sábado, 7 de diciembre de 2013

Beyond History: ensayo autobiográfico de Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth

La revista Rethinking History, creó hace algún tiempo una línea sumamente interesante, que bautizó con el nombre "personal history". Se trata de invitar a teóricos de la historia, con sensibilidad postmoderna, a presentar una especie de autobiografía, en formato de ensayo, que documenta sus visiones sobre la historia. En el número 5:2 correspondiente al año 2001 se incluye la historia de vida de Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, autora de libros como La autora tiene una obra interesante, que incluye trabajos como Realism and Consensus: Time, Space and Narrative (1983), George Eliot (1985), Sequel to History: Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time (1992), The English Novel in History 1840-1895 (1997), Rewriting Democracy (2007) y su más reciente History in the Discursive Condition: Reconsidering the Tools of Thought (2011):

When Rethinking History invited me to write this essay using the mode of personal history, I was delighted. Having been neglected all these years by David Frost and Oprah Winfrey, at last comes my opportunity to tell my story to a candid world. But almost immediately a problem arises from the disparity I find between what is personal, which in that never-to-be-had TV interview could be mere gossip, and what might be ‘history’ in the sense that term ordinarily implies. That is, ‘history’ as a universal sequence of events motivated by causalities so efficient that, even when individuals do not perceive them, they operate anyway, rather like the ineffable rules of that related, often dysfunctional fiction, The Market. History was a format congenial to the revolutionary new ideas of, among others, the Enlightenment philosophers who, building on the achievements of three centuries, theorized a new politics for a common ‘human’ world of rights, equality and progress: a world accessible to all and sustained by all; a world literally held in common, incompatible with secretive privilege which extinguishes candour, consensus and mutuality, which forecloses on democratic institutions and substitutes for them a shadow realm of coded recognitions and secret handshakes. Historical conventions uphold this candid world but, at the turn of the twenty-first century, that unified vision seems almost a dream and its founding subject largely a myth. The personal history of intellectual development turns out to be more problematic than first appears.

My long term investment in historical conventions has been largely involuntary in the sense that it is largely a cultural inheritance. I grew up believing in that candid world of common denominators which historical thinking has done so much to inscribe, and I grew up mistrusting the secret worlds that, despite the occasional nice people in them, still function invisibly outside most ‘history’ and put the lie to its claims to universality. At the same time, however, I have become interested by the postmodern critique of the cultural disposition that supports history, the candid world of common denominators, and ‘human’ values. This critique forecloses on some old opportunities certainly, but it also offers new ones, some of which help to illuminate what has seemed mysterious to Enlightenment assumptions: for example, why the cultures that believe in and promote ‘human rights’ continue to produce so many atrocities; what alternative to history postmodernity offers and what its costs might be. Over several decades and in many publications especially two books, Realism and Consensus (1998; 1983) and Sequel to History (1992), I have explored the powers and the limitations of two competing and at least partially contradictory systems of cultural values, perhaps even two cultural paradigms, which can be named by the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity.’ I have pursued this agenda because I think so much is at stake for western Eurocentric societies and democracies, and because I think the way to deal with an established and non-trivial challenge is to look it in the eye, not put your head in the sand.

Explaining these explorations autobiographically is tempting but it would not be adequate. That is because individuals do not produce ideas or cultural systems; ideas and systems are there already and individuals, including myself, get born into them just as they are born into a language and into an entire set of assumptions about identity, conduct and How Things Work. No doubt I developed my interest in the arts, history and the candid world because of family influences, encouragements, inhibitions. I learned to listen to all kinds of music and to try all kinds of sport. I was blessed with an unproblematic genetic inheritance and challenging siblings. I learned the value of multiple perspectives by having to adopt different ones from a fairly early age; after that perhaps it was just a question of waiting for the right theory to reach me. But how to trace the causal trajectory of a single life, even my own, from the mess of discursive networks that conditions every reflex? Do I mention the one or two really .ne college teachers and the mass of fairly conventional class work at several well known educational institutions? Perhaps I recount how, in at least one of them, I actually learned how to learn, and got support and encouragement to boot (thank you, Owen Jenkins). Perhaps I could summarize how much I learned on my own, from different friendships and academic jobs that introduced me to important books and experiences: phenomenology, the classical texts of ancient Greece from Hesiod to Plato (these in a Humanities course where Plato was to be taught as Truth and where Athenian slavery and misogyny were never to be mentioned); the experimental texts and practices of the 1960s; the women’s movement of the 1970s (not to be confused with its academic shadows); fashion magazines and advertising images; the misogyny of the insecure regardless of sex; the ambitious, encouraging, hit-and-run essays from France collectible (more or less) by the term ‘post-structuralism’; the travelling; the living abroad; the repeated visits to art museums and galleries in Europe and the USA; the experience of different cultures. But how does any of this explain the capillary actions that fed a single person’s course, or the blockages and deflections that deformed it, or the chance encounters and omissions that sent developing forms down this track instead of that? History claims these pathways are traceable. I wonder. And when we are done tracing them, what then? What interests me most, historically, is not the activity on the tracks, clickety clack, clickety clack, but the thresholds at which whole systems of tracking mechanisms of uncertain origin, whole paradigmatic commitments, can undergo mysterious mutation into something else, and without much of the difficulty that history, with its ancient roots and protracted causalities would lead one to expect. At such points, it is not so much a matter of mediation and transitions, but of choices, and that is not usually a quantitative matter.

