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.

 

 

Invisibility: The Heart of (Social) Science, The Hiding Hand

Debates about invisibility appear in the social sciences, literature, physics, and popular culture. Whether referring to camouflage, magical rings in the possession of hobbits, Adam Smith’s invisible hand, subatomic particles, or the social invisibility of marginalized groups, questions about the unseen drive research.

The latest issue of Social Research, edited at The New School’s Center for Public Scholarship and published through a partnership with Johns Hopkins University Press, engages in a multi-disciplinary examination of what makes the concept of invisibility so enduringly compelling. To complement the issue, CPS hosted a two-day conference at The New School as part of the Nth Degree Series. The event invited issue contributors to join scholars, writers, and even an illusionist, to think together about invisibility.

On the conference’s opening night, Columbia University physicist Brian Greene and writer Marina Warner hosted a keynote conversation. Prior to their event, The New School’s Stephanie Leone had a chance to talk with Greene, who suggested that getting comfortable with the concept invisibility is essential for scientists. “Invisibility is in many ways at the heart of what science is about,” he said. “We try to look out into the world and illuminate the things that you can’t see with the naked eye.” Whether investigating the composition of matter or the forces that hold together the universe, science has the tricky task of staring at the invisible and trying to give an account for the unseen.

The issue of Social Research makes a compelling case that the invisible similarly lays at the heart of questions in the social sciences and humanities. It does so by showcasing richly diverse research and disciplinary perspectives on the invisible. In its opening essay, Arien Mack—the Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research—introduces the concept of “perceptual invisibility,” which arises as an effect of cognitive processes. “Perceptual invisibility entails a failure to see what is before our open eyes,” Mack writes, “and is a partner to seeing what is not there or seeing more than is actually there to be seen.”

What is an Event?” A New Book from Sociologist Robin-Wagner Pacifici

“It’s unusual for sociologists to study events,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici. When describing her new book What is an Event? (University of Chicago Press), she explains that historians more often think about the implications of eventful, momentous, idiosyncratic, one-off episodes that stand out in narratives about the past.

Events like 9/11, the Great Recession, or the Paris Commune of 1871—all of which Wagner-Pacifici examines in the book—don’t fit neatly into sociology’s attempts to articulate general laws about societies. Indeed, they may look like exceptions to these laws, and Wagner-Pacifici characterizes a resulting “skepticism about the ways in which events reflect something enduring about society.” From this disciplinary perspective, What is an Event? might read like a departure from typical sociological research.

It does not, however, mark a departure from Wagner-Pacifici’s distinctive scholarship and longtime curiosity about how events help shape our understanding of societies more broadly. The University in Exile Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research says that she has always studied events, drawing from multiple disciplines in the process, precisely to discern what they might illuminate about social relations.

Wagner-Pacifici describes a growing realization about the usefulness of events during the process of writing her dissertation on the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister of Italy Aldo Moro, subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press as The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama. She says, “It struck me that I could usefully try to apply frameworks from other disciplines and other societies to contemporary events in large-scale modern societies.” In other words, a systematic study of the concept of events—the forms they take, why they feel exceptional, how they evolve, and how they weave themselves into ordinary life—can play a significant role in shaping how we think about the social world.

Echoing the Past: NSSR PhD Student Elisa Monti Searches for Indices of Trauma in Voice

The cliché goes: our eyes are windows to our soul. At The New School for Social Research, new work by experimental psychology doctoral student Elisa Monti explores whether our voice might contain echoes of our past.

Having started out as a performer and student of musical theatre, Monti developed an interest in variations that she noticed in the singing voices of her peers. Detecting subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in their voice when performing in varied social contexts, she grew curious about the potential psychological causes of what seemed to be involuntary changes. She began charting a distinctive research agenda that integrates, in a novel way, typically disparate strands of psychological research. Her work informs her undergraduate teaching at The New School’s Eugene Lang College, as well as a documentary project on the relationship between trauma and voice.

Monti was drawn to the New School’s Social Psychology lab. To approach questions about voice, Monti explains, she first studied attachment dynamics. Within the field of psychology, theories of attachment provide accounts for how the behavioral patterns that structure childhood relationships and connections continue to affect individuals as they mature into adulthood. Monti drew a parallel between variations in voice and the social dynamics of past experiences, particularly those related to childhood. Her ambition was to measure whether such experiences could shape the kinds of vocal variations that she had previously recognized.

The experiments produced surprising results. When it comes to vocal variations, Monti’s work suggests that the present circumstances in which a singer performs are shot through with memories from the singer’s past.

Monti’s research became oriented toward the question of whether past traumas make their presence felt, not just psychologically, but also physically. To pursue this question, Monti also became affiliated with a the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab in the NSSR Psychology Department, led by Assistant Professor Wendy D’Andrea. From this new perspective, guided by research on the ways that psychological trauma can indeed manifest physically, Monti began to explore the manifold ways our voices are altered, often in barely noticeable ways, by unconscious dynamics.

In addition to writing a traditional peer-reviewed academic paper, Monti also sought new mediums to pursue and publicize her research. It was this need that to led her to produce You’ll Say Nothing, a documentary film that explores the entanglements of trauma and voice in an audiovisual format.

The documentary features short vignettes in which patients and clinicians describe cases of people losing control over their voice in different ways after experiencing trauma. In the beginning of the film, Professor D’Andrea reminds viewers that, “the voice expresses things we don’t even mean to express.” Monti’s documentary proceeds to unpack into this assertion, demonstrating that the content of what is expressed can emerge from the long-term, unexpected effects of trauma.

