Tag Archives: History

Pangs of a Time Traveler

Human requirements change. People who lived centuries ago would marvel at our technology, and yet we look beyond our own creations today. The accumulations of the past have entered into Nature, into what we’re now born into. My point is not to say that we’re ungrateful. If we were transported back in time, we would suffer more than peasants because we’re conscious of what is possible. As Hegel might say, we would be suffering from unrealized potential.

The status quo of capitalist society points beyond itself. Even unconsciously we’re aware of what is lacking. The progressive overcoming of our moment requires historical consciousness.

Losing Consciousness

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.

Accumulated Potential

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 [1887]), 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.

The Danger of Art History for the Artist

Nietzsche writes,

It is the most unjust condition in the world, narrow, ungrateful to the past, blind to dangers, deaf to warnings, a little living whirlpool in a dead sea of night and forgetting: and yet this condition—unhistorical, contra-historical through and through—is the cradle not only of an unjust, but rather of every just deed; and no artist will paint his picture, no general achieve victory nor any people its freedom without first having desired and striven for it in such an unhistorical condition. As the man of action, according to Goethe’s phrase, is always without conscience, so he is also without knowledge; he forgets a great deal to do one thing, he is unjust to what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of that which is to become.1

It is obvious that the standpoint of the museum is primarily retrospective—that of maintaining the past in the present. How daunting such a place is for today’s artists. Comparing the grandeur of the works of the Ancients with those of a 21st century art-student is clearly unfair. The entirety of the past is weighing upon the scale in favor of the Ancient, even if we know it too once was new. But now it stands before us, ready to affirm our self-doubts. In hindering today’s student this way, Art History damages the work of the budding artist. And yet the new and the different ought to come about. The student must have the resolve to forget, so that becoming be allowed to come forth into the world through new work.

The sphere of Art History often confuses itself in its perspective, getting lost in its own methodology and the fruits of its investigations. The reified appreciation of art becomes stretched backward in time so that the unique position of today’s artists loses its quality.

It should be noted, of course, that we can’t completely forget history. To do so would be to regress to the level of the animal. Playing with history and one’s own place within it may be another art in itself. When history might affirm your efforts, then look back and pull from it the potential in it.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980 [1874]), 11-12.

Nietzsche on Inadequate Studies of Morality

In section 7 of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche is astonished at how lacking the studies of morality seem to be, portions of morality that appear as eternally powerful:

All kinds of individual passions have to be thought through and pursued through different ages, peoples, and great and small individuals; all their reason and all their evaluations and perspectives on things have to be brought into the light. So far, all that has given color to existence still lacks a history. Where could you find a history of love, of avarice, of envy, of conscience, of pious respect for tradition, or of cruelty?1

But I wonder how eternal these things are—at least in terms of how important each of them has always been in terms of its influence upon societies. This inward turn to the problems of individual morality might be a new gesture in the consciousness of individuals, given the changing form of the personal in bourgeois society.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1887]), 81.

Nietzsche on Evil, Kolakowski on Change

Jacques-Louis David,  Le Sacre de Napoléon [Coronation of Napoleon] (1805-1808), oil on canvas, 6.21 m x 9.79 m.

Jacques-Louis David, Le Sacre de Napoléon [Coronation of Napoleon] (1805-1808)

In section 4 (“What preserves the species”) of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche brings up the way in which the categories of good and evil function for the sake of encountering the new:

The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity: again and again they relumed the passions that were going to sleep—all ordered society puts the passions to sleep—and they reawakened again and again in the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of the pleasure in what is new, daring, untried; they compelled men to pit opinion against opinion, model against model. […] What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and the old pieties; and only what is old is good.1

Before bourgeois society, the opportunism coinciding with the status quo has no wish to see novelty arise, nor would novelty be seen as the work of subjects, but rather as aberration. With the affirmation of the status quo delivered by God himself, any change appears as heretical. History up till then is understood, and retold, as inevitably leading up to the present: “The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit—the farmers of the spirit”.2 Nietzsche confronts utilitarianism as a phenomenon of ethics rejecting improvement, by putting forward the idea that maintaining the world, as utilitarianism implies, could be just as dangerous as its change.

The idea of progress as improvement in the world will no doubt remind one of politics, of the distinction of the Left and the Right. Here, Leszek Kolakowski’s essay “The Concept of the Left” (1968) is helpful in defining progress: “The Left is free of sacred feelings; it has no sense of sanctity toward any existing historical situation. It takes a position of permanent revisionism toward reality, just as the Right assumes an attitude of opportunism in respect to the world as it is. The Right is the embodiment of the inertia of historical reality—that is why it is as eternal as the Left.”3

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1887]), 79.
2 Ibid.
3 Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left”, in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 152-53.