A Brief History of History

The most difficult question any historian has to face when preparing to delve into a new topic or event is invariably: where should I start? Let’s say we want to examine the American Revolution, where do we begin? We could start with the Boston Tea Party, which really kicked off the tensions that would eventually lead to war, but riots don’t come out of nowhere do they? We could start at the arrival of Columbus to be safe but then wouldn’t we be obligated to talk about the European political climate that so badly wanted overseas exploration in the first place? Surely we would because it was this system that the Founding Fathers so badly wanted to get away from. Actually much of their ideas on government were inspired by Ancient Rome and….  

I think you get the point.


This illustrates the main problem of historical record. History books are, inevitably, a list of stuff that happened and perhaps a little speculation as to why. Whereas everybody with a brain knows that the past is so much more than that.


This failure of history is something that both Austerlitz and Riding the Trail of Tears address in some way. Of the two, Hausman takes a more cynical view of history. To him history is a big joke, a sham, a plaything. History a bit too violent for you? No problem, we’ll tone it down. Want bigger genitals? Sure why not? Christopher Columbus was a hero? Hey, whatever makes you happy. That is of course not to say he’s a complete pessimist. In the end the Misfits overcome their history, their programming and even their little Nunneheh spirits find their way into reality. History is like Pandora’s box. Once the Misfits’ reality is acknowledged, it cannot be kept only in a historical device, it must permeate into the world. Either you live in the blissful delusion that Christopher Columbus was a great guy and that Natives were an obstacle to progress, and you live a happy little life. Or you realize the truth: Columbus was a sadistic slave trader and the Natives got slaughtered for no good reason, in which case try not to cringe the next time you hear the words “unceded Musqueam territory.”


Sebald, I think, looks at history with a bit more reverence. Austerlitz is incomplete without his past, but as he comes closer to it it hurts him. In fact, unlike Hausman, Sebald does not see history as something you do or do not have (that may be an oversimplification but this is just a blog post). Austerlitz learns much, but he does not fully connect with his past, which means he cannot fully come to grips with his future. And he knows he will never fully reconcile his history because it is not possible. Like the photos in the book, his fixation on architecture symbolizes an attempt to find something concrete, solid, objective that he can cling to. But in the midst of it all lies a sea of uncertainty.
This is the kind of thing that rolls around in my head, as my seventy year-old boss and I try to discuss history. He tells me we should look forward, not backward. He says that “the past is ancient history”. Pfft, “the past is history”, what a fatuous thing to say!


Detain & Exploit


I had two questions in seminar. They were these:


Foucault outlines some specific methods of disciplining and reconditioning the soul of prisoner into a state of “docility-utility” (eg. separation in space, panopticon, examinations). To what extent are these methods and this process even ethical?


While the term “docility-utility” might describe a state of mind that is sometimes necessary, it is a supremely ugly one to attach to a prisoner. It implies two things: 1. that the subject in question is to be used as a tool and 2. that a submissive mindset must be fostered to achieve this. This concept makes sense when applied to the military. Military units must work together as a whole to carry out operations that serve to protect society. For such a large number of people to work together effectively a certain level of conformity must be instilled in soldiers. (I once met a vet who served in Afghanistan who told me that “if the captain tells me to kill someone, I kill someone. If he tells me to pick up shit, I pick up shit. I don’t even think about it.”) The implications are absolutely in no way applicable to prisoners. The idea that prisoners are tools to be used is completely unethical. Believe it or not, the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution says that no one may be forced to do slave labour except as punishment for a crime. Aside the from the reality of the War on Drugs, mandatory minimums, private prisons and other prison profiteering schemes this has a hideous implication that criminals are public property to be used at will by the rest of society. Criminology should really be about deterrence, rehabilitation and prevention–it should work to help criminals become functioning members of society. Your rights do not just get thrown out the window because you committed a crime. To deal with the second implication, most crimes are probably not committed due to a lack of obedience on the part of the criminal. Sure, maybe if some kids commits vandalism then what they probably need is some discipline, but crimes like murder, fraud, theft, domestic abuse, etc. stem from much more complicated issues. Breaking people down into numbers and reprogramming them to spend their every moment in productive subservience does not benefit anybody except the people profiting from their labour.


