Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

On the Uses of History

Scott Eric Kaufman over at Acephalous is having a moment of doubt over whether it was such a good idea to spend several years of his life researching a writer somewhat off the literary beaten path. In a post titled “Fœtid Historical Romances & Their Effect on Expectations”, he worries:

Works outside the canon may be, as my betters have argued, of historical import—but sometimes neglected works have been abandoned with good reason.

While Scott is searching for justification for his object of study, I’m looking for reasons to procrastinate from my course preparation for this coming week – and thought I might as well put the two things together. I thought perhaps Benjamin’s On the Concept of History might provide some motivation for Scott (and others of us currently facing this all-too-common worry within the research process).

First, there’s the notion that, if Scott doesn’t preserve the historical memory of what he studies, it could be irrevocably lost:

…every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.

The preservation of the past without judgment as to its value (or, perhaps in Scott’s case, in spite of judgment about its value) even has emancipatory potential:

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past-which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour — and that day is Judgment Day.

And then there’s the notion that, if a bit of the past captures our current-day attention, this testifies to the contemporary historical resonance of that dimension of the past:

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. [Jetztzeit].* Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past.

Or are “Fœtid Historical Romances” beyond even Benjamin’s historical empathy?

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