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Rowan G. Tepper November 2011 I It is now an almost trivial observation that a deficiency of the historical sense has repetition as its inevitable consequence: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” has become a veritable cliché. It is, however, also true of an excess, as we can see in both Nietzsche and Benjamin's critiques of the philosophy of history: “We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life: for it is possible to value the study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate” (Preface).1 Such an over-valuation of the study of history (Historie) is at the heart of the historicism against which both Nietzsche and Benjamin critiques are most directly leveled. The Chronicler “who narrates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accord with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history.” (III),2 Social-Democratic Progressive, “[who] preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of future generations... this indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren” (XII). Historicism and its heir, Universal History, “[have] no theoretical armature. [Their] procedure is additive: it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time” (XVII). “With whom does historicism actually sympathize? The answer is inevitable: with the victor”
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, “On The Use and Abuse of History for Life [Revised Edition, 2010],” Trans. Ian Johnston. http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/nietzsche/history.htm. German reference text: Friedrich Nietzsche,Historische-Kritische Ausgabe, Ed. Colli & Montinari, UBHL, KGW: III.1.240-1.330, KSA 1.254-1.334. Further citations will be parenthetical, by section. 2 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Selected Writings, Volume 4, Trans. & Ed. Eiland & Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard-Belknap, 2004), 389-400. German Reference: “Über den Begriff der Geschichte,” Illuminationen: Ausgewahlte Schriften I (Frankfurt Am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), 251-261. Citations will be parenthetical, by thesis.
(VII). On the other hand, Nietzsche is clear about our need for history – which is at the same time the need for the un-historische and the über-historische – when viewed not as disinterested historische Wissenschaft but, when active, acting in conjunction with the un-historische and über-historische, operates as “antidotes against the historical” (10), so as to promote the interests of life and living, supplementary to the fact that: “Every person and every people, according to its goals, forces, and needs, uses a certain knowledge of the past, sometimes as monumental history, sometimes as antiquarian history, and sometimes as critical history, but not as a crowd of pure thinkers merely peering at life” (4). Nietzsche defines these remedial supplements to history as follows: “With the phrase “the un-historische” I designate the art and the power of being able to forget and to enclose oneself in a horizon with borders; “über-historische” I call the powers which divert the gaze from what is developing back to what gives existence an eternal and unchanging character, to art and religion” (10). It is such un-historische and über-historische perspectives which grant us the evaluative criterion for the critique of the historical and the historical sensibility of historicism. This critical gesture, however, carries with it the implication of crisis, of a looming danger that threatens life and gives criticism its critical impetus. To what extent is critique dangerous? Does it draw its properly critical force from a moment of danger, the critical moment, the moment of crisis? That is to say, its creative-redemptive power? Its value for life and living? Critique implies a moment of danger (critique being etymologically closely linked to crisis), which in this case is the uncritical abuse of history (the use of one method over all others, naively), history in excess. The critique leveled against historicism and the excesses of the study of history responds to the danger that the uncritical and fetishistic elevation of any method of historical study has as its necessary concomitant: the uncritical use of history, whether in its monumental, antiquarian or even critical guise, leads to the same principal danger: all threaten to first to do violence to life and the past, and thence to the present and future. The consequences of an excess of Historie 2
and the historische sense and education are as follows: Through such an excess that... contrast between inner and outer is produced... an age is caught up in the fantasy that it possesses the rarest virtue, justice, in a higher degree than any other time; ...the instincts of a people are disrupted, and the individual no less than the totality is hindered from developing maturely; ...the always dangerous belief in the old age of humanity takes root, the belief that we are late arrivals and epigones; ...an age attains the dangerous mood of irony about itself and, from that, an even more dangerous mood of cynicism.... [and] increasingly ripens towards a cleverly egotistical practice, through which the forces of life are crippled and finally destroyed (5) . These five detrimental effects may be glossed as: 1. the production of Inwardness and the distinction between form and content, leading to the denigration of the external world (the Encyclopedia as “Handbook of Inner Culture for External Barbarians”) and the corresponding, yet virtually undetectable, voiding of inner content, which the external world of historical becoming, thereby made all the more barbaric, can only restore by filling culture with the spoils and products of a history of barbarism; as, 2. epochal chauvinism, i.e. the conceit that the present age occupies a privileged and divinely ordained position in historical development, a position from which it is presumed that judgment rendered upon the past are presumed to be valid, while remaining arbitrary and baseless; as, 3. a developmental disruption, for the future is presumed to contain only either inevitable progress or inevitable decline; as 4. romanticism and the myths of belatedness, the fall, and the prestige and privilege of the original, which is always susceptible to a Hegelian inversion that equates the achievement of Absolute Knowledge at the “end” with the privileged origin (and, indeed, there have been many arguments made for the identity of origin and telos in this inverted schema3), and, 5. as an ironic and cynical attitude toward the present age.
3 See, for instance, Bataille's criticism of Hegel in L'éxperience Intèrieure (IV.III) (Paris: Gallimard, 1943).
From the perspective of Benjamin, one would rightly be wary of the proximity of Nietzsche to Lebensphilosophie, or vitalism (Bergson, Klages, etc). However, it is the case with Nietzsche that the terms “life” and “forces of life” refer not to a pure biological conception, let alone to some élan vital, for Life must first be understood in a verbal sense, so as to distinguish Nietzsche's philosophy from vitalism. Second, one must note that to such a concept of an Élan refers back to an original source, an Ursprung; nothing would be further removed from Nietzsche's philosophy than positing a privileged origin from which the forces of life spring. Foucault notes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” that the Nietzschean genealogist (a later development, it is true, but latent in Nietzche's earlier essay, implicitly, in the figure of the critical historian) “needs history to dispel the chimeras of the origin... [to] be able to recognize the events of history... the basis of all beginnings, atavisms and heredities” (Foucault, EWII 375).4 If life and living are understood, rather, in the strong, Nietzschean sense of being capable of willing, acting, and so forth, then to live means equally to experience. While Husserl and the phenomenological tradition are correct to claim that consciousness is intentional, that is to say, consciousness must necessarily be consciousness of something in the life-world, this is possible only on the basis of the life-world having been constructed upon experience [Erfahrung]. This presents us with another danger: the Liquidation of experience qua Erfahrung, reduction of History and Philosophy to science, historical culture and knowledge: History, conceived as pure science, once it became sovereign, would be a kind of conclusion to living and a final reckoning for humanity... Insofar as history stands in the service of life, it stands in the service of an unhistorical power and will therefore, in this subordinate position, never be able to (and should never be able to) become pure science (1).
4 Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Essential Writings of Michel Foucault, Volume II: Aesthetics, Methodology, and Epistemology, Ed. Faubion (New York: The New Press, 1998), 369-390. All citations will be parenthetical, indicated by EWF II.
This is, of course, the position of Hegelian philosophy, specifically of the Phänomenologie des Geistes and Philosophie der Geschichte. The following characterization of the knowledge purveyed by historicism makes this identification evident: A historical phenomenon, purely and completely known and resolved into an object of knowledge, is, for the person who has recognized it, dead. For in it that person has perceived the delusion, the injustice, the blind passion, and in general the entire dark temporal horizon of that phenomenon and, at the same time, in the process he perceives its historical power. This power has now become for him, as a knower, powerless, but perhaps not yet for him as a living person (1). We shall return to this issue after delineating the specifically Nietzschean conception of history and after articulating Benjamin's rigorous conceptual distinction between experience as Erlebnis and experience as Erfahrung. At present, it suffices to bear in mind that Hegelian philosophy represents the uncritical mobilization of all three methods of writing/making history, rendering judgments on the basis of an uncritically accepted privilege of the belated.
