Against Occidentalism: A Conversation with Alice Crary and Vishwa Adluri on The Nay Science

How should we read and interpret texts? And how might the modes in which we read be informed by, enriched by, and revised by our understanding of our cultures of interpretation? These questions have driven the work of Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, doctoral alumni of the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research.

This summer, Anthem Press will publish the second book written together by Adluri and Bagchee, Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism. To mark the occasion, Research Matters presents a transcription of Adluri’s conversation with Philosophy Professor Alice Crary. They talk about Adluri and Bagchee’s first book The Nay Science: A History of German Ideology (Oxford UP), the practice of reading and interpreting texts, and a history of Indology.

Indology—the academic study of India—originated in Germany and served as a foundation for western academic interpretations of Indian intellectual, cultural, and social life. The Nay Science charts the history of German Indology to show that the nascent discipline was rooted in troublesome philosophical assumptions that generated inaccurate readings of the cultures they were studying and led to false images of India’s culture and written tradition. Against stubbornly persistent biases, Adluri and Bagchee write in favor of a more sincere reading of ancient and Eastern texts—a kind of “innocent reading” that goes beyond postcolonial method of critique—that might enable us to meet texts falling outside the Western Christian tradition on their own terms.

Pressing beyond a critique of the specific history of German Indology and its effects on our understanding and modes of reading ancient texts, The Nay Science offers vital reflections on philosophical and social scientific methods. Adluri says that the book aims to train us to, “read texts, read them carefully, but read them respectfully, because if you read the texts respectfully, they will talk to you.”

He also reflects on his training at The New School. On the practice of philosophy, he says: “You have to read everything, struggle your whole life to claim that life, and if they are capable—if they are competent—competent is not the right word—if they are capable of hanging on, and doing the work, there is nothing better to do in life than philosophy.”

Alice Crary (AC): The occasion for this interview is your magnum opus, the 2014 monograph written with Joydeep Bagchee, The Nay-Science. I really to […] talk about its significance and its implications. I thought it would be good to get a little background first, with a discussion of who you are and what you’ve done since you were at the New School for Social Research’s Philosophy Department. So can you start by telling us a bit about your life, and your intellectual work at NSSR, and then afterwards?

Vishwa Adluri (VA): Thank you, Alice. I’m Vishwa Adluri, one of the co-authors of Nay-Science, and I went to The New School where I got my PhD in philosophy, which has been an invaluable experience for me. Since then I can say that there has not been a matching intellectual challenge I have faced anywhere else, even in Germany. After I graduated from here doing ancient philosophy, I became very aware of thinking about the conditions of modernity. I was very influenced by [former New School for Social Research Professor] Reiner Schurmann as a teacher, and his book, Broken Hegemonies. He points to modernity as a complicated project grounded on a turn inward to self-consciousness as the primary referent for all knowledge. He calls [self-consciousness] the “hegemony of modernity.” And so I began to see that when we in modernity talk about ancients— ancient Greeks for example, other civilizations—we automatically subject them to the prejudices we have as moderns, as Europeans, as post-Enlightenment. I wanted to investigate those things in a totally different field. So Indology was a test case to study the influence of method and enlightenment vis-à-vis [the] episteme of the other. It’s important not just for the humanities but also for philosophy. I was very humbled by the enthusiasm, and traumatized by the disciplinary force which is contained in academic disciplines.

AC:  Can you talk about how you got started after the first monograph? How you got started on this project?

VA: I was working on Greek philology with a professor at the University of Marburg called Arbogast Schmitt […] He was very impressed with me. He wrote a wonderful book called Modernity and Plato, a big tome, which I translated because it jived with how I trained with Reiner, and rethinking the relationship of ancients and moderns was important for Arbogast as well. And Arbogast said, “Why don’t you study something with Indology here as well?” And he brought me into the Indology Department at Marburg, and he had the highest hopes for me. And I had also stopped taking Nietzsche’s cue, Heidegger’s cue, Reiner Schurmann’s cue, and Seth Benadetti’s—[and] started studying Parmenides and Plato in relation to Homer. So epic: Greek epic, Sanskrit epic. I also wanted to see how an ancient form of thought can unfold on its own without being interrupted by certain religious movements such as Christianity in the West. I just wanted to see what the ancient part would look like on its own. When I got to the Marburg Indology Department, for the first time in my life I faced racism. It was epistemic, it was—they told me that my questions were “theological,” and that Europe had already settled these questions.

