How does one make history speak once more? We already use the language of the dead, and, in the sense that we’ve inherited their world, neither group is foreign to the other. Historical consciousness, however, is made even more difficult when the conditions of the present erode the very conditions for questioning the past. How awful it might be to think we could read texts and no longer understand their meaning while, at the same time, being able to define each and every word down to ancient etymological roots. The failures of bygone calamities might soon appear only as data—even the most precise data—and no longer have a capable audience.
At a recent panel at SAIC put together Platypus titled “The Many Deaths of Art,” artist Ruslana Lichtzier noted that since we in Platypus had run a similar panel a couple years ago in New York City, we too find ourselves stuck in the present as Art itself seems to be: stuck in the process of dealing with the past. Lichtzier is right, of course. And this isn’t a revelation with regard to the self-conception of Platypus, which recognizes itself as a part of the dead Left. It’s necessary for us to work through the past. It can’t yet be forgotten.
In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche writes:
Countless things that humanity acquired in earlier stages, but so feebly and embryonically that nobody could perceive this acquisition, suddenly emerge into the light much later—perhaps after centuries; meanwhile they have become strong and ripe. […] ¶ All of us harbor concealed gardens and plantings; and, to use another metaphor, we are, all of us, growing volcanoes that approach the hour of their eruption; but how near or distant that is, nobody knows—not even God.1
In “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin writes:
Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object only where it confronts him as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history; thus, he blasts a specific life out of the era, a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method, the lifework is both preserved and sublated in the work, the era in the lifework, and the entire course of history in the era. The nourishing fruit of what is historically understood contains time in its interior as a precious but tasteless seed.2
The pairing of these two might initially seem out of place, but Benjamin was well aware of—and inspired by—Nietzsche’s work.
1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 ), 83-84.
2 Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940), in Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott, et al., eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massechusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), 396.