Saturday, August 26, 2017

Ethan Kleinberg's "Haunting History"

Ethan Kleinberg is Professor of History and Letters at Wesleyan University and the author of Generation Existential: Heidegger's Philosophy in France, 1927–1961 (2005).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past, and reported the following:
Haunting History is about the ways we think about the past and “do” history at a moment when the digital revolution is changing how we conduct research, store materials, and write. Page 99 drops the reader into the middle of a chapter about deconstruction and the legacy of German historicism, specifically the figures of Johann Chladenius, Johann Gustav Droysen, and Wilhelm Dilthey, so it is neither the most accessible nor the sexiest portion of the book. One reason I look to these thinkers is that they are often used to justify current methodological approaches to the discipline of history wherein the past is presented as a stable and fixed object that can be represented accurately so long as the historian adheres to the proper methodological approach. But on page 99 I argue that such a reading does not account for the problematic relation of the historian to the historical object with which these thinkers all grappled.

“This understanding is based on the reappropriation and representation of the past event, not on the originary event itself ‘as it happened,’ but then erases or effaces the priority of the reappropriation/representation in favor of the holding power of the ‘originary event’ itself.”

Chladenius, Droysen and Dilthey all placed a heavy emphasis on the methodology of the historian in response to the instability unleashed by the realization that the past is absent and can only be articulated by the historian who is constrained by her/his own historical circumstance. Most modern day historians focus on the methodologies proffered by the historicists while downplaying the problems their methods were meant to address. Using the work of Derrida, I place the presumed stability of the historian in question by exploring the complex relation between the sources through which the past haunts the present and the historian who attempts to understand the presence of the past.

Page 99 exposes this instability but not my argument about the ways the past haunts us and can return to disturb our conventional historical narratives as well as our understanding of what the past and history is. To account for this play of absence and presence I advocate for a deconstructive approach attuned to a past that, like a ghost, is both present and absent. It also allows one to imagine modes of research and writing that would be impossible in a traditional monograph but can be accommodated in the digital realm.
Learn more about Haunting History at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue