions on my mind — how am I going to do this), and yet we haven’t really hit on a formal, or even informal, structure for sharing/discussing them. So now, as we crest to the midterm, it felt right to put them in the middle of the table and see what’s going on.

I thought the result was really satisfying. Ishmael actually spoke up at the end of our session today, and said as much — namely that he had found it both interesting and congenial to dig in on the Nietzsche (and on Hayden White’s reading of Nietzsche) via the workshop-style emphasis on everybody’s individual punctum exercise writings. My feelings exactly.

So what happened?

Well, we heard from just about everyone, and we got to hear both some wonderful bits of writing (I still have Lisa’s lovely Nietzschean set-piece at the foot of Vesuvius very much before my mind’s eye; Jeewon’s image of the “spirit of progress” peering paradoxically over the horizon through a spyglass has similarly stuck with me), and we also got to hear some super interesting reflections on the insights/puzzles/ambitions that hedged your efforts (I think immediately of Jackie’s wonderful story of pursuing some kind of archaicizing parable-form of her punctum, only to end up in a remarkable and serendipitous meander across the archives of her moment; and then there was Ishmael’s admittedly as yet unborn vision of creating a genuine foundational MYTHOS for the political identity of the peoples of Northern Africa).

And there was much more: Jeremy caught some bright spark of rage-glory as he ventriloquized Nietzsche’s hypothetical dismissal of Descartes; Greg worked some of his own central questions (architecture, exhibition, technology) through Nietzsche’s analytics of the monumental and the antiquarian and the critical modes of history writing. Finally, you all were very gracious in permitting me to dilate upon my own swipe at the task, which I append here:

(Once again nudging: do feel free to share these pieces either via the website or through blackboard, or via email — anyway you like, and only if you wish…)

Reading this material around, we actually dug in pretty deep on the question of Nietzsche‘s “historical consciousness.” You all had a chance see Jeff and I gently emphasize complementary (I think), but not homologous accounts of Nietzsche’s orientation to the historical. I really tried to dramatize the late and visionary ambition genuinely to leave the condition of the human behind. In this sense, I take Nietzsche to be obliged to gesture toward a form of “historical consciousness” that we cannot (given that we are human) discern or comprehend. My own think piece, while legible as a satire, is very definitely intended to take that proposition absolutely seriously. The truth is, I am actually quite sympathetic.

Jeff, as I heard him, wanted to insist on just how completely entangled with history (its modes, its forms, its tools) Nietzsche’s apparent desire to transcend history actually turns out to be. This is very definitely the case, and I would not dispute it. The question that hung a little in the air, for me anyway, was whether Jeff was willing to follow me as I gesture to a Nietzsche who was gesturing past any form of historical consciousness that we could recognize as such. By disposition, I think, I am the more “hysterical” thinker in our teaching duo, and in that sense our respective accounts of Nietzsche can be seen to have played to type.

About here in the discussion another very large and difficult question arose and, as I saw it, did not really “land.” I am referring here to the question of “style” in Nietzsche’s work: I adopted a somewhat flat-footed posture (insisting that, while I certainly have some feel for Nietzsche’s characteristic style, I nevertheless am possessed by a distinct sense that I “understand” his “arguments” and would be perfectly happy to see them rearticulated in some other style — indeed, I went so far as to suggest that Hayden White’s chapter on Nietzsche served as an example of what Nietzsche’s arguments look like when written by someone who doesn’t sound like Nietzsche at all); Jeff’s position was, I think, more subtle (I will leave it to him to gloss his view on this matter if he chooses).


Gloss. The word puts us in mind of John Keene’s story “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows.”


After the break we settled in to a conversation about Counternarratives. It was a good conversation. Not easy. The final story, “The Lions” is brutal, and troubling. We sat with it, and with what it implied about the structure of the book as a whole.

If there was an insight that came out of the conversation that sticks with me, it would be the realization of the way so many of the stories are “dead ends” or are “cut off.” Greg showed us the way several of the formal gestures (the peculiar typography that begins and ends “Acrobatique”) instantiated this theme, which was manifest in narrative content elsewhere (e.g., the end of “The Aeronauts”). This sense of things being disrupted, clipped, even amputated finds its most dramatic and haunting expression in the mutilations of the final story of the volume. But we noticed that the text powerfully foreshadows that conclusion in the striking “news item” overture of the decapitated young man from which “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras” departs (and to which, one might argue, it returns — if in a ghostly/uncanny way).