AC: You would say there are parallels between the way you were treated, that are reflected in the attitudes that you are tracing as you go through part one of your book, where you are saying a partial and really flawed positivism is a cover for the projection and imposition of different strains of Protestant theologizing, Eurocentrism, and also various kinds of racialized and even racist thought.

VA: Correct.

AC: Would you like to talk about one of those strands?

VA: The racism one is very interesting, and painful. It shows that already in the institution of modernity, we had a certain turn toward subjectivity. Luther himself wrote no less than two whole anti-Semitic tracts, and this was picked up by German Indologists and philologists. What they did was to show that Germany has now a unique break with history, and an Archimedean point from which—called self-critical lore of so-called methodological or scientific perspective—to study without faith the texts. So with one stroke Rabbinical tradition becomes delegitimized, and the Catholic tradition becomes delegitimized, philosophical tradition becomes delegitimized. And we start hearing, even to this day: [the] end of metaphysics, destruction of metaphysics, destruction of this, destruction of that.

It begins the deconstructive task that modernity inherits. Specifically in the case of Mahābhārata studies, Christian Lassen—who was Norwegian but lived in Germany, wrote in German, and was buried there—began to posit [that] the mythical war in Mahābhārata was actually a racial battle between white-skinned Europeans entering India being confronted by dark skinned natives. This runs without a break into contemporary Indology. Lassen was read by [Count Joseph Arthur de] Gobineau, so the science of races was born suddenly. In Gobineau’s case, it becomes easy to separate the Jews from Europeans, repurposing it for local consumption: [arguing] the Jews are unable to write an epic, they’re always tied to their particularity and so on—echoes of which you see in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks. So you have this sort of racial assumption in the epistemic project that only the Prussian Lutheran academy is self-conscious. Systematically, Indological studies provided a racial analytic tool for European humanities.

AC: Heidegger just came up, but Gadamer has a big role in the project, and it’s a positive role, and he’s an heir of Heidegger. So as I understand it, Heidegger plays an ambiguous role here. Is that right? Can you tell us something about how Heidegger and Gadamer show up in different ways?

VA: For me, no thinker is just all bad and all good, and I am a big critic of Heidegger as well as Gadamer. But what I took from Gadamer was his idea of responding to the historicist crisis that Heidegger had pointed out. He himself was trained as a classical philologist, and he said that the best way to understand a text is through the rezeptionsgeschichte, or reception history: how the text unfolds and works in its own tradition. This came as an antidote to me to how the German Indologists were reading both Jewish texts, without reference to the rabbinical tradition, and the Indian texts without reference to the local commentators. So in just that move, I follow Gadamer. I’m not a Gadamerian.

But the question continues to Heidegger as well, that we have to distinguish between two types of anti-Semitism and Heidegger. There is this one anti-Semitism where he is anti-Semitic, but there is another way in which that kind of talk you see in the Black Notebooks was permissible. There was an academic milieu that stretches back to 200 or 300 years where that kind of talk had become part of the humanities. So we have to be critical of Heidegger and the category of anti-Semitism, it’s not just blanket, and there are certain varieties of anti-Semitism which could be just a part of the system. Does this excuse Heidegger? No. All the more, it is the task of the philosopher to become aware of what is being fed to him

AC: I want to talk about the reception to the book. A minute ago you said something, which I hadn’t detected in anything I know—as far as I know, the book has been greeted as a huge accomplishment. You suggested just now, in contrast to what the Indologists will say—I’m a nuanced thinker suggests that—you think that in places it is being received as a single-minded polemic? Is that it? Has it gotten the reception that you expected and hoped for?

VA: Just last week I got an e-mail out of the blue from someone called Susannah, and she said, “What a great book. It’s a gem.” And the person who said this was Susannah Heschel, she’s Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter. So I was very gratified. Reiner Schurmann was tormented by the Nazi legacy, and he would have been so happy to hear Susannah. So outside the Indological circles, the book is receiving rave reviews. In the Indological circles, there has been a silence because it is not really a book which is inviting a dialogue about method, because I have shown the method to work from racist principles.

AC: I want to sort of talk a little bit about some larger morals that can be drawn from the book, and I know that you have thought about its relationship to post-colonial studies, so we could start there. I feel like when I think about what you’ve done, and what you and Joydeep have done together, we can think of a moral about the nature of interpretation—where that has an ethical dimension, making sense of people distant from us in time and place. And at the same time, the book itself is an exercise of social criticism. It’s a critique and—in a sense, writ largely—that moral about the nature of interpretation is, at the same time, a moral about what powerful critique is like.

VA: It would be wrong to see the book as just post-colonial critique, because that’s not what we are doing. It is essentially a philosophical book, asking us as moderns—especially in a global modernity—how to think, and more importantly how to treat each other, and how to respect what other people respect, and not perform autopsies on the ethical spinal cord of living cultures.

The positive message of my book is: read texts, read them carefully, but read them respectfully, because if you read the texts respectfully, they will talk to you. They will talk to you. I was able to read Homer and get something out of Homer. Surely you can read the Bhagavad Gita and get something out of it. It is not as—as hermetically sealed compartments as we think. So this exacerbation of cultural difference has become a problem, especially for me, because I am not Indian. I go to India, people look at me like, what happened to you? And I’m here, and—people always ask me,  “Where are you from?” And I always say, “New Jersey.” And the expectation that I cannot possibly be an American from America and so on. And I go home and my family always asks me—“You’re getting older. Do you want to get married and settle down?” So in many ways, all the categories have sort of deconstructed themselves for me, and I’m grateful for that.

AC: I’m interested in how you started working with Joydeep. I think I knew you both independently, so I know that his career here at The New School comes a bit after yours. And I also know that when he talks about you he talks about you in the most glowing terms possible. As a great teacher and as a role model. So how did you guys start working together, and how would you describe the collaboration?

VA: Joydeep called me from Freiburg. He got disillusioned with the Heidegger circle of people, which he felt to be extremely cultish, and they were just arguing about the preposition and so on, and Heidegger. And he said, “This is not Heidegger.” So he moved to Berlin, and he contacted me, and I flew to Berlin to meet with him. His dissertation, which he was in the middle of writing, was most strange and exhilarating, and I just thought: this is not an ordinary mind. So since then, we have been working, we talk every day, several times on the phone, and the whole book is a dialogue between us, and I’m very grateful for that.

But before I get too sentimental, why don’t we take up Hegel? Because in the background of this book there is Hegel, the arch-thinker of modernity, the creator of historicist master narrative, where everything is sublated or so we were told. But some things are excluded like Indian thought and Chinese thought, as preliminary forms of consciousness […] So Hegel actually interrupts writing one of his big prefaces because something was published by Humboldt. It is on the—on the Bhagavad Gita, and he says, “This is a truly universal poem, this is great—it talks about the work ethic and so on, which reminds me of Protestants. This is one of the felicities of my life that I came upon this.” And Hegel sees two problems. One is, if Indian thought is allowed to continue in dialogue with Western thought, it cannot provide—it cannot let his system get off the ground. Because it is on the heads of the Indians that Hegel leaps forward into the Greeks, and then ultimately into the Prussian state. So the Indians have to be kept there. So he writes a lengthy criticism, and he tells people that Indian thought has nothing to offer, there is nothing—and he closes the door on the kind of Humboldtian dialogue that was going on, and Humboldt actually thought Hegel was a crass, and uncultured person. So after that, the philologists took up Indian thought and began dissecting it, because they were given directions by Hegel, and Hegel explicitly told them to look for variations, look for hidden histories, look for textual discontinuities, and sort of this throughout the texts.

