In his short piece Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote1
), Jorge Luis Borges recalls the feat of an imaginary 20th century French writer who endeavours to write the Don Quijote
. Of course, Borges does not need to explain to his Argentinian readers that the Don Quijote
is a novel written by Cervantes in 17th century Spain. However, Borges specifies that Menard “did not want to compose another Quijote
—which would have been easy—but the Quijote
” (Borges 1974, p. 446
Menard himself defines his task as asombroso2
(Borges 1974, p. 447
), that is, inspiring awe and commanding respect—and astonishing indeed is the comparison that Menard suggests between his object of interest (the Quijote
) and the objects of interest of theologians and metaphysicians. Each of these objects, “the objective world, God, causality, universal forms—Menard explains—is no less previous and common than my famed novel”3
(Borges 1974, p. 447
, previous and común
, common, are the two unassuming adjectives with which Borges understatedly depicts the shared condition of metaphysical and
historical objects, namely, their alleged objectivity.
This shared condition allows Borges to extend his devastating treatment of metaphysical notions also to a historical product, which is nothing less than the masterpiece of Spanish literature. However, this extension requires a change of method.
Narrations allow Borges to put metaphysical ideas such as immortality, infinity, absolute memory, and unlimited knowledge to the test of practices: once actualized in the fictional world of a story, metaphysical ideas produce consequences that are at odds with any possible expectation grounded on experience. In other words, the narrative actualization of metaphysical ideas exposes their practical untenability.
In dealing with the already fictional text of the Quijote
, Borges relies instead on the methods of literary criticism. In particular, he analyzes the text in the light of the historical context of its author. Yet, he deploys this analytical tool from within a fiction,4
which leaves the text of the Quijote
unchanged, but which moves its date of composition up to the early 20th century. This temporal shift, which would be indefensible in the actual chronology of Spanish literature, allows Borges’ differential reading of the same text of the Quijote
as another text.
Borges quotes twice the same sentence, first from Cervantes’ text and then from Menard’s: “… truth, whose mother is history, emulous of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and adviser to the present, warning for the future”5
(Borges 1974, p. 449
). Though this sentence reads the same in both quotations, Borges understands it in two fairly different ways.
“Written in the seventeenth century, written by the ‘lay genius’ Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history”6
(Borges 1974, p. 449
). On the contrary, Borges argues, in Menard’s text, the very idea of history as the mother of truth is astounding: “Menard, as a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened”7
(Borges 1974, p. 449
By highlighting Menard’s technique of deliberate anachronism, Borges makes fiction deliver, so to speak, a powerful illustration of the impermanence of texts, which are constantly subjected to our projective reconstruction. Unfortunately, this acknowledgement is still far from commonsensical: however, it was not completely new in 1939, when Borges’ story appeared in print.
A retrospective chain links Borges’ fictionalized reflections on textual transformations with a series of texts and authors. Borges is well aware of Eliot’s considerations on the reciprocal influence of past and present literature: Eliot contends that “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (Eliot 1920, p. 50
). Borges captures this contention in a lapidary sentence: “cada escritor crea a sus precursores
” (Borges 1952, p. 90
), each writer creates her predecessors.
In turn, young Eliot in Paris is fascinated by Charles Péguy, and he is familiar with Péguy’s reversal of historical sequences. In Péguy’s account, the very muse of history, namely Clio, claims that the first water-lily painted by Monet repeats the subsequent ones (Péguy 1932
). Similarly, in 1915 Benedetto Croce boldly declares that because historical judgment is cast in the present, all history is contemporary history (Croce 1915
): this claim is then to reach the English-speaking readership through the work of Collingwood.
As to Péguy, he is strongly influenced by Bergson, but he dies on the Western front in 1914, six years before Bergson’s Oxford lecture on possibility as a retroactive projection.8
I would quote here the core assumption of this presentation, which is not often mentioned in English: “le possible est l’effet combiné de la réalité une fois apparue et d’un dispositif qui la rejette en arrière
” (Bergson 1934, p. 129
), the possible is the combined effect of a reality once it has appeared, and an apparatus that projects it backward.