In order to explain my views and interests historically, I would have to begin asking questions like ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ How did I come to this? Why did my thoughts develop in these directions? History is unavoidable. Try to write without it. In any discussion that raises the question, ‘why?’ –whether the subject is personal life, international monetary influences or the history of theatre– no sooner do you raise the question, ‘Why?’ then you embark upon history. ‘Why? Well, you see, there was this guy. . . .’ There is no escape from history and to anyone who thinks there is, I defy you to spend a single 24 hour period without using the terms, ‘develop’, ‘result’, ‘plan’, ‘implement’, ‘destination’, ‘because’, ‘just like’, or ‘fairness’ – to name only a few of the terms made resonant by history. It is dif.cult to avoid the temptation to explain phenomena by treating them as historical results, to tell their ‘story’. Why did the child die brutally? Why is the Middle East hostage to tribal warfare? Why did Concorde explode? What are the actual practical results of intervention by the IMF and the World Bank? Why did X get elected and Y sent to jail? There is no end to the continuities of history; we may reach outside it now and again, but not often and not easily because it has become instrumental.

And yet, it was not adequate for me. History was an explanatory mechanism that had been assumed, not explained, and I left school feeling the need of some theory or new explanatory mechanism that would be adequate to the full range of my experience and values. I was not satisfied at the prospect of simply choosing one –say Marx or Freud– and then wielding it for all it was worth: an activity that would only be more of the same and that would end, not by providing a way to open doors and create something new, but only by confirming Marx and Freud in much the same way using historical conventions confirms the validity of history. I learned all this slowly, by following a pathway of recognitions and researches that was prompted by who knows what pre-dispositions. For example, as a student I was weaned on Middlemarch, John Stuart Mill, national history and all kinds of related humanist and realist narratives though I didn’t think of them that way at the time. I enjoyed reading them because they provided certain confirmations and recognitions. Yet when I read anti-humanists and anti-realists, especially the narratives that flout history, even though I did not understand them at firrst –probably because I was still seeking the confirmations of Middlemarch– I found them to be equally interesting and enjoyable: it was more like listening to music than reading history. I liked the rhythm, the risk-taking, the lack of conventional piety, the experimental and analytic edge. I began to notice, as I read narratives by writers like Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Duras, Nabokov and Calvino that the narrative medium of historical time had virtually disappeared in their work, in much the same way as the space of traditional realism had virtually disappeared from the best early twentieth-century painting, and as the symphonic resolutions of nineteenth-century music had virtually disappeared in the newest composition of the twentieth. My own experience as a musician had taught me to appreciate the lack of symphonic resolution in the still half polyphonic music of the early Renaissance. Some of the experimental writers of the twentieth century even referred back to medieval art as a more congenial precedent for contemporary experiments than subsequent great work in the long representational tradition from the Renaissance.

This sorting process took place under many influences. One constituent of my experience came through the weird employment rituals of academia –on both sides of the Atlantic– in which I became responsible at different times for teaching the major texts of ancient Greece from Hesiod and Aeschylus to Plato and Euripedes, and the major texts of the English tradition beginning with Tudor history. At the same time I developed, where possible, an interest in the cinema of Bergman, Godard, Bresson, Truffaut and the rest of the French New Wave. Another constituent was the women’s movement which got underway about the time I began my academic employment in the early 1970s and which made a lasting difference in how I see all practices, including and especially my own. Two other factors, minor but professionally significant have been, first, the total lack of academic mentoring with which I entered my career –my innocence on that point now seems to me staggering– and secondly, the world of academic publishing, where it is so often Amateur Night and where conventionality reigns –especially at Princeton University Press, a particular problem that I am not the .rst to mention in print. Name names, I say. (In this vein I want to express thanks for the late Jean-Francois Lyotard’s published complaint on the subject of publishers. If any publisher reading this wants to take a chance with me, I’d consider a book on the subject, so powerful an influence are the commissions and omissions of publishers on the health and longevity of the demos. Do I digress?) Also, lest I sound like I have spent most of my life reading books, I should mention my long-term interest in singing, women’s solidarity, continental travel, dancing, conversation, skiing, solitude, the condition of democratic institutions, political marches, having a good time, family, the landscape of the western United States, the details of a frozen garden, the ‘minims’ of nature. The range and variety of possibility encourages me still and has always sponsored my intellectual adventures.

As my interest in anti-realists grew, so did my recognition that, in their oppositional zeal, they used realism as a straw man and provided no serious, certainly no generous analysis of what realism actually was or what it accomplished. If we are to give it up, what is at stake? I had decided to write a book about anti-realism, but in order to do so, it seemed essential .rst to establish what the term ‘realism’ might mean. Nothing I read from Auerbach onward seemed even to approach the dimensions of the problem, and many seemed tendentious or tended to assume the very things that needed proof. My tendency seems to be to step back, to get a bigger picture or prior explanatory grid. Historian at work.

In this case, the step back took six years and resulted in Realism and Consensus (1983, 1998), a book that might better have been called ‘The Modern Condition’. It traces a not-so brief history of history, framing its development by comparison with classical and medieval precedents and connecting its rise to the emergence of representation (mimesis) in politics and empiricism in science. The book on anti-realism, Sequel to History (1992) took another ten years. Sequel sketches out my understanding of the mutation of historical conventions in postmodernity, a term I now prefer to ‘postmodernism’ because it suggests a chronologically inescapable condition and does not sound so much like the dogmatic slumber of ‘ism’s. With the help of interdisciplinary resources from post-structuralism, postmodern narrative and arts generally, and feminist theory I explore the postmodern reconfiguration of identity and sequence that has such profound implications for history. Realism and Consensus and Sequel to History constitute a two-volume study of modernity and postmodernity. Several spin-offs have developed further some implications of the central arguments for identity, agency and our use of the past (Ermarth 2000), for our conception of time (Ermarth 1995) and neutrality (Ermarth 1998a), and for democratic institutions (‘Democracy and Postmodernity: The Problem’, part of a collection called Rewriting Democracy currently seeking a publisher). Presently I am exploring further the alternatives to historical writing that I touch on briefly at the end of this essay.