AC: we were just talking about Hegel, and I wanted to ask you about—the role that Foucault plays in the thinking of the book. I take it that when you talk about genealogical method, you have not just Nietzsche but also Foucault in mind.

VA: There are several versions of this, there is—Foucault’s connection of knowledge and power. German Indologists said that India was a spiritual colony, unlike the barbaric British, the Germans were more attuned to matters in the Geist. So they always saw it as a territory to occupy, besides the racist narrative. And when I started reading Foucault, especially with Reiner Schurmann, it became clear to me that disciplines are disciplinary. That they somehow constitute their objective study, and the real person who belongs within that framework now becomes trapped in it.

So I reacted to that, and Foucault was greatly emancipatory [for] Islamic studies and Jewish studies, to ask this question of who benefits: who is the subject, the powerful subject, of whom this area becomes an object of study? What do they profit from it? And it seems to me that individual scholars no longer are—and here again Foucault—individual scholars are probably even unaware of it, they probably do their work with good intentions, but you only have to occupy the space in the watchtower of the panopticon for you to perpetrate that regulatory structure. And I am hoping that scholars will realize that they should just get off that tower.

AC: One related philosophical question because you just described Foucault. And I think it comes out really clearly that this is what the book not only tries to do, but does—as providing some of the resources or some of the methods that you and Joydeep use to dismantle—critically dismantle a discipline. Foucault is also brought to bear in a lot of other people’s work, and yours as well, positively in describing the kind of self-awareness, and kind of method one needs to positively approach a text. This is—I hear the references to some of his writings on these topics and the things you just said—one of the interesting things about your project, at least I hope I understand it correctly, is that you are not recommending a skeptical moral about our relationship to texts.

VA: Correct. The question I bring Foucault to bear on is, it’s not so simple that we are modern and the ancients are in the past. They are probably not, they decidedly are not. When I embraced, or became conscious of modernity, for me modernity itself had ceased to make sense. So turning to the ancients became one way of going forward, and Foucault helps with me with that. And to remove the debris of this discipline from the re-appropriation of the ancients was a crucial task for me.

AC: I’ve heard you say that your book can be read as an argument for Indian philosophy. Could you clarify that?

VA: It is an argument for a new way of reading texts innocently, and without being hemmed in by concerns of accuracy and scientific precision. There is a classicist called William Arrowsmith, and he wrote—he is highly influenced by Nietzsche’s work Wir Philologen—something called “The Shame of Graduate Schools,” in which he points out that this idea of specialization is losing the big picture. So I hope that Nay-Science iscathartic, that we need it to be able to make ourselves worthy of reading the ancients again.

The aim of philology and the aim of philosophy ought to be humility, and I know that there are—the book is full of fireworks, but those fireworks are secondary and expressions of a frustration against a wall, a brick wall, of ignorance that was built up between beautiful texts and beautiful minds. But humility is important, no philologist can stand up and say, “I am smarter than the ancients,” it’s just—they have proved themselves silly.

AC: Is there anything further you want to say about the wider consequences of this project, including political ones?

VA: Politically it is important because we did see there were thinkers in America who interpreted the Middle East for us, such as the neo-conservatives, and they felt that they knew cultures better than they knew themselves. And this has had disastrous consequences, political consequences, for America. The Indologists seem to carry on without blinking with their interventionist petitions and so on, and they don’t seem to have learned anything from the debacles of trying to figure out cultures from the watchtower of the Panopticon. And so, politically, it is very important for Indologists to learn the limits of their discipline, their power, and what they were meant to do. They were meant to learn grammars, and they were meant to clarify texts, and create access to texts on behalf of students. And when they step out of that role, they—they just make—they just create political mischief.