II If my contention is correct, that is, if living is at very least indissolubly linked with experience in the sense of Erfahrung, it becomes necessary to elucidate the rigorous distinction between experience qua Erfahrung and experience qua Erlebnis established by Benjamin from his earliest writings, such as the aptly-titled “Erfahrung” (1913).5 The mask of the adult is called “experience” [Erfahrung]... [he] has always already experienced [erlebt] everything” (SW 1: 3). “Der Philstin erzählt ihr von jener grauen, übermächtigen Erfahrung und lehrt deil Jüngling über sich selber lächeln. Zumal da »Erleben« ohne Geist
5 Walter Benjamin, “Experience,” Selected Writings, Volume 1, Ed. Marcus Bullock & Michael W. Jennings (HarvardBelknap, 1996), 3-5. German reference: “Erfahrung,” Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. 2.1, 54-56. Citations Parenthetical.
bequem ist, wenn auch heillos” (GS 2.1, 56). “Ein andere Erfauhrung kennen wir... Man erlebt immer nur sich selber, so sagt Zarathustra am Ende seiner Wanderung. Der Philister macht seine »Erfahrung«, es ist die ewig Eine der Geistlosigkeit” (GS 2.1: 56). Thus, experience as Erlebnis, “lived experience”is dead and dissected experience, fragmented into discrete, knowable pieces. Such experience has been robbed of its creative power and is prohibitive of new Erfahrungen, serving only to stultify life. This experience, which is possible only at the end, belatedly, and makes itself an end and latecomer, is the substance of historical knowledge in its scientific-Hegelian aspect. Experience as Erfahrung, “living experience,” is that “life” which provides the evaluative criterion for critical history; it is likewise that which is at stake in the struggle between the critical use and the uncritical abuse of history and historical eduction. Nietzsche's distinction between history as Historie and as Geschichte
is, on the other hand,
less than fully consistent, all the while retaining a modest degree of terminological rigor.. Even Foucault notes a degree of terminological interchangeability vis-a-vis his usage of Ursprung, Herkunft and Erbschaft while at the same time demonstrating a simultaneously rigorous differentiation of the terms Ursprung, Entstehung and Herkunft by the time of the Genealogy (1887) (EWF II, 370-373). We may, however, propose the following heuristic: when Nietzsche uses the term Historie, it is usually with reference to the (academic) study of history, that of historicism and the then dominant historical education, whereas Geschichte and wirkliche Historie refer to the processes at work in the making, writing and appropriative usage of history, a use linked to life and living, whether in an affirmative or a negative mode.
6 In German Geschichte has the meaning of “event” or “happening,” being closely connected with Geschehen as that which has taken place. It refers primarily to the events that are retold, but has also assumed the meaning of a report of speci fic events in terms of their unfolding and connections. Historie comes from the Latin historia, meaning “inquiry.” (A Nietzsche Reader, Edited by Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (London: Blackwell, 2006), 124n).
III It is now possible to delineate Nietzsche's concept of history.7 In Sections 2 & 3 of “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben”: he presents us with a non-dialectical triad of methodologies for the use of history: the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical. History serves life and living when all three are mobilized – self-critically. The meta-critical element, the criterion upon which the value of history for life is determined, are the un-historische (happiness and the ephemeral) or the über-historische (the eternalizing, art and religion, etc.). As noted above, these characterize the untimely, the elements with which the historical must be accompanied, if it is to serve life-affirming ends. Nietzsche distinguishes three “methods” for the writing, or doing, of history, the first of which being the monumental, according to which it is supposed: That the great moments in the struggle of single individuals make up a chain, that in them a range of mountains of humanity are joined over thousands of years, that for me the loftiest thing of such a moment from the distant past is still vital, bright, and great—that is the basic idea of the faith in humanity which expresses itself in the demand for a monumental history (2). Monumental history has, however, the consequence of presenting as history “a collection of “effects in themselves,” of events which will have an effect on all ages... If we imagine this history really in the hands and heads of talented egoists and wild crowds of evil rascals, then empires are destroyed, leaders assassinated, wars and revolutions instigated, and the number of historical “effects in themselves,” that is, effects without adequate causes, increased once more” (2). With such effects becoming causes in their turn, the a posteriori judgments rendered upon history migrate into the a priori, and likewise a second nature into a new first. This process is common to all three historical methods; it is however, particularly pernicious, if it is the case that “the monumental consideration of the past rules over the
7 As developed in “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil,” leaving aside later developments and modifications.