Ultimately, the highest stakes in this closing conversation lay in the question of whether Keene’s book can be read as gesturing toward, or, indeed, seeking to generate, some new form of historical consciousness. And here, it was very tempting to invoke Nietzsche’s notion of the “superhistorical” after all, we are abundantly aware (or we should be) of the extent to which “proper historians” and “proper history” have been incapable — are, it would seem — incapable of “doing justice” to the people and peoples and stories with which Keene is concerned. Sure, we card-carrying academic historians have tried. We have tried to “recover the voices” of those who are, in one way or another, “lost” to “history.” Yes, we have developped different techniques to get at lives and experiences not well represented in the archives. But the reality is, it will always be easier to write “histories” of slave holders than it will be to write the “histories” of slaves — and that is not an accident. That is 100% baked-in to the structures of power that make slavery and make history (as we know it). And when you look at it that way, it might be time for some superhistoricism — it may be past time.

And it is, in my view, not impossible that this is what we are holding and reading and discussing in these last two weeks with Counternarratives.

Lots to think about.


Class 5

Jeff’s post (below) provides a perfect hinge on which to swing slowly across from the fiction of Stendhal to that of Keene, and from the wry omniscience of Burckhardt to the engaged outrage of Marx.

For it is with Marx that we found ourselves concerned in week 5.

Questions of action, of what one does with history or through historical analysis, all of this was very much on our minds in the class discussion today, particularly when we again took up the recursive loop of Hayden White’s own historical mode. I am not quite sure I can recover how we got there. But the temptation to apply White’s method to White himself was too strong, and so we spent some time across the middle zone of our seminar working to make sense of the move by which irony can be turned on irony (with an eye on the transcending of irony). We read again this powerful passage from the end of the preface, where White offers what I take to be the sharpest formulation of his program:


I went so far as to claim that I read White as quite literally performing a kind of burlesque performance of structuralism, whereby the proliferating quaternaries of Metahistory are pushed to, and then passed, their breaking point, and are thereby meant to fall away, leaving…

Well, leaving what? On the one hand, the work may be merely a cleaning out of the stables of the giant old barn of historicism. But I tried a few other metaphors too: the image of using a kind of firehose of irony to stem the irony geyser flooding the realm. Or what about Seamus Heaney’s Scaffolding:

Perhaps as the “scaffoldings” of structuralism fall away something solid will be left behind — something for us.  If not a historical consciousness adequate to the conditions of our late modernity, then perhaps at least some foundations of such a thing, some component of that architecture.

Metaphors, metaphors, metaphors.

It isn’t that we can put aside the figures, but we can try to keep in mind what Hayden White actually wants for us: a kind of history (nay, something larger — a historical consciousness) that can be adequate to the science, poetry, and philosophy of our time. This is what Hayden White did not think existed in 1972 — and I, for my part, both think he was correct in his diagnosis of that moment, and believe that his diagnosis is no less relevant today. At the same time, as I suggested in our discussion, I believe it is possible to discern in our moment signs that we are trembling closer and closer to something like the genuine demise of the forms of historical consciousness White can anatomize. Something is likely to come in to the space that will be left…

Ah! Vatic, nebulous…and perhaps simply hooey.


Bracketing all this grandeur, what we do know (and chapter seven of Metahistory lays out in great detail) is that a transformation of historical consciousness is possible, and can have profound effects. This is the story of Karl Marx.

We spent a good deal of time working through the structure of Marx’s novel form of history/philosophy (as White lays it out). This meant trying to understand the relationship of base to superstructure, the relationship of the proletariat to the bourgeois, the relationship of mechanist to organicist explanations – and, most urgently, the relationship between the individual and the society (both before and after the Communist revolution).

Without trying to rehash all that here, I want simply to underscore the suggestive parallels we discerned between Marx and White himself. Just as Marx wants us to understand that the paradoxical condition of being simultaneously “free” (in our subjective experience of personhood) and “determined” (in our social condition as victims of structures and dynamics beyond our control) will be definitively resolved by the transformation in the conditions of production that permanently abolish society as we know it, so we can read White as gesturing toward a future historical consciousness that will be unmarked by a pervasive sense of the essential contradictions between poetry and science, and between either/both and philosophy.

Beyond the torments of the ironic condition lies… something.

