(In) Between the Living and the Dead: New Perspectives on Time in History

Victoria Fareld. History Compass. Volume 14, Issue 9. September 2016.

This article outlines some new temporal perspectives in historical studies. The first part deals with the dominant view of the relation between past and present within traditional historiography, in which the past is made absent, distant, or detached from the present. Gabrielle Spiegel’s allusion to the historian as autopsist is seen as a manifestation of this view, echoing Michel de Certeau’s claim that history articulates the conceptual border between the living and the dead. The second part is a discussion of the Austrian‐born and Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry’s refusal to let go of the past. It is argued that Améry reveals the “chrononormativity” (Freeman) of historical time. He uncovers how prevailing conceptions of time structure our historical thinking: What can we not account for within an established regime of historicity? The haunting memories of victims have initiated a questioning of linear time as the natural medium for historians. The third part of the article discusses this questioning as part of a more general refiguration of the relation between past and present occurring in historical thinking today, exemplified by Berber Bevernage and others, who try to rework the conceptual space of temporality in historiography in favor of a plurality of non‐synchronous and conflicting temporal modes, albeit one that does not fall back upon metaphysical notions of historical reality.

François Hartog has pointed out that an ancient meaning of the word histor is “witness”; witness in the sense of “knowing,” but primarily in the sense of “having seen.” It is in this context of signification, Hartog claims, that we should understand Homer’s and Herodotus’ use of the Greek word autopsia in their historical writing, “a seeing with one’s own eyes.” It refers to the eye that has seen, from auto‐ “self,” and opsis, “sight,” and was a way of granting their narration legitimacy by providing proof—‘I have seen it with my own eyes, it is true.’ In the 17th century, the word gained the medical meaning more familiar to us, “dissection of a dead body […] to find out the cause or seat of disease.”

Interestingly, Gabrielle Spiegel relates this etymological connection between the investigation of the past and the examination of the dead body to the very core of modern Western historiography. Modern history derives, she claims, from a decisive break between the present and the past, “between what is dead (past) and what is not.” The past is for the historian like the dead corpse for the autopsist. Both perform an examination post mortem, with the crucial difference, however, that for the autopsist, there is a body to examine. For the historian, the past is no longer there:

[D]iscourse about the past has as the very condition of its possibility the status of being discourse about the dead, a discourse with which historians fill the void between past and present created by history’s founding gesture of rupture. In that sense, the basic principle of modern historiography is the disappearance of the past from the present […] From that perspective, the principal relation of the historian to the past is an engagement with absence.

In evoking Michel de Certeau’s claim that modern historiography derives from a decisive break between the present and the past, Spiegel in fact stands firmly in a tradition reaching back to the late 18th century. Since the heyday of historicism, separation from the present is generally taken as a precondition of historical understanding, often articulated in terms of a distance or retrospectiveness made possible by the course of time. Whether this distance is seen as a barrier to historical knowledge that must be overcome (as in naive historicism) or as a precondition of historical interpretation (as in Gadamer’s influential critique of the same), the idea has long prevailed that the historian has to deal with this temporal gap as a fact. In claiming that absence is “the essential sign of the ‘pastness’ of the past,” de Certeau, however, stresses the constructed character of this gap.

Indeed, in contemporary theory of history, it is often argued that it is the very operation of distancing that makes the past appear to us as fundamentally different from the present and that distinguishes history from other forms of engagements with the past like rememberance and tradition. “Not every relation to the past is historical per se,” Jörn Rüsen states: “Only after the past is infused with a definite quality of pastness […] can we speak of a ‘specifically historical’ relation to the past.” And he continues: “It is precisely this definition of the historical via a ‘past’ past that underlies the concept of historization.” Constantin Fasolt takes this claim one step further in asserting that “the distinction between past and present [ …] is so elementary, so necessary for the very possibility of thinking about the past at all, that it may be considered the founding principle of history.”