However, if I may abuse the mathematical language of calculus,9
the limit of this series of theoretical contentions seems to be Nietzsche’s chaotic construction of reality, which includes the historical past. Nietzsche maintains that our engagement with reality would be better construed as the operation of temporarily ordering chaos.10
Accordingly, we may construct the past as series of ordering activities.
Moreover, we may also consider the previous reflections upon the past as a series of historiographic ordering activities, and if we extend this series in the direction of the future, it would for sure include another text, namely the Foucauldian essay Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire
Foucault’s paper appears in a 1971 collection of writings in honor of Jean Hyppolite. Forty-seven years after its publication, this Foucauldian text may perhaps appear less surprising to its readers, but it has surely gained a reference status: the essay is not only generally invoked as an introduction to Nietzsche’s genealogical approach, but it is also often construed as the Foucauldian endorsement of the genealogical method. Yet, this alleged genealogical method is not even mentioned by Foucault, who stages instead history and genealogy as two veritable characters of a virtual drama.
In Foucault’s construction, history and genealogy are the two antagonistic mediators with our past. Though they are not personified entities such as Péguy’s Clio, the muse of history, they are nonetheless endowed with features and agency, as it were: in the Foucauldian text, genealogy retrieves, genealogy requires, genealogy demands, genealogy does not oppose itself, genealogy does not pretend, genealogy does not resemble, genealogy is situated, genealogy seeks, genealogy is, genealogy gives rise, and, in the end, genealogy returns.
As we all know, the deployment of abstract notions as sentence subjects is a powerful stylistic tool: it imparts agency and identity on these notions, by making them perform as grammatical subjects. However, in the case of genealogy, this rhetorical strategy may prove counterproductive, as it may suggest that the very notion of genealogy precedes, at least logically, actual genealogical endeavours.
Such a priority would not be too surprising, as it would appear as a particular instance of the still widely accepted priority of theories over practices. This general priority is well established in Western thought: it is first formalized by Aristotle in regard to both biological cycles and human activities. We have to wait for the Young Hegelians to have the priority of theory first questioned, albeit in the name of the rather equivocal notion of praxis.
However, Stirner’s bold rejection of concepts (Stirner 2000
) opens the way for the Nietzschean emancipation of practices. As already recalled, Nietzsche’s construction of a chaotic reality undermines the objectivity of reality’s orders. As a consequence, it also undermines the rationale of theory’s priority over practice, namely, the supposed ability of theory to represent the order of things.
After Nietzsche, we can no longer naively appeal to the order of things. On the contrary, the appeal to how things stand would be better acknowledged as a theological legacy, as Wittgenstein too realizes in a moment of Spinozian enlightenment, whilst he is fighting on the Russian front: “Wie sich alles verhält, ist Gott. Gott ist, wie sich alles verhält
” (Wittgenstein 1961, p. 79
), how things stand, is God. God is how things stand.
Wittgenstein is notoriously not interested in history, but we may easily extend his equation into the past, and say: “how things happened, god was and still is.” Considering that the historiographic endeavour is famously defined by Ranke as the display of the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen
(Ranke 1956, p. 57
), how it really was, a surprising link between historical positivism and theology would emerge.
This link perhaps does not escape the attention of Benjamin, who, possibly hinting at Marx’s definition of religion as the opium of the people, rates Ranke’s history as “the strongest narcotic of the [19th] century” (Benjamin 1999, p. 463
). In particular, if we focus on legal history, we would recognize Ranke’s principles at work in the writings of Maitland. And yet, if we were to apply a pharmacological definition to Maitland’s work too, we should take into account his specific role as legal historian.
Whilst modern historians can claim a tradition that goes back to Herodotus, legal history is literally an early 19th century German invention. Hugo and Savigny distance themselves from both the mere collation of legal texts and the teleological subsumption of legal material under the transhistorical principle of natural law. Their new historical approach to law has a decisive impact also on English legal history, especially through the influence exerted by Gierke on Maitland.