But what?


We cannot simply slot Keene in at this point. Counternarratives cannot be read as a specimen of some new historical consciousness aborning. Or, well, I am not ready to try to impose that reading upon it. But do I think that it is a text that is meaningfully responding to the untenability of the form of historical consciousness White mercilessly anatomizes in Metahistory? Yes, I very much believe it is.

Our conversation about the Keene ranged. I thought we did a good job working closely with several specific portions/features of the text: looking at how specific sentences worked; examining analogous patterns (suspension, “ballooning,” retrospection) that operate at the grammatical and the semantic levels. We discussed how the text both establishes, and violates (perhaps better, renews/revises?), several contracts that it establishes with the reader.

Opinions seemed to vary about the different techniques used by the stories — and perhaps rather than try to work those through here, I’ll save further discussion of the Keene until next week, when we will have the full book behind us. I think many of you felt that you were yourselves a little “suspended” at the midpoint of this volume, and our waiting to see where it is going to go.

Onward! To next week…


P.S.  Here, for those of you who are curious, is my latest effort on the Punctum Exercises; my date, in the key of Karl Marx…

Class 4 again

Alright—Jeff here—I’ve been slow to join in; I blame my High Office. But it is a snowy night in Brooklyn and good for ruminating and so let me set down some reflections especially on Stendhal but also on the class more generally…

…beginning with that idea Graham has mooted, via White, of historical consciousness: our project being, both to develop a sense of the variety of possible forms of such consciousness, especially as kinds of making; and to wonder, what new forms (or what old forms, or hybrids) might be adequate to our own moment? In what shapes can we know the past; how can we make our history both most true and most useful (and discover what relation or ratio between those two criteria we need)? Our basic wager is that we will get a better grip on the problem for having tried it ourselves.

Another way of posing the problem, a little closer to the terrain of literary criticism: what do we mean when we historicize a text; what kind of history are we making, when we do? Literary critics can sometimes be naively deferential to the historical record, as though it were the real against which the fancies of criticism must be tested. But to invoke history, in making a literary argument, is always to invoke it in a particular shape, and to engage in the sort of tendentious narrativizing that White so determinedly taxonomizes. Where does the new historicism fit among the emplotments of Metahistory? What is implied by particular ligatures between text and event, text and context—do they conjure a genre, tragic or comic? A structure of argument, contextualist, for example? Such questions may be asked on the largest and the smallest scales, and should be, but we do not always ask them.

For the historians, all the more important—how would you emplot the books you most admire; how about the essay you last wrote?

I should say, White’s large questions about plot will not be our only questions. The poetics of history certainly operates at that level of total narrative. But the techne of getting the past in, presenting the past, whether in literature or historiography or criticism or anywhere else, includes other instruments, at other scales. There is detail, for example, the stuff of the past, things that bear implicit dates, properties. Closely related, style, how ways of speaking and writing date their speakers and writers. White showed us some things about syntax that we might do well to follow up, too. The parataxis of Burckhardt, for example, as both a symptom (for us readers) and, arguably, a tool (for him) of a kind of history that abjures overarching logic. We might compare the implications of such sentences to the magnificent, suspended period that ends Keene’s “Mannahatta.” What does that sentence imply for Keene’s metahistory?

But Stendhal, Stendhal. Let me try to gather up a few threads from the past couple of weeks’ discussion. I thought we did a good job with Fabrizio, as a charming, volatile, distractible cipher at the center of the book—impressionable hero of a Bildungsroman, who may not learn anything at all. He stands athwart a thousand contradictions, in his boyish naiveté, his sense of aristocratic privilege and honor (in spite of, because of, his illegitimacy?), his intimations of the general value of human life (the Liberals’ sense of the happiness of the many?), his church career and his susceptibility to omens, his classicism; his desire to be in the middle of things, to be part of history, of battle, but his perfect delight in the altitude, solitude, and semiotic poverty of his tower. As James Merrill says of the mirror, “You embrace a whole world without once caring / To set it in order.” (Recall Stendhal’s aphorism re the novel as a mirror out for a walk.) What sort of historical consciousness is this?—or does his character consist in the very limitation of his consciousness; in its passing appetites and affinities, not even properly ironic?