The basic assumption of historicization as an act of separating the past from the present has tacitly been at the center of the memory‐history debate since Pierre Nora’s famous 1984 essay, in which he states that “[m]emory is life, always embodied in living societies,” whereas history “is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.” Spiegel returns to this distinction when she asserts that memory “cannot perform historically, since it refuses to keep the past in the past, to draw the line, as it were, that is constitutive of the modern enterprise of historiography.” And she concludes: “History re‐presents the dead; memory re‐members the corpse in order to revivify it.”

Spiegel’s claim that memory deals with the past as an ongoing present and therefore lacks the critical reflection that history can offer is a standard argument by historians who defend the need of history as critical corrective to social memory. The argument returns in Henry Rousso’s call for the need of history in our “age of memory.” “History is an approach that puts the past at a distance,” Rousso emphasizes, whereas “memory is a faculty that brings the past into the present. It is characterized by an affective, emotional relation to the past that ignores the hierarchies of time and abolishes distance.”

Their emphasis on the necessity of separating the past from the present is grounded in a conviction that a critical relation to the past requires an operation of distancing. And this, Rousso points out, is more urgent than ever. In light of history as a growing site of political struggle, notably the work of Truth and Reconciliation Committies and discussions of transitional justice, an adequate, indeed necessary, response to the contemporary situation, according to Rousso and others, is an ever stronger emphasis on distance management and temporal differentiation as the task of the historian.

This is a well‐argued and important claim. In recent decades, the U.S. and Europe have indeed experienced a wide range of “abuses of memory” in contemporary politics, from identity politics to the rise of national identities. Many African as well as Central and South American countries have witnessed the ambivalent potential of memory in processes of political transition.

However, as a general outline of the task of history vis‐à‐vis a complicated or violent past, it risks failing to sufficiently account for the very situation that it is aimed to deal with, namely, the growing experience in post conflict societies of a past that indeed persists in the present. Berber Bevernage has convincingly argued that modern history has been lining on the side of the perpetrators rather than the victims in its reproduction of a conception of linear time, which fails to capture the experience of a haunting past. The concern for how history deals with the haunting memories of victims and their demand for justice not only calls for, Bevernage argues, a rearticulation of the critical, distant relationship traditionally ascribed to the responsible historian vis‐à‐vis the past. It also requires a renegotiation of the boundaries between present and past, which seriously questions the temporal division at the core of modern historiography.

A growing unsatisfaction with the temporal structure in academic historiography is, indeed, manifest in the increased scholarly interest in lived experience, individual testimonies, and questions of memory in historical sciences. In a recent article, Spiegel herself critically examines the assumption of the death of the past in relation to what she calls the “ethical imperatives of writing history.” History has to a large extent taken the form of a working‐through in retrospect of crimes and oppression that occurred in the past, together with a growing sensibility of and interest in the fate of the victim. Although this change goes back to the end of the Second World War as well as to the anti‐colonial movements of the 1950s and 60s, we have seen an intensified preoccupation with the past in this sense in the last two decades. The past is not something absent, or gone anymore, which the historians reconstruct or represent. It has become something on which we act in the present, a realm for retrospective treatment of “historical wounds” with the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty: “To be able to speak” Chakrabarty points out, “to speak self‐consciously from within a history of having been wounded—is itself a historical phenomenon.”

An early expression of this phenomenon is found in the Austrian‐born author and Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry who writes from within a history of being a victim. In his vehement critique of the prevailing “chrononormativity” in post‐Holocaust society of the 1960s, to borrow Elizabeth Freeman’s notion, we find a forceful expression of temporal discontent, which, I claim, can enrich current thinking on historical temporality.

A reading of Améry’s intellectual testimony can help us, I argue, to understand the need of working out a new conceptual space for temporality in historiography. Améry urged, in the light of the Shoah, that the moral person has to revolt against time by demanding the impossible, “that the irreversible be turned around.” By clinging to a disordered sense of time, he exposes that which is not captured by a traditional historical narrative. He reveals how the persistence of the past, experienced by him and many of the victims of our recent past, is seen as nothing but deviations or distortions—indeed as a failure to draw the line between the living and the dead—within prevailing concepts of historical time.

