Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Uses of the Past: The Hedgehog Review and Beyond

Figure 1. Staircase at La Sagrada Familia, a basilica in Barcelona, Spain, perpetually unfinished, begun by Antoni Gaudi in the 1880s

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of The Hedgehog Review, a journal published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. The Institute states its mission this way:
The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is an interdisciplinary research center and intellectual community at the University of Virginia committed to understanding contemporary cultural change and its wide-ranging individual and social consequences.

The changes we witness today are as complex as they are extensive and, in many respects, they are unprecedented in human history. In studying these developments, our particular focus is on the changing frameworks of meaning and moral order—the symbolic and structural frameworks within which individual life, institutional adaptation, and political conflict in the contemporary world take place. Our attention, then, is directed not to the passing trends or the artifacts of change but rather to what we call the “deep structures” of contemporary culture, to the way transformations at this largely tacit and constitutive level take concrete institutional form in the organization of public life, in the moral coordinates of people’s personal lives, and in the sources of meaning that define human flourishing.

Although I love The Hedgehog Review and admire the Institute's commitment to investigating the "deep structures" of contemporary culture, issues of the Review, which have centered on everything from "Religion and Violence," "The Body and Being Human," "Illness and Suffering," "Technology and the Human Person," "Celebrity Culture," "Meditations on Exile and Home," "Identity," "What Is The University For?" and "The Fate of the Arts," only ever include the voices of scholars [who are always well-known and admired in their respective fields: each issue presents a "cluster" of already well-established scholars speaking to a particular theme] who work on either 20th-century or "contemporary" subjects; therefore, the "deep structures" being analyzed are being analyzed without the benefit of the perspective of scholars working in premodern studies [which I define as antiquity through the so-called "early modern" periods]. This would not be such a terrible thing, given the fact that each issue always contains a "bibliographic essay," which purports to provide, by sub-headings, the authors and titles of any work deemed essential reading on that issue's particular topic. Rarely, if ever, does work by premodern scholars ever make these lists--so, for example, in their issue devoted to "The Body and Being Human," neither Caroline Walker Bynum, Peter Brown, Thomas Laqueur, Sarah Coakley, or even Roy Porter were included [and yes, I know there are many more scholars I could mention here]. Imagine my surprise when my new issue arrived in the mail yesterday, devoted to "The Uses of the Past," and the entire table of contents revealed quickly that what would be at stake in the essays would be issues of memory and counter-memory, repression and trauma, memorials, nostalgia, and the "trouble" of "troubling" pasts," but only in relation to historical events of the 20th century [or events that are seen as importantly antecedent to this century by not more than 200-300 years].

I don't want anyone to think I am complaining here, as I have never been disappointed by the essays I read in The Hedgehog Review--oftentimes, they are positively thrilling to read, and some issues have inspired new directions in my own work. I mention this because I think the Institute at Virginia has absolutely the right notions about the study of contemporary culture and their mission statement provides an opening, I think, for yet another journal that might be dreamed up and put into play alongside journals like The Hedgehog Review as a kind of long-missing and much-needed supplement. Imagine a journal run and managed entirely by scholars working in, say, medieval studies, that would structure each issue around a "presentist" or contemporary issue or troubling present question, such as [to cadge from Hedgehog] "Religion and Violence" or [to pose our own issues and questions], "What Is The Place of the Past in the Present?" and "What Are the Proper Uses of Historical Memory?" and "How Does Deep Time Return?" and "What Is Going Abroad?" "What Is Justice?" and "What Was/Is the Human Person?" and "How Should We Count Time?" and "Who Is the Foreigner?" and "Who Is the Child?" and "What Is Terrorism?" and "What is Nostalgia?" and "What Is Globalization?" and "How Many Sexes?" and "What and Where is the Modern?" and "Where Is Utopia?" and "Is There a Third Culture Yet?" etc. etc. I could go on and on. This would be a journal that would have two faces or orientations: one looking to the future, the other into deep time, and always seeking to make present the often invisible structures of the past in the present, but with the desire to effect change in the dispositions and habits of its readers as regards their present-day "worldliness" [to cadge from Edward Said]. This would be a journal that would [hopefully] demonstrate the worth and value of premodern studies to pressing present-day concerns and anxieties and world "troubles," and the scholars involved in its publication would be willing to step outside certain old ways of doing scholarship in order to make occasionally obscene and always new connections between histories, ideas, cultural artifacts, discourses, and texts [literary and otherwise] that have traditionally been perceived to be disparate from and incommensurable with each other. This would be scholarship that would be erudite and learned and serious and rigorous [in all the ways that medieval scholarship has traditionally been], while also being playful and sensuous and artistic [but without ever forgetting that something that matters is always at stake]. Such a journal is possible, and I am working on it, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I do want to encourage everyone to somehow get their hands on the most recent issue of The Hedgehog Review, "The Uses of the Past" [vol. 9, no. 2; Summer 2007]: you can see the Table of Contents here, and to whet your appetite, I will leave you with some excerpts from Svetlana Boym's "Nostalgia and Its Discontents," an essay that [I think] is very thought-provoking for medievalists in general and which is also apropos to many of the conversations we have here often:
The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary. . . . I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one's own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images--of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.