Around him, however, are constellated other characters of more determinate vantage: the Count, who seems to be such a perfect steward of a precarious aristocratic order, who thinks Parma is not yet ready for a republic (407), and so deftly postpones it; he is an immaculate tactician, unconcerned with strategy (and also strongly tempted into a different code again, that of companionate marriage—a formation not at all to do with the courtly world he sustains; his love for the Duchess is among the book’s great achievements). How would White characterize him: a satirist, a conservative; somewhere between mastery of small metonymies, and an ironic dissociation between politics and history? (His “satirical subtlety” [282]; he likes games, whist and backgammon.) And the Duchess, as intelligent as the Count, as subtle, if somewhat less adroit in her calculations—if only because she puts her wit at Fabrizio’s disposal, and is willing to make change on a scale that the Count never assays; she sets in motion, after all, an assassination and a rebellion, and uses a flood just to send a signal. Is there a theory of history behind her actions, a comic emplotment, a synecdochic dedication to the well-being of a favored son? How about Palla? A Romantic? Or does he tend toward those ideological implications that White sees as generating no serious history—fascism, even?

So there are a number of different kinds of history focalized in the characters (including more minor characters, Marshall Ney, even Giletti). What of the novel as a whole? Its great reputation for ironic realism does seem to bear up under White’s definition. Satire is a basic mode; comedy and tragedy are invoked at different moments, and romance too (the atavistic aspects of the tower and of Palla’s character, which we raised in class), but what is most striking is its ironic collation of contradictory vectors and markers, pointing backward and forward, indexing many pasts. It might be possible to argue that there is a seismic liberalism underneath all of it, that Stendhal wants to show us that beneath all of these erotic maneuverings, history is moving, whether in a Hegelian or a Tocquevillian sort of way, toward the priority of the people. Then again, perhaps the book’s fragmented consciousness—as distributed across its dramatis personae; as concentrated, or perfectly dispersed, in Fabrizio—is historically inert, and what it is good at is not emploting a historical story, but (more like Burckhardt) giving us a slice of time without identifying in it any impulse to necessary change. That, to be sure, is a kind of poetics of history…

…and raises the question of activism. That is, parallel to the question of whether we like the book, feel sympathetic, love or forgive its characters, is the question of what we might do about it. Is this a book that might motivate a reader to some action? If so, what, and how? If not, what does it give us instead—what kind of pleasure, what kind of understanding; to what relation to history does it enjoin us? This too will continue to be an important question, for some books we read will seem to have strong designs on the reader’s own historical agency; others, not.

“To the happy few”!—it is hard to see this as an activist novel, exactly. How ironic is that final dedication, that final toast? Fabrizio seems to have had another happy three years of improvised trysts with Clèlia, living, as he did in the tower, in the interstices of history, improvising undisruptive, perhaps even insignificant forms of satisfaction. His great mistake is to try to establish his paternity, and gain custody of his son—wrenching what seems to be a double illegitimacy into a proper genealogy, as though he could claim his place by main strength in that oldest sort of history, the family tree. What to make of the tragic outcome? Should Fabrizio have forged some new relation, and a new politics for it?—do we stand in need of a notional republic where divorce is possible and family life can be renovated? Or, and this seems much more within the novel’s ken, should he have accepted that life is lived best by tactics of local irony, assuming a disjunction between larger social forms and private affect? Acquiescing to the present, at history’s expense; or at least, the sort of history that moves?

That’s more than enough for now. But as we think about how White’s historians do history, how they make the past present, let’s keep in mind the way Stendhal does it too—the modernity of his irony, as we characterized it in class, which could be said to produce an awareness of history that, in its wry, tolerant, affectionate breadth, teaches little about how things might be otherwise, but everything about how they were. Keene will be different, yes?

Class 4

Back to it! A brief summary of our conversation yesterday. Brisk, brisk — a mnemonics of the occasion…

So we reconvened. And, reversing our pattern from last week, we launched with Stendhal, and moved only to Metahistory after the break.

Part II of La Chartreuse de Parme. That was where we focused. But having now completed the book, we were newly in a position to assess it in its totality.

So in we went, for a close look at a key moment: Chapter 16, and Mosca’s encounter with the Duchess in her new post-Fabrice-imprisonment mode. We read. And we thought. And we talked.