A Past Stuck in the Present: Jean Améry’s Refusal to Historicize

Jean Améry’s Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (“Beyond Guilt and Atonement”) from 1966 revolves around the experience of time. Or, more precisely, of being out of joint with time. In the preface to the first edition of the book, he asks: “How had I gotten to Auschwitz? What had taken place before that? What was to happen afterwards? What is my situation today?” These questions reveal Améry’s failed attempt to clearly distinguish a ‘beforehand’ from an ‘afterwards,’ and to define for himself a ‘now,’ clearly differentiated from a ‘then.’ The past is ambiguously part of the present: “For two decades I had been in search of the time that was impossible to lose,” he writes in the preface. It is a time that is both present and absent, which can neither be forgotten nor entirely remembered.

Améry apologizes to his readers for his lack of tact, referring not only to a lack of discretion that, he claims, often characterizes the stories told by victims who try to put words to their experiences. His loss of ‘tact’ primarily refers to being out of step with the world, out of sync with the present. It manifests a failed attempt to represent his experiences in a chronologically structured narrative, ultimately due to a feeling of being at odds with time itself.

For Améry, past, present, and future tenses coincide: “Twenty‐two years later I am still dangling over the ground by dislocated arms.” Améry’s tortured, indeed twisted, body—he was beaten while hanging from a hook in the ceiling so that his shoulders were dislocated—leads to a “madly twisted time‐sense.” The experience of a time that is out of joint is thus for Améry a deeply corporeal experience of dislocation; an out‐of jointness felt in the very bones of his body.

Améry’s disordered sense of time, which “desires two impossible things: regression into the past and nullification of what happened,” clearly expresses an effort to give a phenomenological account of a lived experience. It also, without a doubt, reveals a deeply traumatized person for whom the traumatic past cannot be fully integrated into a narrative memory or coherent story. However, Améry’s call for a disruption of linear time is also, I argue, a moral call, which widely transcends the personally lived‐through. It is a revolt against a society’s way of historicizing the past, a frontal attack on the very concept of time, which organizes our historical narratives.

Améry’s claim that “[t]he moral person demands annulment of time” entails an ethical imperative to disrupt the continuum of historical time in favor of a disordered moral time in which the past is an inseparable part of the present. Indeed, the ethico‐political function that Améry ascribes the faculty of remembering—as having the power to interrupt chronological time—is about not letting past events become history: “I rebel,” he writes, “against my past, against history, and against a present that places the incomprehensible in the cold storage of history.” Améry’s claim that contemporary history treats the past as a lifeless object to be stored in a cold space (evoking an uncanny feeling of being in a morgue rather than in an archive), refers, of course, to postwar German society’s repression of its immediate Nazi past. It refers to Germany’s inability to adequately deal with questions of guilt and responsibility, experienced by Améry as a politically dangerous, as well as existentially mortifying, lack of interest in the stories told by victims and survivors.

Améry’s critique, however, also reveals the performative function of history, so aptly described by Michel de Certeau in the latter’s claim that “[historical] writing makes the dead so that the living can exist elsewhere […] A society furnishes itself with a present time by virtue of historical writing.” Améry uncovers that the writing of history requires its rites of burying the dead, its logic of immoral forgetting, as it is ultimately a way for us, now living, to become present to ourselves, by means of securing that the dead remain dead. History, thus, helps us to define the boundaries of the contemporary in relation to (the other of) the past.

Although Améry’s book so clearly deals with the experience of time and history, surprisingly, few historians—besides Holocaust historians—have shown interest in his book. Améry’s understanding of the past as a moral force in the present, with the aim of forcing society to recognize and deal with its own civilizational failures, is of course primarily directed at the social amnesia characterizing post‐Holocaust society of the 1960s. His criticism also, however, targets the dominant historiography of his time and its positivist ideals of historical knowledge. Furthermore, by dealing with the question how a society ethically should relate to the past, and what kind of memory work should be involved in the historicisization of the past, Améry attacks, without mentioning any historians, the entire “modern regime of historicity.” In this regime, as François Hartog affirms: “[t]ime is no longer a simple classificatory principle, but rather an agent, the operator of a historical process—the other name, or rather the true name, for progress.”