My intellectual ‘development’ has really been an exfoliation under influences from a motley lot of interdisciplinary and practical sources: art of all kinds especially contemporary and experimental art in drama, dance, theatre, architecture and above all in language; democratic politics in theory and in practice; science from empiricism and Newton to relativity and quantum theory, the galvanizing argument about social justice collected under the term ‘feminism’; philosophy from Plato –may he rest in peace– to phenomenology and post-structuralism. A handful of texts have been seminal for me but my tastes may be idiosyncratic and not easily transferrable. Foucault has been a substantial influence even though I probably would not sign on to most of the particular statements he made; the same could be said for Derrida, and for feminist theory: all especially useful because they were relentlessly interdisciplinary and operated beyond the same old same old. Hayden White’s willingness to think beyond the confines of academic history has been a perpetual sign of possibility. Two delightful little books on art history inspired the early and formative stages of my thinking about history, Art and Geometry (1964) and The Rationalization of Sight (1973) by the late William Ivins, Jr, a curator of pots at the Metropolitan Museum during the mid- twentieth century who occupied hours of Aegean crossings by making notes on interdisciplinary cultural history. His books still seem to me the epitome of simplicity and elegance. But what was seminal for me might not be for others, and anyway my so-called ‘secondary’ reading always took place in tandem with other reading, of narratives, or artworks and buildings and cities, of social relationships and of other discursive writing without words. In all this reading, history has been the troublesome, enabling language for threading together some possible thoughts about personal and cultural meaning and value. Even the finding of interdisciplinary similitude is the gesture of an historian. And still, it was not enough.

When I first turned away from unquestioning use of the historical conventions with which my education had been saturated, it was through my discovery as a postgraduate student of phenomenology, which questions the distinction between subject and object, and thus the possibility of ‘objectification’ that, as I was later to explain to myself and in print, was the main business of representational conventions, chief among them history. So I pursued it, through the work of Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty (Heidegger came later) and Hillis Miller, and I wrote my dissertation on George Eliot using it as a methodology. This deeply offended the reigning narrative theorists at University of Chicago where I had (I now think stupidly) transferred from Berkeley after my first marriage. My effort was dismissed; ‘Too much influenced by Hillis Miller’ was the comment reported to me. Thus was the aspiration represented by phenomenology reduced to one more small-minded, internecine, academic conflict.

But when did the connections between all these sources kick in, and what accounts in the first place for my apparently constitutional inclination away from methodological business as usual or for my sense that the available maps didn’t account for what was obviously there in my peripheral vision? Like many in my time, I was aware that the political and ecological catastrophes of the twentieth-century suggested the presence of unacknowledged limitations on the long-standing assumption that knowledge of the past can improve the future. Like many I recognized that even the physical description of nature had changed so that different ‘inertial systems’ could be recognized where once only a single system had been. Like many I recognized that Picasso and Braque, Bergman and Godard represented encouraging, generous new departures in method and ideas. Like many I was, as I continue to be deeply influenced by feminism. In an era of professional feminists, I should also say that I am a professional and a feminist, so that my grasp of the civil rights issues that animate the women’s movement among others, has played a significant role in my choice of formulation. My long-standing feminist commitments have not been left at the office, nor trotted out for rallies, nor used as a template for measuring others, but instead factored in as part of a wider intellectual adventure. (The term ‘feminism’ means entirely different things in the UK and the USA, so I have no doubt this brief comment will leave everyone dissatisfied, but then, what formulation would not when it comes to matters of social equality?) Did my particular use of all this have anything to do with my valiant mother’s lifelong effort to maintain independence, or her professional attachment to music, or her assumption of universal social equality? Did it have something to do with my father’s genius for diagnosis, his ability to go far beyond the usual explanations, or with his talent with the trumpet? Did it have to do with their lack of reverence for the Big Bow Wow? Did my shyness or my strength have anything to do with their long unhappy contest, or with my own experience with the institutionalized smugness of provincial 1950s social cliques, or with the relative freedom and privilege of my early childhood where I learned what it was possible to expect?

But here I must pause because this is threatening to become a history and there was more to it than that. The ‘more to it’ cannot be explained through personal history. In order to explain this impasse, I revert to the more theoretical explorations which, it seems to me, are necessary guides to personal definition and even conduct: theoretical explorations that are intimately important, but not intimate. What resulted from my dual interest in history and its discontents was a lot of writing and lecturing, but in particular the two books and related articles written over two decades that represent my central arguments concerning what is at stake between modernity and postmodernity, and between history and whatever lies beyond history. In them I confront an entire shift in Eurocentric societies across the range of practice, away from classical and medieval paradigms to modernity, and then again, away from modernity to whatever is ‘post’ modernity. In this frame the term ‘modernism’ applies to a profound but relatively local event at the turn of the twentieth century, a phoenix fire of modernity, and ‘modern’ applies to a much longer epoch. The theoretical arguments involve revision of long-standing and deeply personal beliefs about identity and about sequence, and thus about what actually constitutes the ‘personal’ and ‘history’ in the first place.