AC: I know you just finished another book Philology and Criticism. Is that a continuation of this project? You said it was at the beginning of the interview, and what aspects of The Nay Science are you continuing to work on?

VA: In a way, it’s an homage to philology as lower criticism, it is an homage to studying manuscripts carefully, and scrutinizing them, and also to get rid of ideology about texts. Philologists think that they have a role to play in turning society. That train has passed. Their last chance was to embrace Nietzsche, and when they did not, nobody turns to the philologists. Culture does not turn to the philologist to take its cues, much less should politics. And in this book, I argue further that it remains to study the manuscripts carefully. There is still a need for going over and preserving texts, physically and intellectually.

AC: So imagining either your younger self or students who are here at The New School right now, does your experience in your life as an intellectual post-PhD, make you wish that—or think that—you could have told your younger self something?

VA: Do they stay up at night worried about philosophy? Even if there is no prospect of a job, will they still do it? That will be an important question. Of course, the job prospect is a necessary thing and an important thing but not the only thing. The other thing I would say is, that big dream that they see, when you are a graduate student, that glorious dawning of truth: it has a price. You have to read everything, struggle your whole life to claim that life, and if they are capable—if they are competent—competent is not the right word—if they are capable of hanging on, and doing the work, there is nothing better to do in life than philosophy.

Redefining Feminist Scholarship: Nancy Fraser’s Work Celebrated in Faculty-Edited Volume

To celebrate the occasion of Politics Professor Nancy Fraser’s 70th Birthday, Chiara Bottici and Banu Bargu—respectively, Associate Professors in the departments of Philosophy and Politics at The New School for Social Research—collaborated to edit Feminism, Capitalism, and Critique (Palgrave Macmillan). Bringing together scholars from across fields, Bottici and Bargu set out to curate a vital collection of reflections on the trajectory of Fraser’s thought across a career spanning nearly four decades.

The result is a collection of fifteen essays that brings together some of the most prominent names in critical theory. Among them are thinkers who share both a personal as well as a scholarly affinity to Fraser’s work, having been her major intellectual interlocutors. Beyond its personal value, the text offers a full course of philosophical reflection on the key themes governing Fraser’s scholarship—themes that continue to be as relevant as ever today.

As the editors suggest in the introduction, “this book creates a space of dialogue for scholars of diverse disciplines to explore the numerous ways in which a feminist perspective can be mobilized to understand capitalism.” They explain that they intend to integrate multiple voices to provide, “a thorough critique that has as its aim the goal of advancing social justice, and to study what political implications may follow.”

This string of ambitions could serve as a mission statement for Fraser’s scholarship itself, which has evolved considerably over time.

“If you look at her entire body of work, you can see an expansion of the question of feminism in its connection to capitalism, into all other spheres,” said Bottici. She explained that Fraser began as a Marxist feminist, but “broadened the scope of her analysis in order to include redistribution, participation, recognition, and—more recently—race and ecology.” Fraser’s ability to expand the scope of her work has become one source of her enduring influence, and one way to explain her capacity to have inspired multiple generations of feminists.

Promoting Psychological Research at The New School

From weight loss interventions and parental decisions to the psychology of alien abduction, the latest issue of The New School Psychology Bulletin runs a gamut of recent graduate student research in psychology.

Founded in 2003, this student-run and peer-reviewed publication at The New School for Social Research has become an important forum for psychological work produced by emerging scholars in the field. It also serves as a valuable training ground in the practice of writing, submitting, reviewing, and editing journal articles.

“This is a learning experience, not only for the people who submit, but also for the reviewers and for the editors,” said Jessica Engelbrecht, who served with students Mariah HallBilsback and Emily Maple on the current three-member editorial board. The board is comprised of doctoral students in the Department of Psychology, but The Bulletin’s contributors come from departments across the United States and around the world. Whereas other peer-reviewed journals similarly welcome the work of young scholars — these are often called “learning journals” in the field — the Bulletin is one of only two graduate psychology journals run entirely for and by students.