We may say that legal history as such puts into motion, so to speak, the static horizon of legal studies. Of course, nowadays this role is taken up by legal genealogies—or at least, I like to think so. However, legal histories, unlike positivist history, never have a narcotic effect. Rather, legal historians at the same time let emerge and domesticate the legal past. They make available in the legal field the enormous energies of history, which, according to Benjamin, “are bound up in the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historiography” (Benjamin 1999, p. 463
For sure, Maitland’s legal history is not soporific. Its cultural functioning may instead be compared, mutatis mutandis, to the cultural dynamic of Freud’s invention of the unconscious, as construed by Deleuze and Guattari. In L’Anti-Œdipe
, our authors contend that Freud lets emerge sexual repression, but only in the shape of its Oedipalized recasting (Deleuze and Guattari 1972
). In other words, Freud acknowledges desire, but only within the boundaries of the family novel and its three characters: father, mother, and Oedipus.
In a similar way, Maitland (and most legal historians) acknowledges legal history, but only in the shape of safely distanced historical objectivity. Maitland famously urges to rescue all shreds of legal evidence from the oblivion (Maitland 1888
), but only—as Benjamin would say—at the price of “their ‘enshrinement as heritage’” (Benjamin 1999, p. 473
). We may recognize in this result the immobilizing power of representation, which, even in its critical version, inevitably reifies its objects.
We may well liken the freezing effect of representation on its objects to a deep narcosis. On the contrary, the effect of the representation of the past on readers may even be galvanizing, as it offers them the excitement of dealing with historical facts and events from the safe position of observers. In the case of potential collaborators to the historical enquiry, it even lures them into the interactive game of a safe archival quest, which displays the vestiges of the past at no risk whatsoever.
This engagement with an attenuated version of the past may be compared, within the pharmacological domain, to an immunization. More than 50 years ago, Roland Barthes puts to use this comparison to expose the homeopathic recovery of institutions such as the Army and the Church in cinematographic and theatrical representations12
). It may well be possible to understand this limited exposure which prevents a wider one as a more general trope of the theatre of representation.
Biological immunization can be induced by inoculating a weakened or dead pathogen, its toxins, or one of its surface proteins. If we continue the analogy, we may similarly understand the effect of representation on its historical objects as a paralysis, a permanent blockage, a desiccation, or a reduction to surface or epiphenomenal occurrences. To counter this effect, we would need to pursue at once the reintegration and the dynamization of historical evidence.
An available tool for both integrating and fluidifying historical notions is modern dialectics. As reconfigured by Hegel, dialectics claims the contradictory nature of each and every entity, by internalizing the oppositional structure of the logic of identity.13
According to Hegel, a necessary inner strife precedes, at least logically, the external ones. However, both inner and outer fissures are the result of the simple partitive operation of negation, which posits an already common logical space.
I already recalled Deleuze and Guattari’s construction of Freudian repression. In particular, they insert between Freud’s repressor and repressed a third element, which is the Oedipalized subject on whom repression can be exerted. Deleuze and Guattari define this Oedipalized subject as the disfigured or displaced repressed.14
Such a displacement is needed because of the incommensurability of the repressor and the repressed: in order to be subjected to repression, the repressed has first to be recast according to the perspective of the repressor.15
If we try to translate Deleuze and Guattari’s threefold dynamic of repression in Hegelian terms, the Oedipalized subject as a displaced repressed may play the role of a nonvanishing mediator between the repressor and the repressed. Unlike the Hegelian mediator, which temporarily engages with its opposite before vanishing (as such) as the effect of sublation, the mediating intervention of the displaced repressed will not cease.
It is then not by chance that the two extremes of the possible negations of human otherness, namely genocide and assimilation, seem to require the previous covering of the other with its substitute image—which is, generally, a dehumanized one. Even a successful reduction of the other, either to nil (genocide) or to self (assimilation), can never completely erase the other if only because of the previous duplication of this very other: and of course, it is up to the genealogist to produce to the court of readership this other’s rest, residue, and reminder.16
We may even attempt a generalization of the threefold dynamic of repression, and we may extend this dynamic to the wider field of representation. In this case, representation would appear as a unilateral and thus violently reductive intervention of the representing subject upon the object to be represented. This intervention would result in a disfigured or displaced representation of the object: in turn, such representation would substitute the object itself by covering it up, as it were.17
This disfiguring effect would not reach its apex in its self-declaring instances, such as, for example, Francis Bacon’s paintings. On the contrary, the covering power of representation would be better exerted through the mimetic ability of images. The peak of disfiguration would then be reached when the disfigured representations become indistinguishable from the supposedly represented objects.
