In response to my last post, Thomas asks a really interesting question:
I’m interested in how this works for the construction of history.
Levi, as a resident of Texas you are probably aware of the controversy last summer about the right-wing rewriting of US history and social studies textbooks by the Texas Board of Education. The new textbooks which come out later this year will be nothing short of propaganda. I’m working on a new project to create a wiki textbook that will let Texas high school students themselves research and write their own textbook with the collaboration of professional historians and amateur history buffs from around the world. You can see the beginnings of the project here:
I’m currently trying to write something for the wiki about the relationship how our own values and historical facts get tangled up together.
What I would like to say is that historical facts get embedded in a kind of material history of their own. For example, one of the outrageous things that the Texas Board of Education tried to do was get rid of the word slavery from the US history textbook (they want to replace it with the “Atlantic triangular trade” whatever that means).
I’m embarrassed that I still owe Thomas an email. For the last few weeks I haven’t been very good at responding to people. I think I’m in a slightly autistic state right now. In Thomas’s case, I think I must be envious about what he related to me.
Anyway, Thomas’s question about history is really complex. I'm basically on board with what he’s saying about the materiality of history. One of the things I've repeatedly argued over the years is that texts aren't simply about something, they are something. In other words, texts are themselves material actors or entities that circulate throughout the world. Consequently, for any text that text will be both referential (referring to some other entity that does or does not exist) and a material entity in its own right. This would be the case with texts recounting history as well.
As I see it, history texts retroactively produce history. This is not to say that history texts don’t refer to events that did in fact take place. Rather, my thesis is that history is a bit like a hologram. You tilt a hologram one way and a little picture of a ship appears. You tilt a hologram another way and a frightening clown face appears. This is similar to what takes place in writing a history. My favorite example here is the Enlightenment thinkers. It’s often suggested that the Enlightenment thinkers broke with history, striving to inaugurate something new. I think something different took place. The Enlightenment thinkers “rewrote” history. Basically they used every trick in the book to diminish the importance of the medieval scholastic thinkers. They simultaneously resurrected Greco-Roman thought (especially materialists like Lucretius, but also the Sophists and the Roman rhetoricians). For an account of this check out Peter Gay’s gorgeous Pagen Enlightenment book that recounts all this.
Here’s what fascinates me. I don’t think the Enlightenment thinkers were trying to carry out some conscious agenda to slime medieval Christian thought, though that was there too. What fascinates me is how, at their moment in history, in their socio-politico constellation, they simultaneously construct a history adequate to their needs (the rediscovery of pagan Greco-Roman thought) and are constructed by this history. The history of Greco-Roman thought and society as exemplified in the rediscovery of antiquity and the writing of history we find in figures such as Gibbons constructs the people writing and discovering this history to the same degree that they are actively constructing that history. Something similar takes place in a psychoanalysis. When you associate to your past in a psychoanalytic setting it’s not just that the patient is “discovering” a history that’s already there. Rather the patient is simultaneously being constructed by that history and constructing that history. That reconstruction of history can often generate new possibilities of life for the analysand.
Okay, so first I think there’s this weird logic that the writing of history obeys that’s like a mobius strip and that is never just about the past but is also about constructing the present. Here’s the second point. When historical texts are written they become material entities in their own right that then circulate throughout the world, entering into assemblages, and playing a role in the construction of those assemblages. This is why there’s always a politics that accompanies the writing of history. It’s never innocent because the writing of history is always selective and privileges certain things to the detriment of other things that could be privileged (compare a history as Gellately writes it, focusing on figures like Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin, and history as someone like Braudel or Jared Diamond writes it, that focuses on materialities, forms of life, microbes, technologies, etc. Both are selective and construct the present in a particular way). At any rate, once the history is written it circulates in the world and in that circulation it constructs forms of life, norms, and values in the present. How we recount the history of philosophy plays a big role in how philosophy is practiced.
How we recount the history of philosophy plays a big role in how philosophy is practiced in the present. The history of philosophy tells us what’s important and defines a field of problems. Thus when a philosopher like Deleuze suddenly draws attention to a figure like Bergson or Solomon Maimon, these forays into the history of philosophy aren’t just of academic interest, but are actively constructing the problems that philosophers are supposed to be dealing with in the present. Whether Spinoza is treated as the key figure of the Enlightenment (as Jonathan Israel argues) or whether Descartes is treated as the key figure of the Enlightenment is not just a question of “adequation”, accuracy, or truth, but is also an issue of what orientations philosophy in the present is supposed to take. Histories such as Copplestone’s nine volume history of philosophy or Russell’s little book on the history of philosophy are also apparatuses of training or formation for philosophers in the present. The way they circulate in the academy and at different universities, both in the speech of professors that teach and in material texts plays a morphogenetic role in the formation of philosophers. They are elements in assemblages that form philosophers. This is why the histories that a Deleuze, Heidegger, or Graham Harman write are every bit as much elements in their originality as thinkers as the concepts they invent and develop. What holds true of how the materiality of how historical texts function in philosophy as a discipline is true of how all histories function.
Because history texts (not historical texts) are every bit as much something as they are about something, the situation here in Texas with respect to the writing of history textbooks is particularly noxious. Here we not only get a situation where the textbooks are claiming things that are patently false, but they are also functioning in such a way as to holographically occlude certain key historical figures such as Jefferson or Martin Luther King. This situation is of even greater concern because Texas, being a large state, defines textbooks not only for Texas, but for the entire nation (along with California). These texts can still function as elements in an assemblage playing a role in the construction of American citizens because texts aren’t just about something, but are material things that can continue to function despite containing falsehoods. Just as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion produced all sorts of horrific effects despite being a forgery and a falsehood, a text can be a “simulacrum” of history and still continue to function. But the problem isn’t just about these texts containing falsehoods. It’s also a matter of how they holographically select certain historical things to emphasize (Reagan, for example) while occluding others (Jefferson). Here there is a politics as well; a politics that functions all the more insidiously as it presents itself as “just presenting history” from an impartial standpoint, while disavowing the manner in which it is based on a selection designed to produce certain minds in the present.