According to the editors, students drove the publication from the beginning. They identified a need to develop facility with the entire publication process, while also creating a space to test new ideas and showcase the best new research to broad audiences outside of The New School. “Within the Psychology Department, students just felt that there was a need for it,” said HallBilsback. This training helps students to develop ideas, while also building diverse professional and scholarly skills. These include not just teaching, writing, and conducting rigorous research, but also presenting one’s ideas in a compelling way, corresponding with academics across sub-fields, developing networks, and participating actively in the review and editorial process.

Reviewers are welcome to stay on for multiple years, though the editorial team changes yearly. The Bulletin has a faculty advisor, presently Department Chair Howard Steele, who provides guidance and mentorship for the editorial board, allowing the student editors autonomy to discharge the daily responsibilities of running the journal. The working relationship of the current board has been a productive one, according to Maple. She added, “The editors from the year before pick three people who work really well together and it just so happens that we all like doing our own things and that they complement one another.”

Democratizing Economics: the Heterodox Approach of Two NSSR Graduate Students

Like many students in the Economics Department at The New School for Social Research, Ebba Boye and Ingrid Kvangraven want to widen the lens through which we examine economies. Their approach to economic issues inside and outside the classroom not only offers a critique of our most established theories but also fosters alternative ways of thinking about economics, politics, and education.

“The field of economics used to be much broader than what it is now,” said Boye. She attributes its narrowing to the hardening of neoclassical economic theory into rigid doctrine. It can often seem as though this doctrine has become, “the singular way of understanding how the economy works.” In this context, the practice of economics becomes a question of learning and applying a single set of laws, rather than exploring alternative pictures of the economy.

“You don’t have the idea that academia is about learning about different theories in order to compare them and critique them,” Boye said.

The neoclassical approach to economics—sometimes referred to simply as mainstream economics—would likely sound familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory undergraduate course in the subject, as it still dominates the landscape of the discipline. It builds on assumptions that free market competition leads to the most efficient allocation of resources. To address economic problems such as unemployment, orthodox economists typically ask what imperfections might be preventing markets from achieving what they call a Pareto efficient equilibrium, and how these imperfections can be removed or remedied.

By contrast, heterodox economists—and heterodox economics departments at institutions like The New School for Social Research— ask whether perfect markets and general equilibrium might not be the best starting points for real-world analysis, and instead propose other theoretical frameworks. Whereas many of the neoclassical models aspire to the articulation of trans-historical and universal laws, many heterodox economists try instead to integrate historical and context-specific analysis into their picture of how economies work.

Histories against Oblivion: Reading Philosopher Dmitri Nikulin’s The Concept of History

Is history just a list with a story?

A fragment of Atlantis by Hellanicus

This question underlies New School for Social Research Philosophy Professor Dmitri Nikulin’s latest book, The Concept of History (Bloomsbury). Nikulin, who will serve as Chair of the Department in 2017-18, asks what we even mean when we use the word history, returning to the discipline’s origins in Ancient Greece. He suggests that to get the clearest picture of what history meant to the ancients, we should push past even Herodotus, typically considered “the father of history.” Instead, we should look to Hecataeus and Hellanicus. The surviving 400 fragments of their work provide a key insight that has less to do with the truth of history than with the way our concept of history has evolved.

To get away from the common modern conception of history as universal and unilinear, Nikulin examines how these earliest historians conceived of their craft. “When I looked at the way in which people were narrating history at that time,” he said, “I started to realize that they looked at history very differently because they didn’t yet have the idea of a final destination for humankind.”

Without this clear destination in mind, history looks like an amalgam of genealogies and geographies; and instead of a single and all-encompassing version of history, we find thinkers narrating diverse simultaneous histories. They are the parallel stories of different peoples populating different places, told from multiple perspectives. Each of these perspectives is embodied by any single person: we all inhabit different streams of overlapping histories (individual, professional, familial, etc.).