As Brian Gill, an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Indiana explains in the film, “Mind and voice are very connected; it’s impossible to deny that reality.” As a teacher of voice, Gill suggests that he has to be aware that, “on some level, as I’m focused on the technical needs of a student […] I have to see where they’re locked up. Why they are unable to unlock their voice, so to speak. In that setting, it’s inevitable that you’re going to uncover some issues that they’ve had in their life. Some more minor than others, and others incredibly devastating.” Beyond the specific setting of music instruction, clinicians in the field argue that it may be possible to detect traces of previous traumas not only in singing voices, but also in regular speech.

Monti hopes You’ll Say Nothing will generate enough interest to motivate the creation of a second documentary on the same subject. “If somebody sees a project that can reach them like this and thinks ’you know what, I’m actually really interested in this subject,’ then it will be easier to pull them into the actual research.” In the end, Monti’s goal is to reach both a scientific audience and a more general viewership, bringing attention to the connections between trauma and voice. She aims to create enough interest to make it clear that further research into this issue will provide vital insight into our voices and ourselves.

 

“Far Away from Where?”: an NSSR PhD Student Curates an Exhibition on Memory, Loss, and Migration

The idea for Far Away from Where? – a timely exhibition featuring twelve artists that meditate on homelands, trauma, memory, and refuge – grew out of an anecdote. As told by the show’s curator and New School for Social Research sociology doctoral student Malgorzata Bakalarz, the story goes like this:

Two emigrants are discussing their plans to find a new home. The first tells the second that he will migrate to Uruguay, to which his surprised companion replies, “Oh, that’s far away!”

The first responds: “Far away from where?”

For Bakalarz,  who was a Doctoral Fellow at The New School’s Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography, and Social Thought, the question is instructive for several reasons. She explains that in the case of some migrants, whose hometowns and homelands may be destroyed or drastically altered by conflict, the question suggests the impossibility of ever returning to the places one remembers. The politics, memories, and histories woven into the built environment are torn down, destroyed, rebuilt, and — to the extent possible — reinvented. In another sense, the question suggests that one can never quite escape the psychological and emotional imprint of one’s home. The emigrant asking “Far away where?” might be implying the impossibility of getting too far from the traditions, customs, and memories (traumatic and otherwise) of a homeland.

The diverse works in the exhibit — which include pieces by artists drawn from faculty and students at The New School — present these and other potential meanings, which emerge from reflections on the experience of leaving, returning to, and longing for one’s homeland. Far Away from Whereis also part of a more complex intervention called Wounded Places in a Volatile World that joins the exhibit with a symposium and intensive course that Bakalarz teaches in Warsaw during Spring Break, designed for graduate students at Parsons.

Tymek Borowski’s “Data Visualization”

The result is a multi-part program that brings together artists, designers, and researchers for dialogue about memory, migration, and trauma.

In the exhibition, Tymek Borowski’s Data Visualization superimposes a dark column of cloud on the skyline of present-day Warsaw. It represents 18 million cubic meters of rubble from the destruction of Warsaw during World War II. The mountain of debris looms over the contemporary city’s skyline like a monstrous shadow, a literalization of how traumatic memory can haunt the present. By comparison, Elżbieta Janicka and Wojtek Wilczyk’s Other City features photographs of ordinary-seeming Warsaw cityscapes. Their pictures take on richer, more complex meaning when put in relationship to historical descriptions of the scene. It’s only thanks to these descriptions that we learn that these are images of Warsaw’s destroyed Jewish Ghetto. This knowledge reveals the “other city” hiding outside of our immediate perception. Simona Prives’s intricate palimpsestic video Helter Skelter differently represents the way ordinary lives in cities build upon and erase one another, suggesting that even in the absence of an overtly traumatic event, the urban landscape bears marks of loss and change.

Malgorzata Bakalarz with Hrair Sarkissian’s work

As Bakalarz explains, her curatorial decisions are directly in line with her academic research, which is deeply informed by sensitivity to the dynamics of places and spaces.

Her dissertation analyzes the complexity of reactions to the reclamation of Jewish communal property in Poland. In this work, which she calls “microsociological,” Bakalarz studies three sites in small towns to provide nuance to the picture of reception and application of the new democratic order in Poland during the country’s transition to democracy. In this, she is attempting to shed light on the meaning of public spaces in the context of local identities.

Bakalarz added that the works in the exhibit, when taken together, suggest that true knowledge of a site’s history may always prove evasive, either because memories are always partial or because the truth of loss is too large to get one’s head around.

The latter perspective seems clear in the case of work Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian’s, whose In Between presents monumental and stirring photographs of the artist’s return trip to his homeland of Armenia. The natural features in his pictures dwarf evidence of human intervention in the landscape. They are enormous, snow-covered, and undoubtedly beautiful, but also melancholy. By comparison, Jayce Salloum’s video works This is Not Beirut and Occupied Territories  present stories of a “home encountering” after 29 years in exile. In a particularly moving moment, a man holds up a piece of rubble that he took from Lebanon — a single shard of memory.

“All of these wounds are bigger than us,” Bakalarz said. “And wounded places are always closer than we think. The best we can do is to try to understand them and figure out how to position ourselves with respect to them.”

Far Away from Where? is open through March 5 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (66 Fifth Avenue). An artist talk by Hrair Sarkissian (via Skype) and reception took place on March 2. The exhibition was made possible by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, and ArteEast.