other forms of analyzing it, I mean, over the antiquarian and the critical methods, then the past itself suffers harm. Really large parts of it are forgotten, despised, and flow off like an uninterrupted grey flood, and only a few embellished facts raise themselves up above, like islands... [for] Monumental history deceives through its analogies” (II). The antiquarian method of historical practice is characterized by a typically uncritical reverence for that which is past. There is, of course, a critical application of the antiquarian method, i.e. an application which makes distinctions between that which is merely old and that which is due either reverence or forgetting. The negative image of the antiquarian can be seen in the museum & the arcades and the collector. This is not to mention the fact that the figure of the antiquarian historian at the same time manifests a thinly veiled criticism of the particular strain of historicism at the heart of the work of his friend Jacob Burckhardt. The antiquarian is indeed uniquely skilled at the preservation of the past, out of reverence for the bygone, it is however the case that: When history serves the life of the past in such a way that it buries further living, especially higher living, when the historical sense no longer conserves life, but mummifies it, then the tree dies unnaturally, from the top gradually down to the roots, and at last even the roots are generally destroyed. Antiquarian history itself degenerates in that moment when it no longer inspires and fills with enthusiasm the fresh life of the present... [it] knows only how to preserve life, not how to generate it... [it] hinders the powerful willing of new things; it cripples the active man” (3). Taken together, the monumental and antiquarian methods of history operate upon and elevate that “Epic element in history” decried by Benjamin: “Every dialectical presentation of history is paid for by a renunciation of the contemplativeness which characterizes historicism. The historical materialist must abandon the epic element in history. For him, history becomes the object of a construct
whose locus is not empty time but rather the specific epoch, the specific life, the specific work.”8 These epic elements in history efface the historical and individual specificity of historical events, which are for Benjamin, that which in history drives toward redemption. The excess of these two methods can be seen most clearly in the German classical education of the 19th century, and today, in the study of the history of philosophy. The critical method of history demands that “in order to be able to live, a person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it... by dragging the past before the court of justice, investigating it meticulously, and finally condemning it... it is not righteousness which sits in the judgment seat... but life alone... From time to time, however, this same life, which uses forgetting, demands the temporary destruction of this forgetfulness” (3). This is so that it becomes possible to make a new beginning, to: Cultivate a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that the first nature atrophies. It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past a posteriori, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended, always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline to the denial of the past and because the second natures usually are weaker than the first... But here and there victory is nevertheless achieved, and... for those who make use of critical history for living, there is even a remarkable consolation, namely, they know that that first nature was at one time or another once a second nature and that every victorious second nature becomes a first nature (3). The critical method thus stands out as the modality of history with the capacity to introduce a radical break with the past. The properly critical historian is capable of activating the power of active forgetting, whereas the uncritical dominant use of any method relies on the passive variety of forgetting.
8 Walter Benjamin, “Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian,” Selected Writings, Volume 3, Trans & Ed. Eiland & Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard-Belknap, 2003), 260-302. 262.