“I take it that we inhabit multiple histories, not just one,” Nikulin said, describing one conclusion to take from this perspective. The absence of an overarching narrative among the early Greek historians challenges two touchstones of modern historical thought: the idea of an origin and that of a final end. It underscores the fact that these multiplicities only come together in a single overarching plot—history as a unified narrative—much later.

This perspective required Nikulin to come up with an alternative reading of how the concept history came into being.

In his view, history has always been partly a project of keeping records of details and minutiae like names, events, things, battles, and places. “By doing so, we bring in some order, [and] arrange details in many different ways,” Nikulin said. He emphasized the decision to avoid using the word facts, instead opting for the word details. In this, Nikulin is acknowledging that facts often come laden with narrative. For Nikulin, “The fabula of history,” that is, the story and the narrative that the list tells, “really refers to the narrated plot of what happened, which ties all these details together.” In other words, the combination of details and fabula becomes the real stuff of history.

Though Nikulin insists that the arrangements of any set of details and fabulae remain multiple, this combination of two ingredients—details and the narrative that stitches them together—produces the more familiar picture of history, which intends in part to preserve something like living memories. Such memories are crucial for what it means to be human. “I take it that our historical being consists in our having a place in a history […] in inhabiting a history. And we do that by being included in a narrative.” Like Hannah Arendt, Nikulin argues that a purpose of history is to save us from “the futility of oblivion.”

In the ancient genre of catalogue poetry, for example, we often see extraordinary efforts to preserve meticulously detailed lists and accounts of people and events. These efforts arise from the notion that the practice of history constitutes a preservationist act. According to

Hecataeus of Miletus Map

Nikulin, this idea pervades ancient histories. “You can find it all over the place from the Bible to Hecataeus to Hesiod,” he said, “It’s all about the genealogies of humans and of the gods.” Genealogies give both an order to history and a place to humans, who are either part of the history or involved in its transmission and significance. “If you want to save a people from the futility of oblivion,” he explained, “genealogy is important.”

At the same time, this conception of the purpose of genealogy and its relationship to the historical gives Nikulin space to think about the relationship of history to poetry in the ancient world. “We moderns have a very Romantic understanding of the figure of the poet,” he said, referring to the intellectual movement spanning the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, “according to which the poet is essentially a maniac […] He is inebriated, enthusiastic, and he empties himself in order to let something else, perhaps divinity, speak through him.” But when thinking more carefully about the figure of a poet like Homer, Nikulin argued, “[the poet] is not a maniac.” Rather, he carries out the sober task of preservation and transmission of knowledge. In this sense, Nikulin suggested, “History is probably the first prosaic genre,” which is to say, history was the first non-poetic genre.

This wedding between narrative and genealogy, argues Nikulin, marks a decisive moment in the evolution of history. History begins to look more familiar precisely when the catalogue or list joins with a fabula or narrative. These narratives are malleable, changing over the course of generations, and opening history itself to constant reinterpretation—even as history remains somewhat fixed by the events that the narratives build into a plot. In The Concept of History, Nikulin charts a judicious middle ground between seeing history as a closed, unified and unidirectional march, and seeing it as a jumble of infinitely competing narratives.

How might this influence the practice of history and our understanding of its relationship to other fields?

Nikulin points out that others have suggested that historians can only use the literary genres (comedy, tragedy, detailed lists, etc.) available in their own moment to interpret events. But he emphasizes the inventive possibilities of historical narrative. “We can use certain conventions, but we can invent many other interesting ways of reading histories,” he said. With recent critical understandings of gender, for instance, we might be able to construct novel historical narratives that might have been difficult to conceive up to now. This has significant implications for our understanding of politics as well, given the intimate inscription of the historical. Given the understanding of history as multiple and revisable, politics becomes equally subject to such reconsiderations.

In The Concept of History, Nikulin does not limit his claims to ancient histories, but there is significant value in learning what historians intended before more familiar contemporary conceptions of historical work hardened into tradition. Nikulin’s book opens up conversation about what history can aspire to be, precisely by learning about how the discipline came to be constituted as being invented.