Realism and Consensus outlines the emergence and mutation of what I later began calling ‘the culture of representation’: that is, the culture that succeeded the middle ages in Europe and that developed across the range of practice some powerful new formulations and values that produced representation in art and in politics, that produced empirical science, and that eventually resulted in the development and dissemination of the idea of history, the social form of representation. Realism and Consensus explores the way the Renaissance objectified and unified the world. We can call this the One World Hypothesis (Ermarth 1998b; 2000). That hypothesis posits a world of agreement, not about this or that idea but about the formal possibility of agreement itself: about the possibility of a world held in common, a common or ‘candid’ world. Such a world first appears fully fledged and disseminated in the spatial neutrality achieved by Renaissance painting and architecture; their production of single, potentially unanimous arenas undivided by Manichean contests and unsusceptible to pluralizing discursive systems. The spatial neutrality of those Renaissance artefacts –encapsulated in the grammar of single-point perspective– announces and validates the power to make mutually informative measurements among widely separated instances: a power available only within a single comprehensive system of universally applicable measurements. It is not too much to say that without this production of conditions favourable to mutually informative measurement, modern science and technology would have been impossible and, as Ivins says, was impossible to the middle ages.

In writing this first book I taught myself how to use disparate materials in ways that were not super.cial but not timid either. This methodological effort was essential for locating the central motivating cultural values that would otherwise remain invisible to narrower disciplinary vision. I have the greatest respect for discipline, but I also know that it is a preliminary, not an end in itself: especially if I want to get anywhere close to the springs of practice. For example, the formal assertions of potential union discoverable in Renaissance perspective systems produce the value of neutrality, a value most crucial to representational conventions not only in art, but in politics and science and history as well; neutral space is the main product of the formal consensus of Renaissance perspective systems. A similar formal consensus appears after the Enlightenment, when history came into its own; neutral time is the main product of the formal consensus produced by modern historical writing. History, in other words, is a version of the perspective grammar of Renaissance painting. But to see this connection at all, it was necessary to go outside disciplinary bounds. Temporal neutrality acts in narrative just as spatial neutrality does in painting: as a common-denominator medium, infinite and unconfigured, containing all culture, all theory, all physical events across the potential range from a supernova to a ringing telephone. While the neutral time of history only became fully deployed and disseminated in nineteenth-century narrative, it had already been codified by seventeenth century empirical science, politics and philosophy.

These related forms of perspective grammar were widely separated in time but shared a primary agenda: nothing less than the objectification of the world. The perspective grammar of realism –in painting or in history– transformed the physical cosmos from one riven by competition between good and evil and divided hierarchically and qualitatively to one unified as a single arena of explanation and measurement. Once the world is a single, thus objective arena of possibility, mutually informative measurement becomes possible. And because these enabling realist conventions are nothing if not circular, the reverse is also true: because mutually informative measurement is possible, the world is a single, thus objective arena of possibility.

The nineteenth-century neutralization of time and its antecedents back to the Renaissance neutralization of space, seem to me to belong to the most astonishing accomplishment of the culture of representation as it has existed over five centuries. I am still pursuing its implications and I certainly have used its methods in making mutually informative comparisons among widely separated instances in order to discover the emergent forms of history. This complex, extensive cultural event reflects a rationalization of faculties that belongs to modernity: it stems from the late-medieval, early Renaissance, and Reformation roots of modern Eurocentric societies, and it is much older than the Enlightenment though not as old as Plato, notwithstanding the claims made in some recent French analyses. It is a cultural achievement born from the late middle ages and one with an importance that is dif.cult to overestimate. It has supported such common-denominator projects in the culture of representation as empirical science, realist art, democratic politics and even, to an extent, capitalism and socialism; it still vastly influences our most fundamental conceptions of identity and sequence. We are well beyond ‘master narratives’ here, to the very structures of experience, the tools of thought, the discursive sets that make and foreclose possibilities.

This objectifying effort contains a hubris that can lead to colonial atrocities; but it is a hubris that also has inspired much of what Eurocentric societies value. It is the hubris of the explorers who sought the Orient and the cartographers who supported them, the architects of representational government, the international peacemakers, the champions of ‘human’ rights, the scientists mapping the human genome, the historians charting the obscure course of cultural change. And if there is hubris, there is also charity in the One World Hypothesis that history maintains: a kind of potential generosity that Meyer Schapiro once called ‘the immense, historically developed capacity to keep the world in mind’ (1937: 85).

Such capacity cannot belong to individuals, however. Instead, it thrives only as a complex function of collective agreements, most of them tacit and inexplicit. Too often the power to keep the world in mind has been mistaken for an individual achievement and has become the enabling ‘optical illusion’, as Herbert Butterfield once put it, for a certain class and culture (1963). How these issues produced their political and social implications in nineteenth century England I have taken up in an interdisciplinary book on the use of h‘history’ in that era as the primary form of social narrative (Ermarth 1997). History came into its own rather suddenly after 1848 in Britain, changing almost overnight from a marginal practice to a universally disseminated narrative format to be found in the work of the brilliant and original Sir Walter Scott and his many heirs (e.g. George Eliot, Trollope, Virginia Woolf), in Darwinian biology and in earth sciences, in cultural and social histories, and in the stalwart three-decker novel which most broadly disseminated a new kind of narrative for a revolutionary age. By the 1860s history in England has become the ruling convention of a particular social order. Dissemination of this idea of time was the work of the nineteenth century right down to the synchronization of clock time for the railroads that was a symptom and consequence, not a cause, of the temporal neutralization produced by history.