The rise to power of the NSDAP and its subsequent actions can be viewed through the lens of a confrontation between uncritical adherents of the three methods of historiography in Nietzsche. the Nazis mobilizing a reactionary-monumental attempt to re-fashion the present on the model of antiquity, to which the reverence of the antiquarian mode, reverence toward everything that is old, was subordinated in the construction of a ¨German¨ culture on the model of a selective, monumental history of the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. This is nowhere more evident than in Albert Speer's Ruinenwerttheorie, the construction of monumental edifices intended to convey to the future, even in their ruined forms, a history in which the Drittes Reich stands out as one monument in the narrative of monumental future history. The naïve, pseudo-critical historical theory of the Hegelian-Marxist left, the ideologues of progress and the SPD, and, of course, those prematurely grey-bearded ideologues of the End of History, judged the rise of the NSDAP an aberration, running counter to the inevitable teleology of historical progress, regarding it as a mere hiccup in the forward march of progress, failed to recognize the danger to all history, past, present and future, presented by the rise of Fascism. As Benjamin wrote in his own critique of the “philosophy of history:” “One reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm” (VIII). Nietzsche's version of historical sense is explicit in its perspective and acknowledges its system of injustice. Its perception is slanted, being a deliberate appraisal, affirmation, or negation; it follows the lingering and poisonous traces, prescribes the best antidote. It is not given to a discreet effacement before the objects it observes and does not submit itself to their processes; nor does it seek laws... Through this historical sense, knowledge is allowed to create its own genealogy in the act of cognition; and wirkliche Historie composes a genealogy of history as the vertical projection of its position (EWF II, 383). In the Genealogy, according to Foucault, Nietzsche operates a further displacement upon these three 10
modalities: “The veneration of monuments becomes parody; the respect for ancient continuities becomes systematic dissociation; the critique of the injustices of the past by a truth held by men in the present becomes the destruction of the man who maintains knowledge by the injustice proper to the will to knowledge” (EWF II, 389).
IV Neither Nietzsche nor Benjamin considered himself to be a philosopher, properly speaking. While engaging in philosophy, Nietzsche continually insisted upon the designation “psychologist,” while Benjamin's text, commonly translated into English as “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” would be properly translated as “On The Concept of History.” The erroneous English translation derives presumably from the shorthand term Geschictsphilosophische Thesen used in correspondence and by his associates. This is not to say that these texts are not philosophical, but rather it is to emphasize their mutual rejection of the contemporary state of philosophy post-Kant and post-Hegel. Their disavowal of philosophy must be considered a disavowal only of the specific, historically determined form taken by philosophy in their day, and the Platonic tradition of which Kant and Hegel (and, to a lesser extent, Marx) represent the culmination: .Plato considered it necessary that the first generation of his new society (in the perfect state) would be brought up with the help of a powerful necessary lie... The faith in the aeterna veritas of this order is the basis of the new education and thus of the new state. Now, the modern German similarly has faith in the aeterna veritas of his education, of his style of culture... [There is, on the other hand] a necessary truth: that the German has no culture, because he can have nothing whatsoever on the basis of his education (10). This aeterna veritas, the prototype for all “objectivity,” is of course the fiction of eternal, unchanging Being. Philosophy, in trying to become scientific, continues to render judgment under the mask of 11
“objectivity,” condemning all that does not conform to this fiction, thereby attempting to put a halt to all becoming and to all creativity and coming into being. We may take as a battle-cry of sorts, Alfred Jarry's polemical exhortation of 1894: “All murders of beautiful: so let us destroy Being... Let us live, and we shall be the masters.”9 These allegedly objective judgments in fact are subjective evaluations rendered by interested parties. Truth and knowledge are not to be found in a pure state, but are rather the spoils of conquest, the products of conflict. These, which we now know, following Foucault, to be indissolubly linked to the play of forces, the struggles of power, which give them rise, are seen by Hegelian philosophy to be, in accord with an egotistical inversion of the Romantic notion of belatedness, the final outcome of a historical “world-process” that so happened to culminate beneath Hegel's window at the Battle of Jena in 1806. This is, for both Nietzsche and Benjamin, the culmination of the abuse of a naive-critical approach to history, wherein the Ego and its avatar the State supplant the Last Judgment of God..