We do not need to invoke Baudrillard to recall the terrifying effect of film and television hyperreality: in the regime of actually existing democracies, media better cover up by covering, so to speak. If I may follow Lucian of Samosata in staging another dialogue of the dead, I would have Guy Debord asking Isaiah Berlin why our current human rights legislation does not contemplate the existence, let alone the defence, of a freedom from information.
Apparently, these considerations would imply the indictment of repetition as the most vicious tool for manipulating both reality and history. As a consequence, they would also throw a disturbing light upon Kierkegaard’s proposal of repetition as an alternative to both Platonic recollection and Hegelian mediation (Kierkegaard 2009
). Yet, our good Danish Lutheran would surely agree with his Swabian co-religionist Hölderlin on the close association of danger and salvation.18
In the course of modernities, and especially their lower stage, the complaint about the numbing danger of repetition is played as a contrapuntal accompaniment to the praising of innovation. Viktor Sklovskij
) even constructs repetition as the ground from which the figure of отстранение [otstranenie
], estrangement, emerges by contrast.19
In turn, the notion of estrangement, in its German version of Verfremdungseffekt
, is deployed by Bertolt Brecht in his struggle with the mimetic power of theatre.20
Just like Plato, Brecht warns his audience against theatrical duplication because he himself is under the fascination of representation: and unlike Plato, Brecht can build upon a tradition of self-policing Lutheran consciousness. On the other side of the political spectrum, Schmitt hails the power of real life breaking through “the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition” (Schmitt 1985, p. 15
). Freud instead does not target repetition as resistance to change: he rather casts it as an active expression of death drive (Freud 1920
), which is, arguably, his defensive rationalization of the otherwise unjustifiable horrors of the First World War.
Of course, we may also detect in the modern despising of repetition more than an echo of the Platonic loathing for φαντάσματα21
], the copies that are bad because they are not directly modelled on the ideas. On the contrary, Deleuze openly claims the reversal of the priority of Platonic ideas over their copies (Deleuze 1966
): in their Latin version of simulacra
, Deleuzean bad copies are no longer subordinated to their Platonic models, but they refer to each other in an infinite chain of differing and deferring, which Derrida previously defines as différance
In the understanding of both Deleuze and Derrida, repetition alters. However, whilst both authors forcefully argue
about the altering power of repetition, we may follow Borges’ example and play
repetition as an alternative to both representation and its supposed models. Such a practiced alternative to representation and objectivity would be pursued, in the words of Nietzsche, “not in order to refute them—what business is it of mine to refute!—but, as befits a positive mind, to replace the improbable with the more probable and in some circumstances to replace one error with another”22
(Nietzsche 2006, p. 6
). In other words, the practice of repetition may reveal itself as a more productive error than representation and its previous metaphysical avatars.
The borrowing of literary techniques may perhaps appear questionable. Yet, most turning points in Western thought profit from importing, so to speak, tools and equipment from theatrical and literary practice. Whilst Parmenides writes in poetry, Plato invents philosophical dialogue as a transposition of dramatic writing. The narrative form of the gospels then shapes Christian discourse, and the Latin novel of Apuleius prompts Augustine’s autobiographical account. Descartes constructs the modern philosophical subject on the model of Augustine’s Confessiones, possibly through the mediation of Abelard’s epistolary persona: for sure, Rousseau endows this modern subject with emotions under the influence of Abelard’s lover and correspondent Héloïse.
As to historical accounts, since Herodotus, they share narrative devices with fiction. Despite Thucydides’ early truth claim, documentary evidence is only explicitly appealed to by Cusanus and Valla in the 15th century23
), on the model of religious textual disputes. However, to say it with Foucault, whilst traditional history strives to transform the monuments of the past into documents, “in our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments” (Foucault 1972, p. 8
). Though not all contemporary historians would be happy to define their work as the production of historical narrations, most of them would describe their activities as less a deciphering than an ordering of the past.