The fact that historical conventions exist primarily to establish neutrality is a thought that can be dificult to keep in focus, precisely because it goes to the heart of so many enterprises. Nevertheless, what distinguishes historical time from either mythic or postmodern constructions of temporality is its neutrality. Not its linearity – all sequences are linear, even circular or zig-zag ones. Not its chronology – the Anglo Saxon Chronicle is chronological, sort of, but it is not a modern history. But its neutrality. In other words history – by virtue of a certain perspective grammar or consensus apparatus that I analyse as a temporal instance of realism – claims universality for one kind of time: the neutral, in.nitely receding, universal medium ‘in’ which everything exists, a kind of metaphysical ether that justi.es mutually informative measurement between ‘now’ and ‘then’ over a vast range of comparison. ‘History’ is the inscription of that temporal medium. All details – this battle that marriage – are secondary carriers of this main feat, just as the pictorial details of the Madonna or saints were secondary carriers of a similar feat in the Renaissance production of neutral space.

From scientific to cultural narrative, and backed up by more than three centuries of preparation, this unprecedented idea of time took hold after 1800 and remains for most of us an almost automatic pilot. This kind of time has become the only conceivable kind: homogeneous, infinite, unproblematic, unconfigured by exotic influences like furies, or gods or wormholes in space. And the key to this kind of time is its neutrality as produced by the particular perspective grammar of history that aligns ‘then’ and ‘now’ into a single system of explanation and measurement. To establish the optical illusion of history, narrative must formulate events so that they require mediation. Hence the fascination with chronological indicators which in themselves are insignificant carriers of the main discursive event. The fundamental narrative strategy, familiar across the narrative range from histories of war and culture to popular romances and detective novels, involves mediations, crossings from place to place, and from time to time, that literally establish and maintain the neutral time ‘in’ which alone objectivity is possible and mobility can be productive.

And productive it has been. Historical narrative works through the apparently simple gesture that says ‘once upon a time’ and then makes time produce: produce results, explanations, knowledge, capital. In fact, production is a necessity, and a way of reconciling us to present lack for the sake of future completion. The horizon of history is maintained by ‘the future’; even the remote ‘pre-historic’ past can contribute; nothing escapes. The more we dig back then, the more we reinforce now the value of ‘the future’ and its enforced deferrals and deflections, the more we sustain the hope, even the expectation maintained by historical conventions that such inadequacy is only incompletion. Implicitly present losses, failures or separations are only temporary stages on the way to ‘the future’ toward which we can proceed in reasonable hope and expectation of eventual recovery, success, reunion.

The problem with all this, including my own comparative historical methodology, is that, along with the entire culture of representation including empiricism and presumably representational (democratic) political institutions, history is having to face its own historicity. My early and continuing exploration of the postmodern challenges to modernity convinced me that the challenges to its ‘objectivity’ are too many simply to dismiss or ignore. The emergent causalities of history do not allow for the operation of chance or luck, even though those forces manifestly operate in ordinary affairs. The description of nature’s laws has modified those established by Newton. It has been nearly a century since neutrality all but disappeared from time and space in art; and more recently neutrality has stood by in blue berets helpless to prevent bloodbaths in Europe and the Middle East. In ‘A Brief History of History’ (1998) I explore ways in which the search for causes, along with other historical usages, may themselves have become part of the problem in the difficult effort to understand exactly what it is we are doing culturally, now that the lights have changed and the possible explanations are multiplying. In general a multitude of symptoms across the range of cultural practice reveal that the founding assumptions of history have reached a point of mutation or reformation – a liminal condition that requires us to recognize the historicity of history. It, too, is a cultural production, a discursive function. Some recognize these symptoms of cultural change with delight; others are brought kicking and screaming to the work that reveals incontrovertibly the symptomatic evidence that history belongs to what (improving on Lyotard) I call ‘the discursive condition’ (Ermarth 2000: 408). Some seem to find this recognition excessively trying and can be seen running away in an opposite direction, as, for example, with the tiny souls who write on the postmodern for the Times Literary Supplement. But wishing it away will not make it so, and Mr Podsnap has been gone these 150 years.

When I considered historical conventions as historically .nite, it was easier to see the full extent to which they appear elusively paradoxical. The very act of moving attention, of creating gaps to be mediated, actually constructs the very neutrality that supposedly enables the mediation in the frst place. The mediation is what causes neutrality to materialize. And that mediation is implicitly saturated with consciousness which does raise questions such as ‘whose consciousness?’ But historical narrative makes a point of masking its mechanisms; that is the irresistible appeal of its ‘objectivity’ – it masks the fact that it is an ‘objectification’. Perhaps my interest in unmasking its mechanisms comes from some dim awareness that, as Borges likes to demonstrate in his stories, inattention to the mechanism can be fatal. In any case, historical mediation literally produces neutral time; that is above all what history ‘represents,’ its ‘objects’ functioning only as markers or carriers for the larger project of objecti.cation, just as the ‘objects’ of Raphael or Piero were only carriers for the more powerful generalization about space and the objectifiable world.

In historical narrative, quantitative distance-markers are especially conspicuous; they are easy to visualize in terms of pictorial representation, thanks to our deep cultural familiarity with the perspective grammar that Renaissance architects, painters and theorists have disseminated. In temporality, the most obvious distance markers are chronological indicators; these are especially familiar in academic contexts where ‘periods’ and ‘centuries’ seem almost to constitute the building blocks of intellectual life. We teach courses and read books with titles such as ‘Twentieth-Century History’ and The Novels of the 1840s. Scholarly attention respectfully stops at chronological ‘period’ boundaries. Publishers, libraries and universities reinforce these tendencies and collude in the elision, even suppression of work undertaken in broader discursive horizons that do not .t the existing categories, the preservation of which seems to have become a sacred duty.

When history has to face its own historicity, recognitions are involved that are potentially threatening, so recoil from the critique is understandable. Still, it is ironic that history, once an emancipatory and anti-dogmatic device, has nearly reversed its function when academic institutions and publishers reinforce history as dogma. Furthermore, its central value of ‘neutrality’ has become increasingly suspect in an era of intractable tribal conflict where its consensus mechanism can be seen as a ‘terrorist apparatus’ (Lyotard 1984: 63–5) because it can only suppress what does not formally agree. There are other problems. The ‘future’ does not appear to live up to its promises, sometimes not even when that future is only the next quarterly report; rationality does not seem to govern events; outcomes often do not justify sacrifice. There simply is too much that cannot be explained historically and that yet has value. And there is too much repetition of the same old historical stories – the romantic, the patriotic, the righteous – that too often function only as alibis. My students have always understood that instantly and implicitly. The worthy dreams of reason and of the demos, as the Greeks knew, involve the repression of certain powers that only perpetuate themselves negatively, haunting and hampering it. History is having to face its repressions.

My study of modernity and of history as a consensus apparatus comparable to Renaissance painting was guided from the outset by my awareness of postmodernity in the margins. My agenda has always been to discover what modernity was capable of so that I might better understand the competition. Throughout I have been aware that the postmodern challenge to historical conventions offers more than mere negatives, but instead, openings for new, possibly even more enabling definitions of identity and sequence, for new kinds of relationship with the past, and above all for a new politics, possibly even a renewed politics. Activating such opportunities, however, requires a willingness to move beyond the nostalgia evident in so much discussion of the ‘postmodern’. Just as modernity succeeded the medieval, bringing paradigm shifts with it, so postmodernity has succeeded modernity bringing paradigm shifts with it. It is merely movement, and not movement that can be denied. Even if representational conventions are to be defended against the postmodern challenge, and there are good reasons to attempt it, the defence will be weak that has no grip on the opposition. Basic codes have changed across the range of cultural practice, in science, in art, in politics. It is time to stop flinging epithets and start considering, in as much consensual spirit as we can muster, the immense practical implications of those changes.

My exploration of this broadly implicit critique of modernity, present from the beginning of my research, finally found its way into print as Sequel to History (1992), 17 years after I starting thinking about the challenges of postmodernity and after I had published a promised book on one of the most widely and wilfully misunderstood radicals of the nineteenth century, George Eliot (1985). Sequel approaches the subject of time in the postmodern condition just as Realism and Consensus took up time in modernity. Sequel explores what post-modernity is capable of, especially with regard to the deformation of modernity in general and its historical and representational values in particular. What is at stake in this transition is definitely personal, but what, exactly, is at stake? Once across the threshold of postmodernity – and most of us already have crossed it here and there whether we like it or not – history in its traditional sense, along with its founding unitary subject, are no longer possible simply because the postmodern world is not one system but many. ‘The discursive condition’ is not congenial to the One World Hypothesis, nor to the assumed value of neutrality, nor to the project of objecti.cation with its emphasis on individual viewpoint and emergent form. With this recognition of postmodern complexities, neutrality and the rest of the values associated with history do not necessarily become lost, but neither can they remain universally applicable and, therefore, immune from choice or rejection. They are properties of some systems and not others, and the choices between them are
a vexed and difficult ones.

The threshold of postmodernity has no simple location any more than the Renaissance did. Eurocentric societies have been tipping away from modernity for nearly two centuries. Non-Euclidean geometry was invented before the mid 1800s, and the linguistic model for knowledge was invoked in England before 1870; Freud and Marx circumvented the idea of irreducible entities, be they personal or social; and the entire nineteenth century in France, according to André Breton, denounced the ‘ridiculous illusion of happiness and understanding’ that the Enlightenment had bequeathed it. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, phenomenology had sought to override the distinction between subject and object, painters and writers had abandoned the neutrality in space and time upon which representation and history rested, Saussure had rede.ned language as a differential system, and Einstein had published the Special Theory of Relativity. By 2001 nobody but Mr Podsnap would attempt to disregard all that. Like the Renaissance or the Reformation, postmodernity belongs to a cultural event of such magnitude that to insist on assigning it a simple chronological location is to render it almost entirely invisible. Recognition or denial, however, are not my business here. I am addressing readers of Rethinking History who certainly will have recognized already that something has happened to the conventions of historical writing. The question now is, what becomes of the past? And what becomes of the founding subject of history, that individual viewpoint and recollection that I am supposed to be tracing here and that, taken collectively with all others has sustained the One World Hypothesis and its productions for centuries of European achievement including its adventures in the new world?

In order to answer the central question about new relationships with the past, I turned to narratives that depart from the historical understanding derived from the Renaissance: from the understanding that the past is past and different from us and thus, for that very reason, a basis for mediation. That understanding, now seemingly so simple and obvious, was not obvious before the Renaissance and was crucial to the Renaissance birth of history. Erwin Panofsky’s formulation of this thought remains one of the best because it includes both full respect for, and also the grain of critique of the birth of abstraction that arose from the newly invented historical relation to the past:

The Middle Ages had left antiquity unburied and alternately galvanized and exorcised its corpse. The Renaissance stood weeping at its grave and tried to resurrect its soul. And in one fatally auspicious moment it succeeded. This is why the medieval concept of the Antique was so concrete and at the same time so incomplete and distorted; whereas the modern one, gradually developed during the last three or four hundred years is comprehensive and consistent but, if I may say so, abstract. And this is why the medieval renascences were transitory; whereas the Renaissance was permanent.
(Panofsky 1960: 113)

The distanced abstraction required by historical conventions of description and explanation always puts particulars into a systematic and rational horizon, the generalizations of which are more important than the particulars which are only stepping stones to them. Take, for example, the generalization that classifies whales as mammals despite their obvious similarities to fish. Because the culture of representation does not allow for diversity in identification – something that prior modes of identification did allow – the creature must be either a mammal or a fish, and so the poor fish becomes one of us. History and associated representational conventions all dissolve particulars with abstraction – for good reasons but with sometimes fatiguing effect. When all particulars exist mainly as evidence, that is, as instances of developing forms and conditions that are abstract and accessible only through a sequence of cases, there is little savour left for the moment, unless it is snatched ahistorically from this relentless ‘reality.’

Postmodernity re-introduces diversity, even contradiction, back into the process of identification; it lets inflection back into sequence. Postmodern identities consist of multilevel and sequential inflections that produce pattern without consensus, and sequential linkages liberated from the fatal forward motion of historical causality. This renewed inflection, formerly suppressed by scientistic hankerings for mere accuracy, renews emphasis on the slack, the ‘play’ available in the discursive element that allows for more than one kind of practice. Poets have always understood this. Poetry can be de.ned as precisely the demonstration of that play in language that interferes with productive mechanisms, that makes room for imagination, that contains contradiction without irritable, trivializing insistence on resolution. Postmodernity encourages recovery of that amplitude in the discursive element. This is partly why postmodernity brings back to the centre the artistic practices that modernity marginalized: because, as Bill Paulson has argued, literature is the ‘noise of culture’, its medium of possibility.

The ‘discursive condition’ contrasts utterly with (I may as well call it) ‘the modern condition’ because the postmodern medium is never neutral, always ‘semiotic’ in the sense empowered by Saussure. In order to understand the role of ‘the past’ in postmodernity I rely on Saussure’s most suggestive ideas about language. First, that languages function reflexively, not referentially (this is obvious to anyone who knows two languages). Second, that languages generate meaning negatively through recognition of their differential internal functions (this is considerably less obvious). And third, that verbal languages represent only one kind of semiotic system and that we ‘speak’ in many different sign systems that function as verbal language does, reflexively and differentially, but that are not verbal – for example, body language, garment language, the sign systems for traf.c or fashion, the sign systems implicit in tea ceremonies or the world of wrestling, on the soccer field, in the boardroom, at the club, and so on. The term for such a system has come to be ‘discourse’ because the term ‘language’ tends to invoke verbal systems. The term ‘discourse’ lies behind my phrase, ‘the discursive condition’. Saussure’s ideas, presented in University lectures at Geneva c. 1906–11 and after his premature death published from notes as Cours de linguistique génèrale (1915) and translated into English in 1959, inspired his students at Geneva and have inspired creative thinking ever since.

Saussure’s ideas have radical implications for the possibility of ‘doing’ history, personal or otherwise and also for the definition of individual practice. For example, instead of thinking of myself as an individual agent picking up signifying tools in a neutral space, Saussure and his heirs invite me to think of myself as a moving site of discursive specification, a subject position or, more accurately, a simultaneous plurality of subject positions because I inhabit semiotic systems in multiples simultaneously, not one at a time; I am indistinguishably teacher, thinker, musician, colleague, parent, scholar, friend, driver, voter and so on. Instead of thinking that language is only language and the world is ‘real’, I am invited to recognize that everything is language at every moment: a text, a readability, a writing, an inscription. Instead of thinking of myself as ‘individual’ (i.e. non divisible entity) engaged in a consensus apparatus that obliges me to discard much of my knowledge and sensibility, I am invited instead to recognize the obligation for constant negotiation among the many semiotic systems or discourses that constitute my context of meaning and value as a sort of environmental possibility. In such ideas the semiotic complexity of my day begins to find an intellectual model adequate to it.

There are costs. I must sacrifice my idea of romantic individuality and of heroic, world historical action to which the in.nities of modern space and time invited me, and instead I must con.ne ‘my’ subjectivity to that moving nexus where I can make this or that particular specification of whatever semiotic systems are available to me. ‘The past’ is a function of a present discursive opportunity, not a launching stage well lost. In the ‘discursive condition’ the production of meaning and value does not ‘originate’ with individual agency, human or divine, but instead occurs in-between potential and practice: between the not-speakable general powers of a semiotic system (Saussure’s langue) and the finite specifications of it (Saussure’s paroles). In the indefinite gap between that potential and its specification lies the arena of freedom and the opportunity of ‘the past.’ Personal identity can be construed only in terms of the complex trajectory of such specifications, what Nabokov calls ‘the unique and unrepeatable poetry of an individual life.’ The ‘discursive condition’ is this linguistic in-between. There is no outside to it; we are born into it and into the codes that have been made available to us, either by effort or by default, and that were present long before we were and will survive us. Individuality consists of that trajectory of specifications by which one selects from the range of available semiotic systems and (necessarily) xcludes the rest of the vast range of possibility as momentarily useless and hus mere ‘noise’ – although, as information theorists explain, ‘noise’ is just omeone else’s message. In short, each of us performs a continuous daily emiotic juggling miracle just so that we can communicate about the simplest hings, stay on the functional side of the road, and generally stay out of harm nd earn a living. It is not nothing. However, the intellectual models of modernity, articularly those of history, have told us it was nothing.

Postmodernity reconfigures individuality and agency; it certainly does not do away with them. But beyond the few indications already given I do not want to repeat here arguments made elsewhere about individual agency (Ermarth, 2000: 405–13). I will concentrate instead on the postmodern reconfiguration of time and thus of temporal sequence and our relationship to the past. Postmodernity does not do away with the past either, but neither does it use the past to sustain the universal claims, among them Truth claims, implicitly made by modern historical writing through its objectifying agendas. Time in the discursive condition is never the neutral medium produced by historical conventions. Like discursive subjectivity, discursive time is a function of sequences, all of which are finite specifications of finite systems of potential. What is realizable are particular specifications of systemic potential, not the system itself which is never and can never be specified any more than ‘English’ can. It is thus not possible in the discursive condition to speak, as history does, of ‘time’. Discursive times are .nite. They are periodic. They come to an end and know nothing of the infinite horizons and heroic potentials of modernity and history’s neutrality.

While it has always been obvious to most grownups that personal time comes to an end, modernity makes it easy, perhaps seductively easy, to lose sight of that determining fact within the infinities and neutralities of historical conventions. In the discursive condition time is a dimension of events not a containing medium for them: hence the impossibility for a neutral time acting as a common denominator for collective events at the level of history. History implies a totalized collectivity including all and everyone and it suggests that whatever does not participate in the collective sums, does not exist. We see this implication played out daily in the middle east, and on less dramatic scales nearer to home. Furthermore, modern history goes on forever, whereas discursive times are only as long as the given finite sequences of specification of particular potentials by a particular agent.

What then are the possibilities for writing histories once the consensus apparatus supporting modernity has been dismantled? This is the question currently engaging me and, while I attempt no simple answer, I can say that I find promising opportunities in the anthematic ambits of experimental narrative sequences that now are familiar from all kinds of fictions, films, even internet jokes that disrupt the explanatory machinery of history. This new narrative sequence has nothing to do with getting rid of so-called ‘facts’; postmodernists are not loonies unable to kick a stone. In ‘fact’ postmodernity is much more respectful of detail than was modernity, in something like the same way quantum theory is more precise just as it becomes less secure in the familiar empiricist terms. But postmodernity does involve a key move away from objectivity to construct where the past has new functions. Such new relations for ‘the past’ can be sought in the experimental sequences ‘written’ in words or steel or sound or stone: in the narratives of the nouveau roman or Nabokov, in Frank Gehry’s buildings, in Steve Reich’s music, or in the ribbon of stone in Washington, DC bearing the names of Vietnam War dead. Such work demonstrates in practical terms precisely the power to turn convention aside, to reform the act of attention, to ground and limit the very formulation that is prior to any discussion at all whether practical or philosophical. Most important of all such work allows for a plurality of possible even contradictory ‘readings’ and ‘meaning.’ Artistic creations, so often marginalized by the objecti.cations of modernity, are nevertheless the most highly achieved cases of the kind of discursive specification that I engage in every day. They provide a range beyond what is conventionally imaginable. Language that emphasizes its own associative volatility – for example, poetry from Shakespeare to Stoppard – has its counterparts in the street and perhaps even, one hopes, in the boardroom where ‘writing’ takes place just as surely as on the poet’s or novelist’s desk or in the painter’s studio.

New temporal habitations have been explored more by artists than by theorists despite the latter’s use of the term, ‘time’. Early examples can be found in Dada, Kafka or absurd theatre. A later, British example is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves:

Time lets fall its drop {says Bernard}. . . . Time tapers to a point; it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am. . . . How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground!. . . . I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement. . . . What delights me is the confusion, the height, the indifference. . . . Of story, of design I do not see a trace. What is the true story? That I do not know. Hence I keep my phrases hung like clothes in a cupboard, waiting for some one to wear them.
(1931: 184, 277, 238–9, 218)

The thread of meaning breaks, but (scandal!) without catastrophe. Half a world away Julio Cortázar, another genius of the revisionary sequence, especially admired The Waves for daring to stick its hand outside of history. Later still, the narrator of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover recapitulates the theme:

The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.
(1985: 8)

In place of ‘the story’ is ‘writing’ which Duras describes as either the most powerful adventure – it is either ‘all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void’ – or else it is nothing more than ‘advertising.’ These few writers testify, from different parts of the twentieth century and from different cultures and continents, to the presences of a new kind of sequence in which the past has intense value but history does not, and where temporality belongs to a digressive and paratactic order, not an historical one.

Such sequences depend on digression, or ‘a formality of sustained interruption’ (Ermarth 1992: 145): a digressive formality foreign to the emergent forms of historical conventions but completely at home in contemporary films such as Pulp Fiction, The Double Life of Veronique or The Big Lebowski. Instead of producing history and meaning, they exfoliate, digress, embedding any meanings in patterns of repetition and variation that mutate in the course of the sequence and often stop arbitrarily. The volatility of association takes precedence over the production of historical causality. We get a sequence defined by its peripheral visions as much as by its forward motion: a sequence by comparison with which conventional historical sequence, moving like a good Aristotelian plot toward its increasingly inevitable end, seems to have blinkers on. Modern history may be plot-like and form-like, but in 2001 it is not life-like.

The past is not past in postmodern narrative sequences, but a present reiteration, a constitutive element of the series. Such a ‘past’ does not resemble the collective formalities of history. Instead the elements of memory are part of a continuing, personally marked recognition – ‘anthematic recognition’ after the ‘anthemion’ or interlaced narrative pattern described and practiced by Nabokov among many others (Ermarth 1992: 198; 2000: 415). Whereas history has been weeping at the grave of the past for five centuries and attempting to resurrect it, postmodernity simply refuses to declare it dead and thus dispenses with the necessity for burying it. Instead the past is ever-present in the contested patterns of linguistic and discursive recognition. And these patterns always belong to finite individual sequences that replace the grand rationalizations of history. The unique and unrepeatable poetry of an individual text or life does not serve as a basis for the commanding consensus that established the conditions of history and of so much else. What is gained for the sequence is amplitude and inflection, even quality perhaps. What is lost is the power of generalization that unifies absolutely everything according to the terms of a single system of measurement. The objectified universe has lost its (Newtonian) certitude and finality; but then, as George Eliot long ago remarked, finality is but another name for bewilderment and defeat.


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