Jane O. Newman: Re: Traces of History


I have been reading Ernst Cassirer’s The Myth of the State (1945) recently and turn to a particular moment in that text by way of responding to Kahn’s question regarding historical contextualization and, as she correctly sees, my rejection of the conventional reduction of historical contextualization to historicism. Cassirer is (logically enough) quite exercised by historicist claims in his book, and nowhere so vehemently so as in the first of two chapters there on Machiavelli. His account of Machiavelli reception is complex and I won’t go into it here. What interests me is his characterization of “the historian’s fallacy” as an “optical illusion”; when one reads Machiavelli only through the lens of one’s own time, he argues, we fail to understand what he ‘actually’ had to say. Cassirer’s position is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that he is of course himself interested in reading Machiavelli as a “universalistic” historian committed to seeing in how history “repeats itself” for his (Cassirer’s) own very specific historical reasons. But it is the misplaced rhetoric of distortion here I would like to address, especially when Cassirer uses it to consider how any given present – Cassirer’s or Benjamin’s or our own – reads the past (Machiavelli, the Baroque). Gadamer (to whom I alluded earlier this week) argued that out of the writing of every great historian there emerge traces of his/her own time. But this doesn’t mean that the historical account is question is distorted. Rather, these traces are evidence of the way new questions about the past may be asked at any given moment of history in ways that allow new dimensions of the past to come to light. Benjamin’s Library was written at the intersection of several such historical moments, including a moment in and of Benjamin criticism that was less than concerned with the subject matter of text he so often referred to as his “Baroque book,” but, perhaps more importantly, when questions of the origins of the nation state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the complicity of our ways (in the academy) of thinking about these origins were becoming particularly pressing. Those moments mark its method and claims about the importance of contextualizing Benjamin’s thought in terms of issues of nationalism and modernity as they were discussed during the inter-war years. But to contextualize his thinking about the Baroque in this way seems to me to actually begin to set his inquiry into this specific moment of the early modern past free from that particular history so that it might circulate into our own time, rather than to confine it. This is thus not historical reading as ‘deterministic’. Instead, what I am interested in asking is what kind of optic our own (post)modern inquiries into these same periods provide, what becomes newly visible in both the past and the present, in other words, when we read them with and through one another.

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