Why, and How, History (Sometimes) Matters

I do not generally consider the kinds of history I do, either academically or for the wider public, to be especially ‘political’ (in the ordinary sense of the term at least) nor driven by a concern for activism. My own ideological and philosophical profile has become much more convoluted and much less clear over the years- in part because of the challenges my study of history has presented to many of my earlier presuppositions- and while I do not imagine that some pure ‘objective’ stance exists from which to do history, I do aim at letting the past in all its complexity and heterogeneity guide my own approaches as much as possible.

Of course, the fact that I do not put a great deal of energy into shaping the political profile of my scholarship or its possible political and cultural uses does not mean that my scholarship isn’t politically charged or that it might not make a difference (not necessarily predictable) in a given political or cultural situation. My focus on Islamic history arose in no small part out of the context of post-9/11 America and even more so the American invasion and occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s. I hoped that my scholarship, and perhaps also the whole tenor of my life, could act as a corrective, a sort of reparation even, for what my country had done and was doing to people across the Islamic world. That wasn’t my only motivation, to be sure, but it was- and is, in modified and I would like to think somewhat more sophisticated form- a part of why I embarked on the path upon which I still find myself.

The political potency and even importance of the sort of scholarship that I and many others in history, religious studies, and other disciplines do was driven home today with the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch upon Muslims praying the Friday prayers. Last night, before the news had broken about what was happening on the other side of the world from me, I posted the following tweet, a rather casual observation about medieval artistic patterns in Iraq and points north into the Armenian lands:

On the surface this is not an especially ‘political’ observation. Late medieval Armenian art, even to a relatively untrained eye, displays many differences from earlier periods, with many components that appear ‘Islamic,’ even if the exact analogues in non-Armenian art are not always clear. It seems likely to me that the 13th century Maqāmāt painting tradition revealed in the Baghdad manuscript above can be connected to the 15th century Armenian Gospel and similar productions, as part of a shared cultural sphere that extended through the Jazīra into the Armenian lands and west to Syria, a shared sphere that can be seen in many other instances of art and architecture.  ‘Armenian’ culture more broadly, in medieval and early modern periods alike, is marked by creative interaction with, and active integration within, the ‘Islamic’ cultures in which Armenian communities lived, creating a complex cultural world that cannot really be reduced to ‘Armenian’ or ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arabic’ or any other homogeneous-sounding appellation.

What does this have to do with the fascist terrorist in Christchurch? While the mimetic (in more than one sense) culture of online fascism is itself quite complex and notoriously slippery, it is very clear that the terrorist (possibly terrorists) in Christchurch, and their political kin elsewhere, draw upon a very particular ‘narrative’ of history, particularly Islamic history. I hesitate to call it a coherent narrative since it is really more an emotionally-charged bundle of stories, sentiments, memes, and fragments of narratives, images and moods. It does not depend so much on a structured account of history as an overall mood or sentiment, one in which ‘Islam’ is a looming and deadly mass, consuming and leveling all before it. Islam and everything non-Islam are imagined only in terms of conflict and violence and terminal struggle. The Christchurch terrorist emblazoned his weapons with verbal images of some of this imagined history- the Armenian genocide, the fall of Acre- which summon up images of stark conflict, of zero-sum interactions. There is no room in this historical imagination for ‘Islamized’ Armenian Gospels, or, say, the role of Muslim troops in the wars of the British Empire. He did not invent these images, nor did he devise the historical narrative of which they are a part. Rather, they have been put together by various actors, mostly online, and exist in the ethereal space of (mostly) social media. Given the right circumstances and agents, they can have real power, as today’s events reveal.

Which is why, I want to cautiously argue, presenting alternative images, alternative narratives, such as the very sort I suggested- rather offhandedly- on Twitter right on the cusp of the terrorist in Christchurch bringing his own historical narrative to bloody life. Now, the historical narrative I presented has the advantage of being true, or at least inclining towards historical truth, constructed carefully and as the result of much research and analysis. In the online world of meme and image and mood, however, if we’re being honest, the possession of historical truth or something like is not necessarily an advantage. What counts is the degree to which certain moods and imaginaries and narratives can capture people’s attention, structure their sense of what is real and what matters. Good historical scholarship, because it captures historical reality better and more fully and hence more powerfully than the manipulations of fascists or other ideologues for whom history is nothing more than raw material for politics and socio-cultural struggle, can put forward images and narratives and moods that can stand in opposition to the tendentious ones of fascists and others.

In other words, this machine of historical scholarship may not kill fascists, but it can create different emotional and imaginative spaces, one that can neutralize the narratives and emotional spaces that feed fascism (and other ideologies, too, I would add, such as militant ‘Islamism,’ itself a fascist-like tendency). ‘Public history,’ whether that means tweeting, writing books for a wide audience, participating in community events, giving lectures, or whatever, puts the narratives and spaces that arise from scholarship out into the wider world, where they can potentially have very real power. It would be naive, of course, to imagine that historians can somehow by themselves stop the next mosque shooting, or prevent ISIS from re-organizing. These movements and tendencies are multi-causal and complex, like everything in human society. However, I do think that we- self included- as historians, particularly of Islam, have a role to play, that even small things like presenting different images (sometimes quite literally), of making worlds and realities visible that would not otherwise be seen by the wider public, that such things can make a cumulative difference.

 

Love Making

‘Make love’ we say, and so here indeed is the fruit,
Our love made flesh and bone and blood, life
From love, and love from life. ‘Receive
The body of Christ’ we sing, love in spite of all
In flesh and blood for us, becomes us, and we Him.
Eucharist, this, the swell of thanksgiving in hearts and veins,
Lifting on the ethereal incense, and also as I rest my hands
On my wife’s body, feel this new life stretch and stir within her.
Love is an easy word to say and feel, but the real doing takes
Weight and density, runs along a rough contrary grain—
The pull of a baby in the womb, the push of rock and earth in tilling,
The crooked holy timber of the Cross, splintered and sorrowed.
In the end the only true loves are those that are made and that make,
The work of hand and heart in our slow but surely hallowed places.

Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.

Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888).jpg
This somehow this seemed an appropriate portrait for this essay: here at his desk is the young Russian radical and author Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin (1855–1888), as depicted by his friend Ilia Efimovich Repin. (Met. 1972.145.2)

For some time now I’ve realized that I am effectively politically and ideologically homeless. Having for a time sojourned on the libertarian left, over the last few years I’ve drifted away from the left side of the spectrum, but without really ending up anywhere classifiable. By many metrics I no doubt still appear ‘leftish’—I am critical of both statism and capitalism, embrace political decentralization, the wider distribution of power and wealth, localized control, the importance of unions, co-ops, and other mutualist or even socialist forms of political economy, and so on. While I would not describe myself as an environmentalist, my reasons are similar to those of someone like Paul Kingsnorth (whose trajectory I think I can understand quite well, and which has many similarities with my own), and the importance of the ecological to my politics has increased, in no small part I suspect to having recently become a father. But at the same time I have grown extremely critical, or simply uninterested, in much of the rest of leftist discourse, both in its more ‘classical’ formulations and its contemporary manifestations in the West, most of which I find alternatively infuriating and dull. I have never had any interest in and but little patience for so-called progressive politics, and the recent turn of those politics towards essentialism and shallow identity-mongering has done nothing to raise my appetite. But closer to the lay of the radical politics I once practiced, I can no longer countenance a politics based solely on some form of ‘liberation’ divorced from transcendent values, nor can I intellectually or otherwise justify the ideas of personal autonomy and strict egalitarianism lying behind those ideas of liberation. And I found that a great deal of what I needed to maintain to remain a ‘good’ leftist, even of the libertarian variety, simply did not mesh with any form of reality I could perceive. Nor could I any longer reconcile the full range of my ‘strong’ political commitments with my commitment to Orthodox Christianity and my increasingly ‘thick’ formation within the Church.