We considered the insides and the outsides of these characters, and the way they are depicted as inhabiting themselves and the world. Mosca, the consummate courtier. (But is that all he is, in the end?) The Duchess, a flame of brilliance, whose spontaneity and capacity for the gesture (for theater, for cutting the figure) gives her an affinity for the “Romantic” mode, even as she can seem so quick (of wit, of thought, of decision) that she seems, sometimes, to me, to be getting around herself before she is permitted to be herself — whatever that might mean. (One thinks of Wallace Stevens’ Theory: “One is not duchess / A hundred yards from a carriage”; and then one thinks that this might function as an epigram for the whole novel — but only if one were to put a question mark at the end of the couplet…)

In discussing this (heart-breaking, if you are fully immersed in the story at this point) section in Chapter 16, we ended up focusing on the passage in which the Duchess details her sense of Fabrice’s special perfection:

We found ourselves puzzling over the ways that the Duchess seems to find a certain kind of awkward failure-to-self-cognize-in-context as Fabrice’s “grace.” It is a strange idea. With implications for the status of “self knowledge” and “interiority” in this book. (Those of you who are interested in pursuing the intellectual-historical context for this fascinating problem, should try Jan Goldstein’s superb book, The Post-Revolutionary Self: Politics and Psyche in France, 1750–1850; you could get a sense of what is going on in the book from this strong review by John Carson).


This line of inquiry took us across to another extraordinary moment in the text: the Duchess’s peculiar moment of self-and-Fabrice knowledge (but is it that?) that irrupts at the close of her encounter with the poet-assassin Ferrante Palla in Chapter 21:

Do with this what you will. At the very least it tells us exactly what it says: that the author wishes us to understand that the Duchess understands Fabrice to be incapable of understanding her. Is this what she was saying in Chapter 16 as well?

Before the break we took a turn through the question of gender in this book, and specifically the question of whether its use of the structuring norms of gender-identity effectively cut us off from some aspect of “pleasure” in the text. Or that was my question. Jeff offered, I thought, an affecting invocation of what it is when a text can resonate with questions put to it from outside of its ethical and historical “frame.” He feels this one can, on this matter. And it may be so.

* * *

We took our break, and when we came back we talked a bit about the “Punctum Exercises.” I am going to go ahead and post a PDF of mine here (click on image to open):

These should in no way be taken to be normative. They are, I fear, in important ways, not that great. But since we are asking you to do something a bit odd, it feels important to get out in front of this a bit, and offer you an example of what plausible experimentation in the idiom can look like.

And I want to say here again what I tried to express in our meeting: for me, I certainly feel myself thinking my way into Burckhardt in a very particular way when I know I have to try to “reproduce” his style (of thought, of voice).

That is what we are aiming for here, and the work we did with Hayden White after the break (especially the close look at the section on “History and Poetry” in Chapter 6), came out of that struggle.

Keen to see what you made of the Burckhardt yourselves!


Class 3

Graham here.  Revisiting Wednesday…

We began by canvasing the room concerning the first set of punctum exercises. What had it been like to attempt to hold your historical moment using Hegel’s hands? What happened when you tried to “deploy” the understanding of Hegel’s historicism that you were able to reach (through your reading of Hegel himself and Hayden White on Hegel) – deploy this understanding through some “activation” of your chosen date/moment/time?

Replies were mixed – perhaps even a little hesitant. Jeff and I get the sense that the assignment is sufficiently peculiar that there is perhaps a sort of natural inclination to adopt a slightly “wait and see” posture. Fair enough. It is indeed a wide-open space. I think it is our hope that you all are going to help us come to know what it is that we all want from the exercise. Let us find our way!

I talked a little bit about my own effort, which as I explained, departs from three quotes from the White. I’ll give them here:


“Comedy is the form which reflection takes after it has assimilated the truths of Tragedy to itself.” (White, p. 94)

“It would seem that, for Hegel, the reason for writing history is to be sought in the transformations of consciousness which the attempt to do so effects in the minds of the historians themselves.” (White, p. 100)

“Hegel thus fully credited the immediate perception of the historical field as a ‘panorama of sin and suffering.’ But he set his perception of this panorama within the means-ends question which he insisted in raised in the consciousness by moral reflection on it (‘to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered.’) ¶ In short, ‘sin and suffering’ must be viewed as the means for the realization of some principle that is superior to them.” (White, p. 107)


As I explained, my think piece consists of a brief meditation on my own punctum (6 August 1945) within something like the triangular space I take to be defined by these three propositions about Hegel in Metahistory.