In this perspective, “the problem is now—again quoting Foucault—to constitute series: to define the elements proper to each series, to fix its boundaries, to reveal its own specific type of relations, to formulate its laws, and, beyond this, to describe the relations between different series” (1972, p. 8).
I have already stretched the notion of series in order to include textual objects that are, at the same time, historical objects and attempts at ordering historical objects. I would add to this series, which goes from Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral to Foucault’s Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire, a further element. More precisely, following the example of Borges’ fictional character Pierre Menard, I will produce this other element as the repetition of Foucault’s essay.
My task is definitively less difficult than Menard’s. Not only a much shorter chronological gap severs me from the previous author of my text: I am also happy to endorse many of the text’s statements, which thus seem to be already mine,24
so to speak. Moreover, whilst as a reader I will deal with the original text in French, as a writer I will produce its doppelgänger
in English: and because English is my working language, this will relieve me from the effort required to the Francophone Menard of learning Spanish. I have no doubt that no one would object to this language transfer, considering that the use of quotations in English translation meets universal approval.25
I recalled that in Borges’ text, both the (identical) quotations from Cervantes and Menard are followed by their respective interpretation. In my text, I will only include my version,26
and the interpretation of its 2018 re-composition. Moreover, I will not even attempt to draft the whole text of Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire
. Such an undertaking would exceed the limits of my essay, just like the recollection of all the events of a whole day by Funes—another Borgesian character—requires another whole day.27
However, considering that Menard’s exertion does not go beyond the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote
, together with a fragment of chapter twenty-two, I will be contented with the partiality of my effort: and following Lucian’s advice on writing history, I will try to order my fragments εἰς καλὸν28
] (Lucian of Samosata 1959, p. 64
), that is, as pleasantly as possible. Then let the play begin.
“Why does the genealogist Nietzsche refuse, at least in certain cases, the quest for origin (Ursprung
)? First, because this quest strives to recover the exact essence of the thing, its purest possibility, its identity as carefully folded on itself, its form as unmoving and preceding everything external, accidental and successive. The quest for such an origin is the attempt to find ‘that which was already there,’ the ‘precisely that’ of the image which is exactly identical to its object.”29
Written in 2018, after the spreading of Science and Technology Studies, and especially after Latour’s contention that the “out-there-ness” or, in more ordinary terms, the objectivity of scientific facts is the consequence of the scientific work rather than its cause (Latour and Woolgar 1979
), these sentences bundle together historical, philosophical, and also scientific
“And freedom, wouldn’t freedom lay at the root of the human being, wouldn’t freedom link her to being and truth? Actually, freedom is but ‘an invention of the ruling classes’.”30
After forty years of neoliberal revolution, the Foucauldian reference to Nietzsche’s reminder that freedom is a tool of social discrimination would assume a sinister prophetical tone. However, because in my text this quotation appears post festum
, it rather conveys a double indictment of freedom. On the one side, it underlines the inextricable association between the notions of free market and free individual, and their joint responsibility in our contemporary disasters.31
On the other side, the modern specificity of this association does not contradict the historical path of freedom as a mark of privilege: and we know that privileges cannot be overcome simply by virtue of their hypothetical (and unlikely) universal redistribution, which would still perpetuate authoritarian constructions of realities.
No doubt, the notion of freedom demands a genealogical approach, which would rescue it from its alleged immutability, but I dealt with it elsewhere.32
Here, I will give a similar treatment to other concepts. Let’s start with truth.
“Truth is a kind of error that cannot be confuted, undoubtedly because it was so hardened by history’s long-lasting cooking that it became inalterable. And anyway, the very question of truth, the right, which truth bequeaths to itself, to refuse error and to oppose itself to appearance, the way in which truth was alternately available to wise men, and then it was reserved only to men of piety, and, after that, it was withdrawn to an unattainable world where it played at once the role of consolation and imperative, and at last it was rejected as a useless notion, superfluous and contradicted on all sides, —is it not all this a history, the history of the error called truth?”33
Foucault sketches his four-stage history of truth five years after the Derridean depiction of the history of Western thought as a series of substitutions of centre for centre (Derrida 1967
): however, I am writing this text also after Lyotard’s proposal of a narrative paradigm (Lyotard 1979
). Despite his unhappy choice of the prefix “post” before the word “modern,” Lyotard’s suggestion helps us to make room for rethinking the first three stages of the history of truth without having to substitute them with a fourth one. We may well read the ontology of Greek wise men, the theology of the men of piety, and the naturalism of modern scientists, as steps in the path of onto-theo-physio-logy.34
Nowadays, we can construct Western thought as an ontotheophysiological path, insofar as we no longer sever theoretical objects from their processes of production. This severance can instead at last appear as an operation shared by classical philosophers, theologians, and modern scientists alike. We may define this appearance, in Nietzschean terms, as an Enstehung, that is, an emergence.