. . . .

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, an historical emotion. Hence I will make three crucial points. First, nostalgia is not "antimodern"; it is not necessarily opposed to modernity but coeval with it. Nostalgia and progress are like Jekyll and Hyde: doubles and mirror images of one another. Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that makes the division into the "local" and the "universal" possible.

Second, nostalgia appears to be a longing for place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time--the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. Hence the past of nostalgia, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not even past. It could be merely better time, or slower time--time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books.

Third, nostalgia, in my view, is not always retrospective; it can be proscreptive as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory. While futuristic utopias might be out of fashion, nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension--only it is no longer directed at the future. Sometimes it is not directed at the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space.
Boym goes on to formulate a typology of nostalgia that distinguishes between reflective and restorative nostalgia, and ultimately concludes with this beauty:
While restorative nostalgia returns and rebuilds one's homeland with paranoic determination, reflective nostalgia fears return with the same passion. Home, after all, is not a gated community. Paradise on earth might turn out to be another Potemkin village with no exit. The imperative of a contemporary nostalgic is to be homesick and sick of home--occasionally at the same time.


Rick said...


Very intriguing post. I wholeheartedly agree that a journal of this sort is needed. As someone who is working on questions of trauma, collective memory, the uses of the past, personal identity, etc. etc. etc., such a journal would be most welcome.

I have nothing pithy to add at the moment except to voice encouragement!

srj said...

hear, hear

and sorry that my comment is so attenuated

needs must ...

J J Cohen said...


It is disappointing -- though, as you say, not all that surprising -- to be left out of conversations to which we could have interesting, useful, even provocative things to say. Those who study the "distant" past (and "distant" can mean "more than two decades ago" for some of these authors) have not always been the bets advocates for themselves, alas.

dan remein said...


The possibility of such a journal excites me a great deal. My department is the seat of _Boundary2_ which is another example (although with less and less shock power as its leftism becomes almost expected and taken for granted). All the work done by those invovled is excellent, pressing, etc. But what this work needs desperately is a willingness to to reach further into the past.

My only concern, is, as always the balance inherent in thinking of "the uses of the past": there are so few effective forums in journal form for top-notch cultural and theoretical work of this sort of the middle ages that this kind of work might risk representing the premodern as only somthing "to use."

I realize that last month sometime I suggested that we consider almost exclusively "effectivity" of history-writing in opposition to "what actually happened," and that what I am saying now is coming down as a reminder (to me as well) of the importance of remembering, even if it is, as Eileen said "just a list of names." I also realize that recording "what happened" and history aimed at contemporary effectivity do not need to be set up in binary opposition. But i do think the issue complicated.

But the idea is exciting.
If there's anything a grad student in western pa can do to help, let me know.

dan remein said...

I should say that the bit quoted at the end of the post about nostalgia offers a helpful approach to dealing with my above questions.