Ultimately, it was the third of these that created, for me, the most difficult/productive sense of wrestling with Hegel’s historical mode. There is something provoking – to the point of disgust – in being asked to discern some forward-unfolding of Spirit, some disclosure of reason achieving consciousness in/of/for the real, in the nearly instantaneous death of some eighty to one hundred thousand human beings in the city of Hiroshima at 9:15 in the morning, Tokyo time, on that fateful day.

Nor does the temporal conjuncture that drew me to my punctum in the first place (the tragic/comic fact that my maternal grandfather fell onto Japanese soil in the crash landing of his P-51 Mustang at more or less the same moment as Little Boy dropped from the Enola Gay) do anything to alleviate the sense that there is something grotesque about the project of seeking some ordering “plan” or higher “meaning” in this historical moment – on the contrary, the juxtaposition of microcosmic individual drama and macrocosmic horror rather heightens the general queasiness of the whole enterprise.

In this basic way, I found that simply sitting with the Hegelian challenge (as honed by White), and experiencing not only a despairing sense of the impossibility of the exercise, but also a genuine feeling of repugnance in relation to the whole enterprise — all this gave me a very definite feeling that I was laboring to achieve an inwardness with Hegel’s historical program.

That’s about as far as I got on my own.

But the first two-thirds of our seminar, amounted, at least for me, a pretty sustained effort to attempt some sort of “defense” of Hegel’s “apparent” position on all this – a position that can be résuméd in White’s terms as something like “in the end…Comedy.” Which is to say, we literally banged our heads against this idea that in the end, for Hegel, whatever of tragedy is disclosed to consciousness in the unfolding of historical consciousness, ultimately a “comic emplotment” holds the whole story in its gentle, hopeful, reconciling hands. The comic emplotment gets the last laugh.

That was a dumb joke, there, at the end of the last paragraph — because, of course, there is nothing “funny” about a comic emplotment. At issue is the (temporary? Yes, always, temporary, but also for Hegel, apparently, always recurring…) consilience of what had seemed unassimilable, and antinomous, even antagonistic.

That this diastolic complacency (however provisional) belongs over and beyond and above the sober acquiescence to conditions (known as tragedy) would be glad tidings indeed — if true. But is it? On what grounds could Hegel assert the truth of this proposition dictated by reason itself?

This was our question.

Here was our answer:



Glib. Again. Too glib.

But I did feel my way toward feeling a kind of intuition of the idea. To write it here will, I think, make it sound stupid. Because, in a way, to write it, you probably have to write the Hegel itself (shades of the Menard here…). But if I had to try to explain what makes me feel like I sort of get it, I would say something like: look, what consciousness does is understand, and so if consciousness turns to history, the result of that is going to be understanding. Or, to put it another way: sure, it might all just be random and meaningless, except, consciousness in “amidst” what obtains, and therefore that cannot be right — mind is here, moving. And so, what we know is mind will move with and in history and the result of that will be some mind-ordered history-in-consciousness. And so, well,…there you go! Or, rather, there you will continue going. In the end the “truth” is the whole thing, and the whole thing is a sequence of understandings (see left side of picture above).

Don’t send this to Robert Pippin. I’ll get flamed. (I’m not a Hegel scholar! I am a civilian, trying to make sense of this stuff!)

[visualize old-school smile emoji here; wordpress auto-converts to a little egg-yolk that I do not like…]


We took a break. And when we came back we turned to the Charterhouse of Parma. And we asked our question: Where is history in this book?

Many answers (in the names of the “great families” of Italy; in the “world-historic” figure of Napoleon; in the central socio-political change that the book documents, from the world of wigs to the world without, from the world of ministers, to the world of lawyers, etc.).

For a moment, we trembled on the threshold of a question equally “deep” and “foolish”: What is this? What kind of thing is this thing that is a novel? And what relationship does it have to the form of historical consciousness that is at the center of White’s book?

A big question, with which we have not finished, I think. We will pick it up next week, I hope…

Thank you, all!


Class 2

We launched today directly into a discussion of the first eighty pages of Hayden White’s Metahistory. I am going to keep this summary concise so that I can get it done with the time I have – and that is going to mean I am going to skip lightly across all the very good seminar discussion that got us going on this difficult but interesting, and I think, important text. None of you out and attacked the thing. There was a little respectful questioning about the relentlessness of the four-fold schematizing (which is certainly reasonable!). We devoted quite a bit of time simply to working out on the board in full detail the whole elaborate structure of this very, very structuralist work. If I had to pull out two threads from the first half of the seminar, I would tug first on what I remember as Ismael’s question about White’s relationship to irony: given that irony is, according to White, in a basic sense, the figure that wishes to say something like the opposite of what it says, what are we to make of White’s assertion that Metahistory is history written in the ironic mode?