“Emergence is always produced within a specific state of forces. (…) Whilst descent designates the quality of an instinct, its degree or its failure, and the mark it leaves on a body, emergence designates a place of confrontation; we should still refrain from imagining it as a closed battleground where a struggle takes place, a field where the opponents would be equal; it rather is—the example of good and bad ones proves it—a ‘non-place,’ a pure distance, the fact that the opponents do not belong to the same space.”35
I write after Marc Augé’s deployment of the term “non-places” as the definition of spaces of transience, such as motorways, airports, and concentration camps (Augé 1997
). Yet, this is neither Foucault’s use of the expression “non-place,” nor mine. On the model of Foucault’s neologism hétérotopie
), heterotopy, I would rather call such interstitial non-place a diatopy, that is, a place in-between.
I also write after Donna Haraway’s agglutination of the categories of “nature” and “culture” into the term “naturecultures,”36
which names the multiplicity of ontological realities that includes, but also exceeds, modern nature as defined by Western sciences (Haraway 2003
). For example, colonial (and postcolonial) confrontations would be better construed as multiversal clashes of naturecultures, whose opposing parties neither belong to the same space nor to the same universe.
A less visible lack of common ground is hinted to by Lyotard with his recovery of the French legal term differénd
). A differénd
is a case of conflict that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of an encompassing rule of judgement. Lyotard argues for the generalization of the notion of differénd
, to which he intends to bear witness. The mention of the non-place bears witness at once of incommensurability and disproportion within confrontations: it is a reminder of the double character of domination.
“The relation of domination is a ‘relation’ no more than the place where it is exerted is a place. And that’s precisely why in each moment of history domination fixes itself in a ritual; it imposes obligations and rights; it constitutes careful procedures. It establishes marks, it engraves memories on things and even on bodies; it accounts for debt. It is a universe of rules that is not intended to soften, but instead to satisfy violence.”37
Similarly to the considerations on freedom, these spine-chilling depictions of debt, as written in 2018, are more a picture of the present than the memory of a barbaric past. They evoke the neoliberal hegemonic idiom of accountancy as codified violence, which engraves its memories and expectations on human bodies. Nevertheless, this is not yet enough. Neither rituals nor mathematical procedures could work as systems of rules without interpretations.38
“But if interpreting means appropriating, by violence or subreption, a system of rules that by itself has no essential meaning, and imposing upon it a direction, bending it under a new will, making it enter another game and submitting it to explanatory rules, then the becoming of humanity is a series of interpretations. And genealogy should be its history: a history of morals, of ideals, of metaphysical concepts, a history of the concept of freedom or of the ascetic life as emergences of different interpretations. It’s a matter of making these emergences appear as events in the theatre of procedures.”39
These considerations on the violent or malicious nature of interpretation also apply to the operations of which they are the result. In other words, they aptly describe my own operation of translating the Foucauldian text, as well as the operation of producing it anew, as I am claiming here. In both cases, I cannot deny that I am imposing upon Foucault’s text a direction, that I am bending it under a new will, and that I am making it enter another game. Nevertheless, more in general, similar admissions should also be made whenever we quote a text: in this case, though we simply “produce the evidence,” as the legal expression goes, at the same time we also somewhat fabricate the proof. It is then not surprising that these admissions make historians feel very uneasy.