Améry uncovers the way historical time operates by pointing to how the key terms past, present, and future are invested with different values and how the dominant temporal mode is that of the future. For him, the ethical relation between past and present cannot be captured by progressive, chronological narrative. He exposes how the very concept of progression implies forgetting or repressing the unjust past. “[T]he man of resentment cannot join in the unisonous peace chorus all around him, which cheerfully proposes: not backward let us look but forward, to a better, common future!”, he writes acidly. And he continues:

Whoever lazily and cheaply forgives, subjugates himself to the social and biological time‐sense, which is also called the “natural” one. Natural consciousness of time actually is rooted in the psychological process of wound‐healing and became part of the social conception of reality. But precisely for this reason it is not only extramoral, but also antimoral in character.

Améry manifests a Benjaminian idea that history tacitly affirms the oppressors and abandons the oppressed in the name of historical time. By reversing the temporal structure underpinning history, he wants to bring the victims of history back into the present, the ones left behind in the prevailing regime of historicity. Améry’s call to distort our sense of linear time—as a moral duty toward the dead as well as the not‐yet born—is ultimately not a demand to render this unfamiliar time familiar to us, but rather to render ourselves unfamiliar in time. Only this unfamiliar experience of a linear, historical time that is out of joint renders possible—Améry implicitly seems to argue—an ethical relation to that which haunts the present.

Améry’s call to join with him in experiencing the out‐of‐jointness of time is, otherwise put, an invitation to experience the chrononormativity, not only of post‐Holocaust society of the 60s but of modern historiography as such. It is an attempt to make unfamiliar the “forms of temporal experience that seem natural to those whom they privilege.”

Améry does certainly not offer us a method in historiography. He invites us to ask ourselves how prevailing conceptions of time structures our historical thinking: What do we “do” with this thing called the past for it to become history? What can we not account for within an established regime of historicity? What do we leave behind in our idea of historical time?

Today, our situation is very different from Améry’s. The idea of progression that characterized the temporal imaginary of post‐Holocaust society of the 1960s has, to a large extent, lost its credibility. Modernity’s focus on and privileging of the future has in postmodern times shifted into a preoccupation with the past, as the standard argument goes. In a sense, we are full up to the point of being bulimic with past wrong doings and with confessing historical guilt.

Nevertheless, the ethical, existential, and/or experiential turn within the historical sciences in recent decades not only expresses a return of the repressed in its effort to represent the experiences of the victims of history. It has come with a wide‐ranging critique of the temporal structure at the core of dominant historiography. This is clearly visible in contemporary concerns for how historians should deal with trauma as a key element of historical experience. Several historians have argued that giving trauma a meaning implies a radically altered conception of historical time. “Trauma in history breaks the coherence of the fundamental historical interrelationship of past, present, and future,” Jörn Rüsen claims, and argues for a conception of a “broken time.” This echoes Dori Laub’s account of traumatic events as phenomena that have “no beginning, no ending, no before, no during and no after,” as well as Saul Friedlander’s ethical recommendation to the historian of a traumatic past to “disrupt the facile linear progression of the narration, introduce alternative interpretations, questions any partial conclusion, withstand the need for closure.”

Dominick LaCapra argues similarly, also focusing on traumatic events, that the temporality underpinning modern historiography in fact obscures the persistence of the past in the present. Their claims could easily be applied to the case of Améry, to his clinging to the past and insistence upon the importance to resist closure. “I had no clarity when I was writing this little book, I do not have it today, and I hope that I never will,” Améry states frankly and continues: “Clarification would also amount to disposal, settlement of the case, which can then be placed in the files of history. My book is meant to aid in preventing precisely this. For nothing is resolved, no conflict is settled, no remembering has become a mere memory.”