Foucault talks about switching the emphasis of the criminology from the body to the soul. He writes “the question is no longer simply: has the act been committed and is it punishable” but instead we take into account motivations, psyche, tendencies and probability of reoffense. How are we to balance judgment based on criminal actions and criminal thoughts? Could we be justified in imprisoning someone solely based on their soul even if they had not committed a crime? Are we already doing so?

Ignoring some of the more obtuse aspects of this question like “what is a soul” or “what the definition of the word “is” is, this question seems fairly straightforward to me. I think straight utilitarian calculus works here. Does the harm we could save by acting before crimes are committed outweigh the indignation that people and their families would feel at being taken away without having done anything wrong. Probably, yes. The funny thing is when you run with this idea far enough you basically end up back at the starting point: will the act be committed and is it punishable? What I thought was more interesting was what Christina brought up that Foucault seemed to think that we are already doing this. We allow society to discipline us into a certain range of behavior, and anyone who deviates too far from this range gets tossed in the slammer. But I haven’t thought too terribly hard about that last part.


Remaining Men Together

In Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, the narrator is afflicted by a rare form of insomnia which prevents him from getting any sort of sleep unless he experiences an extreme rush of emotion. At first, he frequents various support groups to get this rush, including one for testicular cancer survivors called “Remaining Men Together.” As part of the recovery process, once a session the men grab hold of one another and violently sob in each other’s arms. The narrator gets paired with Bob, an ex-bodybuilder with a bad case of gynecomastia (an affliction which causes men to grow breasts as a result of hormone issues after having their testicles removed). He nestles his head right between Bob’s breasts and the two weep pitifully together. The whole scene is utterly pathetic.

I feel quite sure that this is not what Charlotte Gilman imagines as proper behavior for men in a gynocentric world. In Our Androcentric Culture she writes that “each and all shall be taught the real nature and purpose of motherhood; the real nature and purpose of manhood; what each is for, and which is the more important” (Gilman 66). Nothing there dares to suggest that men ought to be more like women. As we discussed in seminar, she does believe that maleness has its uses.

If we go back to Fight Club, we see much the same idea. The narrator meets Tyler Durden, who is so fed up with feeling emasculated by society that he asks the narrator to punch him in the face. The two start the global phenomena of Fight Club, attracting thousands of member, including Bob, who beat the hell out of each other for the sake of regaining their masculinity. Eventually they tire of just fighting and form “Project Mayhem,” a terror group with the express intent of destroying the social institutions that robbed them of their dignity. A crusade is launched against consumerism and multi-national business, and the book ends with the men destroying all of their city’s banks, effectively eliminating all debt. With their anger and frustration, they manage to change the world for the better (or much worse, depending on your reading).

I think Gilman would have liked this story. The Desire and Combat inherent in men can be a good means of changing the world. To paraphrase what the comedian Wax said: the sexual frustration of an eighteen year old man is up there with wind and volcanic activity as one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Just think of all the Desire and Combat involved in any major political shift. Even some of the suffragettes, when they started hurling bricks around, were exhibiting the essential male characteristics. The goal, as I am sure that Gilman would agree, is  to harness this energy in a productive way, rather than to suppress it.


“Most People are either stupid or evil, or both”

“Most people are either stupid or evil, or both.”

                                       -Hugh Mann


Using Hugh’s statement as my guideline, I would like to explore the question: to what extent do the characters behave like “normal” people?

In Kleist’s story, Earthquake in Chile, we can see there is no shortage of either of these qualities. Jeronimo and Josefa are extremely stupid and naive. They abandon all of their sensible plans in exchange for ill-conceived, emotionally driven antics. The ravenous religious zealots are probably more evil than stupid but they are certainly both, as they can barely even be bothered to lynch the right people. Witch-hunting is one of the world’s oldest pastimes (in Christian communities, mostly) and mobs like this are far more “normal” than a sane person can be comfortable with. Sadly, the only abnormal character is also the most honourable. Standing between a mob and their would-be victims is truly nothing short of “Godlike [heroics]” (Kleist 31). I guess it is also pretty commendable how Jeronimo and Josefa sacrifice themselves as well.

Moving to Lieutenant Gustl, I am immediately reminded of Jonathan Swift, when he said that “satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” I think this is important to keep in mind given our discussion today. It is too easy to say that Schnitzler was simply making fun of European militarymen of his time. He is making fun of you and me too. Much of his initial instincts strike me as very normal, then his reactions are taken way out of proportion for the purpose of satire. I would assert that no normal human being has never taken an embarrassing incident way out of proportion, lashed out at someone for something that they really had no business in, or secretly rejoiced when someone who has wronged them suffers. It is only the ridiculous extremes that he takes these thoughts that is abnormal.