“Historians seek as much as possible to erase that which can betray, in their knowledge, the place from which they watch, the moment in which they are, the position that they take, and that which is inevitable in their passion.”40
I am aware that by authoring this sentence in 2018, I am running the risk of tarring all historians with the same brush. During the last nearly fifty years—I may be reminded—many a historian made more than a step towards embracing a perspectival view.41
Nevertheless, the multiple erasures of place, time, and desire simply cannot be addressed as an epistemological issue. Epistemology, if any, is an outcome of the reduction of the processes of production of knowledge to standard knowing procedures. This transition is witnessed by the semantic shift of the Greek word μέθοδος [methodos
], from the path of the enquiry to its modus operandi.42
More in general, the construction of the objectivity of the various objects of knowledge involves the erasure of the traces of their production.
Platonic forms, Aristotelian essences, the various versions of the Christian god, and modern nature all profit from this erasure, which allow them to be always already there.43
Though the “already-there-ness” of the historical past may appear as a mere truism, it is inextricably intertwined with the “already-there-ness” of these metaphysical objects. To put it bluntly, objectivity is the articulation of history and metaphysics.
“In appearance, or rather according to the mask it wears, historical consciousness is neutral, stripped of all passion, and committed solely to truth. But if it asks itself and, more generally, if it interrogates all scientific consciousness in its history, it discovers the forms and transformations of the will to know which is instinct, passion, inquisitorial relentlessness, cruel refinement, malice; it discovers the violence of bias: bias against ignorant happiness, against the vigorous illusions by which humankind protects itself, bias against all that which is dangerous in the enquiry and disquieting in the discovery. The historical analysis of this great will to know that runs through humankind thus shows both that there is no knowledge that is not based on injustice (that within knowledge itself, there is no right to truth or a foundation for truth), and that the instinct of knowing is wicked (that there is something murderous in it, and that it neither can, nor wants to do anything for the happiness of humans).”44
Though this unsparing attack on the will to know may seem excessively pessimistic, it just shows the dark side of knowledge as a self-standing endeavour. This ambivalence is first detected in a specific technique of knowledge, namely writing, by Plato himself. Plato borrows the Homeric term φάρμακα [pharmaka
], which defines both poisonous and healing herbal drugs,45
in order to bestow these contradictory effects upon writing.46 Derrida
), and after him Stiegler
), generalize this ambivalence to cultural techniques at large. The resulting pharmacology of cultural practices knows of no antidote, but of healing paths that work by giving back users the role of producers. A similar shift may be seen at work in Nietzsche’s writing trajectory.
“The Untimely spoke of the critical use of history: it was a matter of dragging the past to court, of cutting its roots with the knife, of wiping off the traditional veneration, of freeing man and not leaving him with no other origin than the one he wants to acknowledge. Nietzsche reproached such critical history for detaching us from our real sources and for sacrificing the very movement of life to the exclusive concern for truth. (…) In a way, genealogy comes back to the three modalities of history that Nietzsche recognized in 1874. Genealogy returns to these modalities beyond the objections that Nietzsche was then raising against them in the name of life, of its power to affirm and create. But genealogy is back to these modalities by transforming them: the veneration of monuments becomes parody; the respect for old continuities becomes systematic dissociation; the criticism of past injustices in the name of the truth that we hold now, becomes the destruction of the subject of knowledge at the hands of the injustice of the will to know.”47
Writing in 2018, Nietzsche’s trajectory, which escapes the blind alley of critique through the openings of production, becomes more easily recognizable in its recent further developments. Let’s briefly recapitulate this path. Nietzsche’s early rejection of critical rejection, as it were, gives way to a more productive engagement with his objects. And whilst the destructivity of the unbridled will to know is still at work—albeit against itself and its very subject—parody and dissociation bypass the confrontational impasse of the critical approach, and they instead multiply the intervention options. In 1980, this multiplication takes off again in a renewed shape. Following Michel Serres
), Deleuze and Guattari
) advocate the addition of a minor science: this non-canonical history of knowledge lays close to the core of the Western canon, of which nonetheless it would escape the apparatus of capture. A further step in this path, heralded by Feyerabend’s scathing treatment of the so-called scientific method (Feyerabend 1975
), is Latour’s joint construction of past and present health science, together with his proposal of a Nietzsche-inspired theory of ontologically productive relations (Latour 1984
): and even more relevant to this trajectory is Latour’s evocation of a parliament with things (Latour 1991
Humans and nonhumans would seat side by side in this metaphorical deliberative organ, which allows Latour to redesign at once knowledge and politics. The constitutive enmeshment of humans and things would allow nonhumans to speak through their human representatives, which include all scientists. However, despite his productive incursions in the history of science, Latour does not consider a role for historians in his enlarged assembly: I would then suggest that historians, especially in their Nietzschean and Foucauldian improved version of genealogists, could give a decisive contribution to the deliberations of the Latourian parliament.