The experience of trauma has indeed forced academic historiography to inquire into its own mode of temporality. The haunting memories of victims have initiated a questioning of linear time as the natural medium for historians. Postcolonial and queer theories have challenged traditional historiography in a similar way. From Johannes Fabian’s and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s critique of the political implications of the linear concept of time in Western historiography to Lee Edelmann’s and Elizabeth Freeman’s questioning of the (hetero‐) normativity at the core of history as progressive narrative, the relation between the traditional categories of the past, present, and future is being refigured. These examples are, I argue, expressions of a more general trend of reworking the conceptual space of temporality in history. The remaining of this article will explore some further manifestations of this ongoing refiguration of the temporal relation in historical thinking today, which all inquire into the concept of presence.

The Place of Time in History

In Gabrielle Spiegel’s allusion to the historian as autopsist, the past appears as lacking any “real” existence. The historian deals with what is dead or gone: the past is made present to us in its absence through our representations of it. Paul Ricoeur ascribes the past a similar role in his comparison of the writing of history to a funerary act. In considering “the historiographical operation to be the scriptural equivalent to the social ritual of entombment,” he sees history as organized around loss and absence, echoing de Certeau’s claim that history articulates the conceptual border between the living and the dead.

The claim that the writing of history itself not only produces the antithetic distinction between present and past but also ultimately functions as a scriptural burial of the dead constitutes the unarticulated core of Améry’s vehement critique. Several historians, from widely different perspectives, have recently begun to explicitly question this view anew. Some of them can be gathered under the label “the presence‐paradigm.”

In opposition to the dominant representationalist account of a lost past as the essential category for historiography, Eelco Runia argues for an understanding of the notion of “presence” defined as “the unrepresented way the past is present in the present.” In a similar vein, Michael Bentley emphasizes the importance of “rescu[ing] the past from its current status as a nonentity,” and reintroducing it as “a more‐than‐absence.” Bentley sees in current historiography a turn away from Hayden White’s idea of the past as “a place for dreams and images” in favor of a return of an “ontology of time”—concieved by him as a much longed‐for change to the better.

Whether one sees this current trend as a “new metaphysics of time,” with the words of Ethan Kleinberg or as the return of “a strong brand of realism” within historiography, as critically described by Anita Kasabova, it clearly manifests a current dissatisfaction with the prevailing conception of historical time as well as an attempt to articulate this discontent by describing a past that does not appear as neatly distinguishable from the present as it used to be.

Both Runia’s and Bentley’s suggestions lead, in my view, to problematic conceptions of historical reality. Runia’s claim that “though we may not be able to get in contact with historical reality as intensively as we would like, historical reality is, so to speak, very able to get in contact with us,” expresses a conception of the past as an unrepresentable, almost a mystical force that confuses more than clarifies. Although Kasabova is right in her criticism of Runia, she is wrong in her general diagnosis of the problem as one of a lack of temporal differentiation. According to her, this lack leads to an untenable situation in which “the past invades the present despite historians’ attempts to put it at a distance.”

Although Runia’s answer is not satisfying, Kasabova fails, in my view, to seriously take into account the issue at stake, namely, the experience of a past that is more than a reconstruction made retrospectively but indeed persists as an operative force in the here and now. Ethan Kleinberg’s criticism of the emphasis on presence in contemporary historiography fails to account for the heterogenous character of this trend. He sees it as exclusively manifesting “the reinscription of the ‘metaphysical concept of history’ based on the privileging of presence” and misses out on how it also opens up new possibilities for deconstructive work in contemporary thinking on historical time.

Because what has come to be known as the “linguistic turn,” the traditional historical understanding of an objective past possible for historians to describe on its own terms has been fundamentally challenged in favor of a view of the past as a construction of the present, lacking any independent existence outside of our textual representations of it. The critique mounted by Hayden White and others undermined the metaphysical frame of traditional historiography, and revealed the constructed nature of the dominant distinctions between past, present, and future. The deconstruction of traditionally grounded conceptions of time and history thus opened up for new discursive accounts of the presence of the past in the present.