This is a very good and a very hard question that a number of us had – and that I think could reasonably be described as the “master question” for any interpreter of this book. To it we shall surely return.

The other part of the discussion that stays with me strongly was the moment we pushed on what the “crisis of historicism” means for White (and took a moment to hypothesize as to how he saw his own text addressing that “crisis”). This led to a discussion in which I felt we were articulating some things about this book that I feel very deeply (but that I feel I have not previously heard articulated or participated in articulating quite so clearly). I am not sure I can perfectly reconstruct the propositional content that engendered this feeling of satisfaction and understanding. But if I had to try, I would say something like this: I really do believe that White’s ultimate ambition is to write an ironic history of the ironic condition of history that has the power to create the conditions of possibility for nothing less that a “new historical consciousness” – a historical consciousness adequate to our condition. By this I mean, I read him to be attempting to write history (as it is) against itself (as it is) in order to conjure or index history as it must become. I find this very exciting. As well as absolutely urgent – now, for us. I think the conditions under which White undertook this exercise are significantly different than the conditions under which we labor, but I take the need for this “new historical consciousness” to be, if anything, more urgent now than it was in 1972. We talked about this a little bit in seminar, but, in a basic way, we are likely to feel around on this matter for much of the semester. It would not be wrong to say that I think of this as my primary intellectual/creative ambition/enterprise/endeavor.

We took a break.

When we came back, we turned to the Borges. And we launched with a fundamental question: how does “history” work in Ficciones? And this question came hand in hand with another: what is the “Borgesian” conception of history?

We ended up focusing on “Funes the Memorious” and “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Once again, it’s not possible for me to reprise the richness of this conversation but we did focus hard on the way that Funes’s extravagant and conjoint mnemnomania felt like a fascinating figuration of Hayden White “pre-figured” historical substrate. Our discussion of Menard turned us to questions of the infinite (such a pervasive theme in Borges) and led to Dolven’s fascinating observation about the essentially finite nature of White’s conceptualizing of history. It suddenly felt quite difficult to understand where the “infinite” was in White’s analysis – as if this was perhaps the absent presence enabling historicism itself. For a moment, it seemed as if this afforded a beguiling glimpse into a genuine feature of this historical consciousness at issue in White’s study. Could this be right?

We will have more time to think about it, what is certain is that Borges is very definitely placing the historical novel itself (the primary mode by which fiction and historicism have been held together) directly in the crosshairs when he has the author of “Pierre Menard” dismiss historical fiction with a wave of the hand: “This distain condemns Salammbo without appeal.”

I may get that as a tattoo…

See you next week!

Class 1

Dear All:

I thought it would make sense for us to try to do brief summaries of each of our seminar discussions. These are a discipline. So I cannot guarantee that Jeff and I will be able to maintain the practice into wilds of April, but here goes…

The first session had an organizational dimension, and we spent some time on that getting-to-know-each-other stuff. But we ended up using the whole period, even though there was no assigned reading. How did that happen?

Well, we ended up spending quite a bit of time doing some “exercises in style” with history in a way that I thought was very interesting indeed. We began by going over a set of Queneau’s remarkable versions of the same little enigmatic anecdote – and we thought with Jeff about “style” as an analytic. We then undertook the first of two “finger exercises” in historical style: the prompt was to take the anecdote at the center of Exercises in Style and to write it as “History.” We gave ourselves 12 minutes.

If any of you were up for having bits of what you did posted here (either with your initials or anonymously – [as you like]) please send them along.

But until I have your actual jewels here to tip in, I will be relegated to the heresy of paraphrase.

I think the basic thing to say is that it was surprising in a very pleasing way to listen as a diverse range of historical voices, techniques, and burlesques surfaced. Some of you elected to focus on the historian’s preoccupation with source material – either by making the elements of Queneau’s story into sources, or by conceiving the sources out of which the anecdote might have been recovered. Others (including myself) opted to pastiche the scene setting and contextualizing reflexes of the narrative historian. Dolven himself, if I’m not mistaken, folded the question back onto the problem of literary history itself, giving us the historical origin of the anecdote as the origin of Exercises of Style itself.