Whilst in this renewed body scientists act as essential mouthpieces of things (albeit not the only ones), historians may perform another crucial mediation. This would require nothing else than ratifying what historians have always done: in Western culture, historians are in charge of communicating with the dead. More precisely, historians do not speak to the dead, but rather they make the dead speak. This is not just a ventriloquist’s trick, because historians do engage with the deeds of the dead through things.
An immense and expanding hybrid network links the dead, the things, their living orderers and variously integrating, overlapping, and even conflicting ordering techniques. Such a network includes a huge amount and variety of internal connections, which also perform as cross checks. The vastness and the complexity of this network dwarf and ridicule the debates on historical objectivity. Even regardless of its metaphysical implications, the simplistic notion of historical objectivity is but a fig-leave, which covers the obscene reduction of the work of the historian to the assembling of a jigsaw puzzle.
However, other reductions set the course of historiography, such as the shortcut of historical underlying structures, from Thucydides’ cycles to Eusebius’ heading towards the final judgement, and from Vico’s spiralling ascent to the happily convergent evolution of Whig history. Last, but not least, Marx’s construction of social conflict as the hidden cypher of history takes also the shape of a historical series of modes of production. Paradoxically, Marx’s dynamic view of history turns itself into a confirmation of the historical objectivity (albeit temporary) of the categories of the supposed current mode of production. This reversal not only confirms history’s autochthonous and thus most resilient structure, that is, periodization: it also renders even more difficult for us the task of rescuing current categories from the eternal present of neoliberal detemporalization.
Let’s consider, for example, the notion of property. Any good legal historian would relieve this category from a banal form of repetition, which is the assimilation of the past to present views. A good legal historian would easily show both continuities and discontinuities in the various historical deployments of the notion of property, provided that these uses would be safely confined within chronological boundaries. Marx himself does not transcend these boundaries, and he only detects in previous stages of the notion of property the anticipation of its subsequent evolution.48
On the contrary, a genealogist would detect a more subtle repetition, in which the various reconstructed pasts repeat their various images as construed in the present. In other words, a genealogist would recognize historical reconstructions as differentiating projections onto the past. This recognition would surely improve the epistemic horizon of modern historiography: yet, it would still not transcend this horizon. A genealogist only crosses the cognitive threshold when she acknowledges her own investment in the past, without hiding herself behind the finger of historiographic refinement.
I admit that the choice of synecdochic representatives—the legal historian, the genealogist—is no less risky than Foucault’s grammatical subjectivation of genealogy and Péguy’s personification of history. In my case, the grammatical individuality of the synecdochic genealogist may make appear (somewhat misleadingly) her investment in the past as the result of individual psychological motivations. I would instead restate the Nietzschean sidestepping of both subject and will, in order to focus on deeds.
Deeds, and in this case, genealogies in the plural—rather than a genealogist in the singular—should be then the proper grammatical subjects of my previous sentences. Moreover, genealogies as constellations of deeds would not connect individual subjects, but rather sub-individual and transindividual singularities. However, if one feels uncomfortable with these neologisms devised by Simondon
), genealogies’ investment in the past may be tentatively expressed in this general form: some parts of us want some of the dead to speak about something.
It is up to us whether the dead will or will not be silenced. However, our intervention well exceeds the sphere of duty: the investment in the past always grants huge returns. The repetition of the past, be it more or less imaginary, never ceases to provide us with a powerful leverage to transform the present.
We rescue the dead not only because they are in danger, as Benjamin anxiously denounces, but also for not losing their precious alliance. Nietzsche knows it well: the dead allows him to speak in the plural, despite his companions are far yet to come. I often do the same, and this paper is no exception.