From a Derridean deconstructive position, which radicalizes linguistic turn historiography, the categories of presence and absence, present and past only gain their meaning through their relational interdependence. Such a position challenges the metaphysical presumptions of traditional historiography by exposing the fundamental philosophical assumptions underpinning the dominant historical conception of linear time and its temporal distinctions. The current deconstructive interest in presence can help us, I argue, to work out conceptual schemes that can take into account a situation of a plurality of non‐synchronous and conflicting temporal regimes, albeit one that does not fall back upon metaphysical notions of historical reality.

Berber Bevernage’s attempt to develop “an alternative chronosophy that leaves some conceptual space for the ambiguous persistence or ‘presence’ of the past” is a work in this direction. By turning to a deconstructionist tradition based on a Derridean spectral conception of time, he suggests a hauntology for historians. Spectral time, Bevernage argues, defies the conventional dichotomous distinction between present and past, presence and absence, the living and the dead. Grounded in a deconstruction of metaphysical time, spectrality opens a possibility for historians to explore the presence of the past without having to recur to a metaphysical conception of historical reality. “The specter,” Bevernage claims, “is not just a piece of the ‘traumatic’ past popping up into the present; rather, its logic questions the whole traditional relationship between past, present, and future.”

With the figure of the ghost, historical hauntology opens a theoretical space to accommodate the experience of “temporal in‐betweenness,” so common in post‐conflicting societies. In a similar attempt to open up such an “in‐between” in historical thinking, Ewa Domanska writes about “the non‐absent past,” which is a concept aimed precisely at defying the dominant dichotomous classification of present and past in terms of presence and absence. “The non‐absent past, she claims, is an “ambivalent and liminal space” that cannot be captured within a binary logic of presence and absence or “subject to a finite interpretation”.

Hauntology thus refigures the relation between present and past also in terms of mastery. Very similarly to Domanska, Wendy Brown argues that hauntology as historiography, “recognize[s] that there is something from the past occupying the present, something whose shape or meaning eludes us”. It shows the limits of trying to master the past by putting it at a distance, and echoes Améry’s sharp criticism of history as mastery, long before Vergangenheitsbewältigung became part of every historian’s vocabulary.

Another promising effort by a historian to refigure the interrelations between past, present, and future is found in Marek Tamm’s call for, expressed in a recent article in this journal, “a new kind of history in the age of presentism.” By developing and reformulating Walter Benjamin’s (and Aby Warburg’s) concept of “afterlife” (Nachleben) of the past, Tamm attempts at articulating a new conceptual framework for historical writing, which by focussing more on the actuality (than the factuality) of the past, aims at capturing the many ways that the past remains present in the here and now.

Inspite obvious differences in perspectives, Bevernage, Domanska, and Tamm share a common critique of an irreversible historical time in favor of a multilayered time in which past and present coexist, are reversible, and intermingled. Their effort to articulate a theory in history that can account for several ongoing pasts in the present, without recurring to a metaphysical concept of historical reality or to an ontology of time, is a fruitful and promising development in historiography. In critically rethinking the meaning of temporality as a structural feature of historical understanding, they also reveal the chrononormativity involved in prevailing historiographical practice.

By taking as point of departure a present that is always already out of joint or not fully present to itself, they recast the temporal relation between past and present in ways that open a space for the non‐synchronous, even the anachronous. Anachronicity in historical thinking would thus no longer primarily refer to the sense of being chronologically out of place or out of harmony with the (historical) present. “Anachronism,” as Tamm puts it, “is no longer a taboo that the historian must fear but a tool that he can employ for his own benefit.” The word would rather bear upon the Greek origin ana‐chronos, “against time,” implying, however, also the second sense of the prefix ana‐, “again” or “anew,” alluding to the possibility of new times in historical thinking.