At the same time, I think this problem offers us an opportunity to think about the production of non-linear temporalities in the work of history and within the archive. There are a group of students, me included, in a seminar I am in on "History and Representation," who are suggesting more and more, that despite what we might first think of alternative/queer temporalities (the idea that non-linear temporalities require some sort of religious or spiritualist readings of history), that it is really the assumption of the natural meaningfulness of linear time as the basic narrative structure of history that is truly not a secular phenomenon.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan--your points are very well taken regarding how we would not want a journal that simply presents the Middle Ages [so-called] or "premodern era" as a storehouse of things to "use" vis-a-vis modern issues & concerns; I could not agree more. And I also think that having a journal that honestly [or at least empathetically"] aims at "what happened," as well as what you term a certain "effectivity" of history writing would be a good thing, even it might stumble and be flawed on occasion. Is anything ever hurt by trying? I don't think so, at least not as regards certain intellectual endeavors. There are days where I just wish for and crave more, I don't know, boldness and daring in the field of medieval studies. What's to lose? [And speaking of that, as we get things more formalized re: this journal, we'll certainly call on you and other willing grad. and post-grad, students].

Eileen Joy said...

Dan, this is a fantastic and intriguing statement:

" There are a group of students, me included, in a seminar I am in on "History and Representation," who are suggesting more and more, that despite what we might first think of alternative/queer temporalities (the idea that non-linear temporalities require some sort of religious or spiritualist readings of history), that it is really the assumption of the natural meaningfulness of linear time as the basic narrative structure of history that is truly not a secular phenomenon."

Would you be willing to expand on this more?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations . . . The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space

To which I would add that nostalgia seems to express more deeply a longing for the present, but a longing perversely formulated, the kind that holds something at bay so that it can continue to long and remain safely outside of actuality. The nostalgic longs for a present, but uses this longing to remain blind to the actual present and its possibilities, reducing it to its not-being the past, which is proportionally not the present. Notalgia as stiflement within the conventional confines of space and time derives from a refusal of the new, of thrownness, and expresses that kind of self-blindness that thinks "if the world were different I would be happy." So the value of diagnosing nostalgia lies within the possibility of educating its longing and saving us from habitual modes of making history, habit being all about finding a place to hide from the now, of creating a kind of false memory for the present, just as nostalgia operates as a false memory of the (esp. traumatic) past.

So, being in the middle of teaching Boethius, I am thinking of nostalgia as a kind of amnesia of the present: "It is nothing serious, only a touch of amnesia that he is suffering, the common disease of deluded minds. He has forgotten for while who he is, but will soon remember once he has recognized me" (I.2)

This also relates to a post I wrote over the new blog for The Medieval Club of New York.

dan remein said...

Well Eileen, this will be messy: there are a few things tied up in this, and I guess it deserves its own little history: I suppose what got me on the trail was a cocktail of Edward Said’s reading of Vico as a secular historian from a number of the essays collected in _Reflections on Exile_,Carolyn Dinshaw’s paper on Hope Allen from Kzoo this past spring, and a steady diet of re-reading Specters of Marx all summer when I needed something to think about other than Latin paradigms. I was quite drunk on this cocktail when I came to this seminar and we revisited the Hayden White Maxim narrativising is inevitably moralizing.

Let me parse these elements out individually, and for the moment, linearly. So here I am, thinking a lot for whatever reason about Said’s appreciation for the historian who will expose the lack of natural meaningfulness in history, lack of natural connection between the thunderclap and the attribution of the power of Jove to said thunderclap—interpreting this as a reaction of fear to a material thing, and not the result of a god. For Said, this atavistic work clears the way for the work of the historian to invent. He actually claims that what matters for the historian is not what evidence is there, but what evidence can be made up. Now, having written some now here about accounts of what happened balanced against a concern for effectivity, I want to say that what I really like about Said’s formulation is the work it does to rend the divide of the “critical” and the “creative” elements of our discipline—but more so, provides a working def., a heuristic we might freely destroy (but a preunderstanding we can at least start with!), to think about secularization of the process of writing history beyond simply eliminating obviously “spiritual” or “western judeo-christian” assumptions. Also, I don’t believe this kind of materialism and secularism is antithetical to the kind of Derridian stuff I continually espouse in my responses here.