But even deeper, I found that I simply could not subordinate my life and the world around me to a political ideology of any sort, that I could not and did not want to bring everything under the aegis of the political: which was exactly what seemingly every political option, left and right, was demanding. So there it is in a nutshell—in what follows, here and in further essays, eventually, I’d like to walk through this process, to scope out my own twists and turns of thinking, of practice, of emotional development and change. As is the case with a lot of personal, autobiographical writing, my foremost goal is really just to explain myself to myself, to make sense of my own life’s trajectory through a selective but, I hope, relatively honest and thoughtful narrative. Of course there are arguments and claims herein, which I imagine an astute reader picking up on and probably contesting. But more fundamentally, I think that this political de-conversion narrative points to a very important reality about what it is to be human: our lives do not unfold neatly and coherently, our thinking and our cultural participation and choices do not necessarily make sense, and where we end up is often quite unpredictable and contingent. Every self is really a sort of bricolage, a multitude of wills at work in one person, as Flannery O’Connor put it. Our lives unfold under the signs of many ‘cultures’ and traces, things gathered in the past rising to the surface unexpectedly and uncalled for. Therein, in fact, lies part of the problem with any political ideology: it tends to smooth things over, to foreclose the stories and pieces and moements that do not ‘fit,’ and to demand that we render our own life narratives accordingly.

So, to begin. I don’t really know precisely at what point I started to think of myself as being on the left of the political spectrum. It was really more of a gradual process, and a gradual realization- both coming and going. In this I imagine that my experience is not too different from that of many others. That said, there have been particular points in my life that have stood out as pivotal moments, both at the time and in later reflection, moments that, not coincidentally, also provide good structure for a narrative. My two most important political epiphanies both came, at different speeds, in the first years of the new millennium: the first, and probably most fundamental, was a result of a summer spent in southwest China, at the tender age of nineteen. That summer was, in retrospect, one of the most important and formative periods in my life, a summer of dawning realizations, vastly opened vistas, joyful, sometimes strange, encounters, and wrenching conclusions about the nature of things. I was hardly a naive or uninformed young person at the time, to be sure, but my knowledge of the world beyond my own corner of it was mostly mediated to me at a remove, and that mediation, as is so often the case, disguised as much as it revealed.

Among the revelations visited upon me during those alternatively blissful and excruciating months in the hills of Yunnan was a clarity about the nature of the state and of capitalism. I had already imbued literature, political positions, and cultural ephemera such as to give me a critical stance towards both, but it was fragmentary and incoherent. I thought of certain sorts of states—authoritarian and totalitarian ones—as ‘bad,’ and if I thought of capitalism at all I worried about its particular uses, and did not think of political economy or economy in general in a very systematic way. I had a sense that capitalism was the result of free markets, within the framework of a state that oversaw some things but mostly left the market to work its magic, or something along those lines.

Continue reading “Reflections on Entering and Leaving the Left, and Other Matters, Part i.”

A Human Figure in Profound Meditation

A12399.jpg
The Repentant Magdalen
c. 1635/1640, by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652),
oil on canvas (Nat. Gall. of Art 1974.52.1)

‘Georges de la Tour, like John Donne, is one of the rediscoveries of the twentieth century; and the admiration that both have evoked in our own time may be traced to the same fundamental causes. I do not mean simply the photographic realism of the composition, but rather the way in which every detail of the work is controlled by a human figure in profound meditation. This person’s thoughts are not abstract: the left hand, with its sensitive, tapered fingers, probes the eyesocket of a skull; the arm, so delicately clothed, conveys a rude sensation to the brain. Meanwhile the eye is focused on a mirror, where we are accustomed to pursue the work of preparing “a face to meet the faces”” that we meet: yet here the inquiring eye meets “the skull beneath the skin,” a skull that seems to devour the book on which it rests. Sight and touch, then, meet to form these thoughts, meditative, piercing, looking through the mirror, probing whatever lies beyond. For me, at least, it suggests simultaneously Donne and Yeats: Donne in his shroud and Yeats in his tower, especially the figure that ends A Vision: “Day after day I have sat in my chair turning a symbol over in my mind, exploring all its details, defining and again defining its elements, testing my convictions and those of others by its unity, attempting to substitute particulars for an abstraction like that of algebra.”

Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 1.