V In at least one respect, life and living drive after happiness. This begs the question: is happiness possible historically? According to Benjamin, so long as historicism remains dominant, the historical materialist's empathy succumbs to “that acedia which despairs of appropriating the genuine historical image as it briefly flashes up” (VII), for the culture and cultural artifacts celebrated by historicism are the spoils of a history of barbarism, the exterior correlate to the empty interiority of a historical civilization supersaturated with an uncritically historical sense for itself. According to Nietzsche, happiness has but a singular origin: “through the ability to forget or, to express the matter in a more scholarly fashion, through the capacity, for as long as the happiness lasts, to sense things un-historically. Anyone who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment,
9 Alfred Jarry, “To Be and To Live,” Adventures in Pataphysics, Collected Works I (London: Atlas, 2001), 199-201. 201.
forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness and fear, will never know what happiness is” (1). That is, happiness is only possible by virtue of the un-historische sensibility acting within history. Benjamin's account in his second “thesis” takes this one step further. He writes: The image of happiness we cherish is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us... the idea of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the idea of redemption. The same applies to the past, which is the concern of history [which] carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption... there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one” (II). Here it is interesting to note in passing the position of one whom I would designate as a critical Hegelian, Alexandre Kojève, as presented in his (in)famous footnote on the “end of history,” in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. In his view, Happiness in its pure form would be reserved for those post-historical animals who Man becomes with the advent of the post-historical epoch, an epoch in which the possibility of Philosophy and of living Philosophically is definitely foreclosed: The end of human Time or History... means quite simply the cessation of Action, in the full sense of the term... Also the disappearance of Philosophy; for since Man himself no longer changes essentially, there is no longer any reason to change the (true) principles which are at the basis of his understanding of the World and of himself. But all the rest can be preserved indefinitely; art, love, play, etc., etc.; in short everything that makes Man happy.10
10 Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Assembled by R. Queneau, Ed. Allan Bloom, Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968), 159.
VI Remembrance and Active Forgetting both serve to liberate erfahrung, modes of untimeliness or anachrony: “acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come.” (Preface) Historicism is the symptom of what might be called, sub specie Freud, “historical melancholia” – Historicism is unable to let go of the past out of an inability to distinguish between significant and insignificant events, for its principle is that “Nothing is lost to history.” Interdiction against forgetting. Linearization of temporality effects a prohibition on un-historische, or philosophical, living and agency, and its memento mori equally prohibits consideration of the past as a still vital resource, and likewise the possibility of its redemptive transfiguration by the practices of Eingedenken and Active Forgetting. For the melancholic historian, the past is that which is absolutely dead and, after a fashion, lost, while at the same time introjected as a Freudian “lost object,” which serves to prohibit the growth of new life by condemning him to relive a dead and sterile past. We should now replace the two great problems of nineteenth-century philosophy, passed on by Fichte and Hegel (the reciprocal basis of truth and liberty and the possibility of absolute knowledge [savoir]), with the theme that “to perish through absolute knowledge [connaissance] may well form the basis of a beginning.” This does not mean, in terms of a critical procedure, that the will to truth is limited by the intrinsic finitude of cognition [connaissance], but that it loses all sense of limitations and all claim to truth in its unavoidable sacrifice of the subject of knowledge [connaissance] (EWF II: 388). We must cleave to a memento vivire instead: to the interruption of the homogeneous, empty, continuity of time in which the various uncritical modes of history construct their edifices, by forgetting in its active, judging, guise, and the redemptive practice of Eingedenken, both of which being the interruption of a heterogeneous moment of either the un-historische or über-historische, of the possibility of redeeming the past and opening the door to a new, liberated, history and society. These 14
practices would engender the possibility of a new history, of redemption, in conjunction with the critical deployment of all three historical methods delineated by Nietzsche. In Benjaminian terms, such a deployment would be a redemptive act which would achieve that task of which the Angel of History was incapable: “to awaken the dead, to make who what has been smashed” (IX). What is thereby revealed is the fundamentally incomplete nature of history, that to love one's ignorance of the future equally to embrace one's role in creating it.
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