Fitt 2: I hear Carolyn Dinshaw say some provocative things about queer bodies producing alernative temporalities. Not altogether new for her work. But this spring, she used the word “metaphysics” and referenced Chakrabarty’s _Provincializing Europe_, which had me thinking about just what she means by the queer temporalities: how do we understand them as events, and what difference does it made? What happens in that archive? Is she recognizing/smuggling in a reverence for some kind of folk-religion, is she marking her work as clearly a “post-secular” project? So, I ask C. Dinshaw how she thinks of these temporalities and if they can be understood as a secular concept, or is this must degenerate into metaphysics and a spiritualist reading. She mentions Mal D’archive and Specters of Marx, and I decide to revisit them, but she says, finally, that she is not sure AND that it worries her too. All she knows is that she is convinced that these alternative temporalities are important to understanding queer bodies, queer work, etc.. So I am thinking all this time now, is it possible to suggest that a conception of time which is not linear (what is there—a continuous eternal-present, popular among popular theology like that of Lewis’ clearly marked ‘religious’ work? Benjamin’s ‘empty, messianic time...’??) can be understood without some kind of conception of “life after death” or vaugue spiritualism?

In Specters of Marx,a kept returning, mostly to the first half to the book, and mulling over the Scandal of demanding scholars speak to ghosts. Of,_ time being out of joint_, of the hope of giving/writing history beyond economy—a kind of justice for those who are not yet etc...a few key citations:

“What is a ghost? What is the effectivity or the presence of a specter, that is, of what seems to remain as ineffective, virtual, insubstantial as simulacrum?” (10)

“Beyond right, and still more beyond juridiscism, beyond morality, and still more beyond moralism, does not justice as relation to the other suppose on the contrary the irreducible excess of a disjointure or an anachronym some Un –Fuge, some “out of join” dislocation in Being and in time itself, a disjointure, that, in alway risking the evil,, expropriation and injustice against which there is no calculable insurance would alone be able to do justice or to render justice to the other as other?” (32).

“the coming of the other, the absolute and unpredictable singularity of the arrivant as justice” (33).

One can just as easily insert “the past” into the slot of “the other”, I might contend here. Then the question of the irreducible singularity of the past (accounting for it, remembering it) is tied up with the effectivity of the past after it is linearly “past” and in fact, coming, not-yet, arrivant. (This element of temporality as a dimension of the effectivity of the specter adds another element, I think to the kind of work in J Cohen’s Medieval ID Machines.)

Derrida later admits the risk of this is the making-idol of the ghost following the same path as capital—following the religious path. That is, even this thinking has its only possible analogy in religion proper.

Now, my thinking about linear time DOES NOT necessarily follow all of this, and yet, I cannot help but think that these are the signposts on the path that led me to this idea. Perhaps you all can all help me with that.

So, the evening before first day this seminar met, I and a colleague of mine both make the statement, almost simultaneously, on a web blackboard discussion, that the narrative of linear time—that a list of empty dates--is a religious narrative. It assumes the natural meaningfulness of dates listed in chronological order, and orders our history according to his principle. I think I am thinking that If narrative inevitably moralizes, the experience of linear time (perhaps the msot basic narrative structure) becomes a kind of compulsory morality, which slips into a kind of compulsory religion? It suggests our coherence as humans—the absolute dead-ness of the other, etc... Perhaps this is why I am interested in a “Poetics” of history. This has set the tone for all our discussions in class since, and most of the students have something to say about it. My friend studies, broadly, nostalgia and modernism a la a constellation of Benjamin, Proust, Beckett, Heidegger et al.

Now, does this mean that non-linear conceptions of time are not religious (the “available” conceptions)? Not necessarily. Does this mean we must forsake linear time? No. But we do need to come to grips with the fact that time/history, and western-ness all are tied up in this separation of the living from the dead, this injustice aimed at keeping the ghosts quiet, and forgetting them, and closing our eyes and beating our fists in the hope that something not quite human might not have effectivity, that nothing can menace us—and the wonderful bewildering work of queer can involve so much menacing loving.