Or perhaps that was one of you who did that, and Dolven did something else. I forget.

At any rate, the only way I will remember is if you send me some bits of this material. I confess I am sorely tempted, later, after the semester to see if any of you would be up for polishing versions of these – since I can imagine a little group of exercises in historical styles made from Exercises in Style being a fetching little work of belles-lettres.

Then we turned to some “proper history.” Jeff and I handed around two short excerpts from two very different historians. Here they are:

On the calends of January, at break of day, the new consuls, Mamertinus and Nevitta, hastened to the palace to salute the emperor. As soon as he was informed of their approach, he leaped from his throne, eagerly advanced to meet them, and compelled the blushing magistrates to receive the demonstrations of his affected humility. From the palace they proceeded to the senate. The emperor, on foot, marched before their litters; and the gazing multitude admired the image of ancient times, or secretly blamed a conduct, which, in their eyes, degraded the majesty of the purple. But the behavior of Julian was uniformly supported. During the games of the Circus, he had, imprudently or designedly, performed the manumission of a slave in the presence of the consul. The moment he was reminded that he had trespassed on the jurisdiction of another magistrate, he condemned himself to pay a fine of ten pounds of gold; and embraced this public occasion of declaring to the world, that he was subject, like the rest of his fellow-citizens, to the laws, and even to the forms, of the republic.

Gibbon, Decline and Fall (on the emperor Julian)

Ras Bupe Karudi set his passport ablaze. As a Rastafarian, the passport of a nation-state in Babylon was merely a document that allowed him to travel. It had never symbolized freedom or belonging. Now that he was home, in Africa, this incendiary act celebrated his literal departure from Babylon—for good. His use of fire to mark the end of his trod through the wilderness was not a random choice. It connected him to the age-old propensity of Rastafarians to use the image of a raging fire as a symbol of their denunciation of the Western world. When Rastafari emerged in the early 1930s, Jamaica was a British colony. In 1956, one colonial governor saw the movement as “some kind of distorted negro nationalism.” Another governor saw the Rastafarian “cult” as consisting of “some of the riffraff of the country” who were “mentally imbalanced.” Their “madness,” which was also deemed criminal, was their understanding of European slavery as the genesis of an institutionalized and systemic system of oppression that had targeted Africans. Rastafarians deduced that this system was governed by “a doctrine of Afrikan inferiority and European supremacy.” Throughout the years, the defining characteristic of “Babylon” was its tendency to constantly promote “a completely negative conception” of black people, as well as “misguided and slanderous myths in order to discredit” African heritage. Rastafarians saw Babylon’s construction of African inferiority as dialectically related to the construction of European superiority. The “long-standing myth” of European “invincibility” was based on Europe’s “conceited vanity.” 4 Far from mad, Rastafarians unveiled the insanity of the colonial project’s invention of Africa and Africans to serve its own purposes.

Monique Bedasse, Jah Kingdom (2017)

And then Jeff and I put up on the board a set of 5 modes or styles. I don’t remember all of them. (Do any of you?) But the list included dream, tragedy, and free verse. While we would have liked to have had time to do this exercise a few times, we were by this point creeping close to 4:20pm, so we only rolled it once: we all picked one of the two historical passages and one of the modal prompts, and the task was to re-create the chosen passage under the auspices of the chosen style.

Once again, a number of these were downright glee-making for me, so I would again be very happy if you still had any of this on hand and wanted to pass it along.

We didn’t have much time to analyze/discuss what it was like to do this exercise, or even engage the problem of exactly what sort of exercise this is. But I do think that it unfolded within the framework of an earlier discussion (in the course of our respective introductions) about the place of imitation and pastiche in intellectual life. Both Jeff and I in our different ways are committed to the idea that there are things to be learned in this kind of work: Jeff talked a little bit about the place of such imitative exercises in the history of renaissance pedagogy, and within the larger framework of mimesis and understanding; I talked about my longstanding preoccupation with “protean” forms of knowledge (or, perhaps to put it better, with the “epistemology of Proteus” – he who knew something through the morphic dimensions of metamorphosis). All of this was discussed in the context of a broad evocation of some of our hopes for the class as a whole.

A very good start, I thought – and looking forward to what we do together this semester.