To Be Able to Give One Has to Possess

It would be useless to turn one’s back on the past in order simply to concentrate on the future. It is a dangerous illusion to believe that such a thing is even possible. The opposition of future to past or past to future is absurd. The future brings us nothing, gives us nothing; it is we who in order to build it have to give it everything, our very life. But to be able to give, one has to possess; and we possess no other life, no other living sap, than the treasures stored up from the past and digested, assimilated, and created afresh by us. Of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital than this one of the past…

The past once destroyed never returns. The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes. Today the preservation of what little of it remains ought to become almost an obsession. We must put an end to the terrible uprootedness which European colonial methods always produce, even under their least cruel aspects. We must abstain, once victory [1] is ours, from punishing the conquered enemy by uprooting him still further; seeing that it is neither possible nor desirable to exterminate him, to aggravate his lunacy would be to show oneself more of a lunatic than he. We must also keep, above all, well to the fore any political, legal, or technical innovations likely to have social repercussions, some arrangement whereby human beings may once more be able to recover their roots.

[1] That is, over the Axis: Weil wrote the book this excerpted from in 1943.

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind, translated by Arthur Wills (New York: Octagon Books, 1979), 51-52.

On Landscapes

A Brazilian Landscape
‘A Brazilian Landscape,’ by the Dutch painter Frans Post (1612–1680). (Met. 1981.318)

 

The landscape has its own sound, an idiom, a dialect, a particular light and temperature and their changes with the seasons. The landscape is the median, the densest synthesis, the ordinary reality. Most people grow up not in countries or towns but in what occupies the middle ground between them: in landscapes. “We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it. I can think of no better identification.” The landscape is the center, the focus of our lives, and so it is also what is most contentious, contested, embattled, and susceptible to myth-making and ideological construction. There are near-equivalent terms: region, scenery, homeland. The landscape is more important than the political-administrative district; it means more to us than the state, and its meanings reach deeper. People define themselves by the landscape in which they have their roots no less than by the nation whose citizens they are. That is why landscape paintings are not just depictions but our world en miniature: microcosms. Because the landscape designates a totality, the history of the landscape, and of the cultural landscape in particular, has come to stand for efforts to reunite divided and isolated disciplines, to recover the conviction that history can, and should be, narrated as an integral whole, as histoire totale. “Landscape” is a highly malleable term, but its core meaning is inalienable, whether we speak of ruined landscapes or the landscapes of memory, of human or urban landscapes. It always designates the cohesive form, the ensemble. All its various meanings are anchored in its primary signification, the physical landscape.

We walk or travel through landscapes. Their changing appearances and the distinctions that let us tell them apart reveal the richness of our world. The landscape is the consummate result of human labor and human genuis. It is the greatest work of art imaginable, the supreme human achievement, and when our endeavors in it come to grief, it is the greatest conceivable calamity. The landscape is the most solid substance in which man has ever wrought the objective reality of his existence—geography, Robert A. Dodgshon has written, is about the “materiality of social life”—and at once his subtlest and most atmospheric creation, to which poets, philosophers, architects, and the entire human community have each contributed their shares. So to read and decipher landscapes is to unlock a door to the history of a people, of the nations, of humanity. Because “virgin” landscapes do not—or not longer—exist, all history of the landscape is a history of cultural landscapes. Hugo Hassinger has argued that anthropogeography is simply the “morphology of the cultural landscape,” the study of the tectonics of the social sphere, the inertia of the built world, the visible distribution of power and powerlessness, to mention only a few aspects. Historians are experts in matters of cultural forms: (cultural) morphologists. They take an interest in surfaces, and so they must be good phenomenologists and physiognomists if they hope to detect essential processes. They read the landscape like a text, carefully peeling off layer upon layer as though it were a palimpsest.

Karl Schlögel, In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics, translated by Gerrit Jackson (New York City: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), 235-237.

On ‘Influence’

‘Influence’ is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality. It is a very strange that a term with such an incongruous astral background has come to play such a role, because it is right against the real energy of the lexicon. If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, have recourse to, adapt, misunderstand, refer to, pick up, take on, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, ape, emulate, travesty, parody, extract from, distort, attend to, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform, tackle… – everyone will be able to think of others. Most of these relations just cannot be stated the other way round- in terms of X acting on Y rather than Y acting on X. To think terms of influence blunts thought by impoverishing the means of differentiation.

Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Picture (Yale: Yale University Press, 1985) 58-59.