The narrative of linear time is a kind of creative arbitrary/artifical meaning production masquerading as a set of naturally meaningful connections. It assumes the natural meaningfulness of the narrative that one event follows another, that events (and I mean event with its full phenomenological Derridian/Caputo-ian force) have clear beginnings and endings—(that there is a naturally strong force (a la caputo) of meaning, apart from human labor), progress forward—and we are tempted then from these beliefs to see causation where there is none. I would probably try to argue that some of the the Christian stories (even in christianity this is plural) of salvation, depends on the individual experiencing time in a linear fashion...

As far as what kinds of histories can be produced non-linearly, if this is possible, ...I have almost entirely questions. Linear time may be inevitable. the “religious” may be as well, and perhaps then I would have to grant the “post-secular” projects concerning modernity some more credence. The queer temporalities of Dinshaw seem to me to unhinge linear time as a religious/capitalist attempt at producing a capital of meaning/being in the present at the unjust expense of the past and the not-yet. This commingling of ghosts and times is not a mystic claim, but an event of the kind of singularity that is between being and non-being—a weak event (and here perhaps where I yet have hope to secularize Caputo’s ideas) which does the work of critique and deconstruciton which led Derrida to proclaim both that “I believe in the political virtue of contretemps” and “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist” (110), event as he makes poetic love to whatever Specters of Marx he can let call him into the future. So, like i said, messy, and questions-- Any takers, qui sont en train d’arriver?

Did I make any sense at all?

Rick said...

Dan, fascinating stuff, all of it. I wanted to take a moment to offer some ramblings about a few parts. You write:

One can just as easily insert “the past” into the slot of “the other”, I might contend here. Then the question of the irreducible singularity of the past (accounting for it, remembering it) is tied up with the effectivity of the past after it is linearly “past” and in fact, coming, not-yet, arrivant.

This makes me think of Levinas and his thinking about time, which I should warn, I am just beginning to work through. From Existence and Existents, he writes:

"Is not sociality something more than the source of our representation of time: is it not time itself? If time is constituted by my relationship with the other, it is exterior to my instant, but it is also something else than an object given to contemplation. The dialectic of time is the very dialectic of the relationship with the other, that is, a dialogue which in turn has to be studied in terms other than those of the dialectic of the solitary subject."

The way I've been thinking about temporality lately with regard to my own work, is that temporality is always multiple and heterogeneous, and in a sense, always queer. Time is always linked with the other, or with othering events, like trauma and shock. I also follow Ricoeur a bit in his thinking of narrative and the discordant-condordant thesis. Whenever you construct a linear narrative, you are selecting, remembering, and forgetting. It's both an attempt to overcome alterity in time, but it's also a recognition of it.

I'm not sure if this narrative version of time is necessarily related more with religious worldviews or secular. I think both secular and non-secular are in the business of meaning-making, and you don't need linearity for meaning-making either.

Rick said...


Wonderful way to draw off Boethius for your thinking about nostalgia. I wonder if the way you are thinking about it right now can be applied to other sorts of over-attachments to the past (real or imagined pasts). I'm thinking of mourning or melancholia.

If nostalgia is a false memory of the past, and habit a false memory of the present, are there ways to apprehend the past and present that aren't false memories? Perhaps that's a question better posed after a second or third drink, but I do wonder about our capacities some time to think about time, the past, present, and future, except through the lens of some false memory or consciousness.

Karl Steel said...

A graph from this article reminded me of this post:

"For John Guillory, an English professor at New York University and the author of “Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation” (1993), “The major fact that the discipline is confronting today is global English, which is a cultural corollary of economic globalization.” At the same time, postcolonial Anglophone culture is only half a century old. “I’m often impressed by this scholarship, but I’m also concerned that this new field seems to be so disconnected from the history of literature and scholarship that goes before it,” Guillory said. “I see too many scholars in the field who know very little about anything before the 20th century, and that concerns me.”"

I realize the first "today" refers to the discipline and not the rise of, well, let's call it polyglot English; but there's a sense, don't you think, of English--at least in this Times piece--fragmenting today from its previous coherence. And then we run into the 20th-century reference at the end.

Go figure. Perhaps reading unfairly?

Unpack the problems here!

Nikol said...

What do you think of Obadiah Shoher's extensive reply to Ed Said at ?