Right, now onto the next question: how are the settings important and what do they tell us about the author’s thoughts?

In Earthquake in Chile the setting is a more rural, developing area. Kleist basically portrays this as a hive of superstition and religious violence. Perhaps he thought of modern European cities to be beyond that sort of thing. He does also write as though this is a place of love and generosity, most notably when his characters are in the actual forest. I suspect he likely  shared many of Rousseau’s thoughts on civilization. Schnitzler’s story gives a similar impression, but his criticism is pointed directly at urban Europe. His world is filled with arrogant, obnoxious, chest-puffing lunatics. Gustl is completely self-entitled and self-absorbed and even the baker is appallingly rude and confrontational. We also see a critique of a “culture of shame,” as we see that Gustl derives his entire sense of worth from the perceptions of others and societal expectations of him. There is certainly no room for the simple joys present in Earthquake in Chile in this story.


Make the Kallipolis Just Again

It takes a great deal of integrity to admit one is wrong. I do not have this integrity and fortunately neither did Plato. However, despite our many disagreements that will never truly be solved I do think that in light of America’s most recent election, Plato does deserve some credit. Congrats, Plato. You were sort of right about something. Don’t let it go to your head.

In celebration of such a rare event, I have put together a short dialogue. Hope you all enjoy.



COOPEREON: Good evening from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. I’m Coopereon and will moderating tonight’s debate. The first question is: Socrates you claim that only a true philosopher can rule over a city. Who is a philosopher and who is not?

SOCRATES: Philosophers are those people who are passionately devoted to and love the things with which knowledge deals, as the others are devoted to and love all things with which belief deals. The latter love and look at beautiful sounds, colours, and things of that sort, but cannot every bear the idea that the beautiful itself is a thing that is.

COOPEREON: Thank you, Socrates. Trumpidus, same question to you.

TRUMPIDUS: Look, here’s the story. I want to make the kallipolis just again. I’m going to be able to do it. I don’t believe Socrates will. He’s been a disaster as a philosopher. He was asked what justice is. He couldn’t answer the question. He didn’t know. I’m not a fan of Socrates. He’s a nasty guy. A really nasty guy.

COOPEREON:  All right. Let’s move on to the subject of forms. Socrates, how can someone gain knowledge of these forms?

SOCRATES: The realm revealed through sight should be likened to a prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside it to the sun’s power. And if you think of the upward journey and the seeing of things above as an upward journey of the soul to the intelligIble realm–


SOCRATES: Only god knows whether it is true–

TRUMPIDUS: Wrong. You’re wrong. The allegory of the cave is the worst allegory maybe ever created anywhere, but certainly ever created in this city. He’s been doing this for 30 years. And why hasn’t he made the allegories better? The allegory of the cave is defective. So you say to yourself, why didn’t he make the right allegory? This is one of the worst allegories ever made by anyone in history.

SOCRATES: So you think I quibble do you?

TRUMPIDUS: Excuse me. Quiet. You were very much involved — excuse me. My turn. You were very much involved in every aspect of this city. Very much. And you do have experience. I say the one thing you have over me is experience, but it’s bad experience, because what you’ve done has turned out badly — Our guardians are fleeing the city. They’re going to Thebes. They’re going to many other cities. You look at what Sparta is doing to our country in terms of training our guardians. They’re taking our guardians, and there’s nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight. And we have a winning fight. So we’re losing our good guardians, so many of them.

COOPEREON: We have to move on to the final question. Do you believe your opponent is just?


TRUMPIDUS:  Well, I have much better judgement than he does. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better reason than he has, you know? He doesn’t have the look. He doesn’t have the justness. I said he doesn’t have the justness. And I don’t believe he does have the justness. To be in charge of this city, you need tremendous justness. Socrates is the unjustest person on stage right now. Thrasymachus said Socrates has very bad reason. This is a perfect example of it. I am going to make the kallipolis just again. It’s going to be very, very just. It’s going to be tremendously just. And it’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch.

COOPEREON: Your response, Socrates?

SOCRATES: No comment.