Friday, 21 October 2016

A Berlin Conversation (Part One)

An extract from the book Destroy Nineveh! Wiping Out the Past (forthcoming). The conversations in the book concern how we often contribute to the destruction of the past through the means by which we try to make sense of it. The conversations are set between 2001 and 2016, in and around Berlin. The book is in six parts, and three extracts are available via this blog. 

TY, October 21 2016. 


A seminar room at Humboldt University in Berlin, less than ten days after the attack on the twin towers in New York in 2001. The room is one of those reconstructed after the immense damage to the fabric of the university, during WW2. To reach it you have to go up the main stairs from the ground floor in the main building, and pass a quotation on history by Karl Marx, in letters of gold incised in black marble, who was a student of the university. Since for most of the post WW2 period, the university was in East Berlin, the rebuilding of the university was controlled by the communist party – hence the prominence of the Marx quotation.  The quotation is ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’

Round the seminar table are around eight students, in addition to Dr. Sadiq Kishati, and Dr. Ralf Ganz. Dr Kishati is chairing a discussion, which should have been exclusively concerned with the nature of history, historical inquiry, the interpretation of evidence, and the models and paradigms in which history can be understood.  However the event of September eleventh has naturally intruded on the thoughts and discussion of the participants.

Dr Kishati asked if those around the table had heard about the remark about the twin towers, made by the avant-garde musician KarlHeinz Stockhausen. Some had, some had not. So Kishati repeated Stockhausen’s statement, which was to the effect that the assault on the twin towers was one of the greatest works of art ever made. ‘Naturally this has caused uproar, since the ‘work of art’ involved the death of thousands of people’. ‘It sounds an incredibly insensitive and inappropriate things for anyone to say, especially by an established artist, as Stockhausen is’ was the response from the far end of the table. Another student said ‘but then, he thinks he comes from a planet revolving around the star Sirius’. There was laughter in the room. 

Dr Kishati waited for the laughter to subside. ‘So he says,’ was his response. ‘But I wonder what you think he meant by the remark, however ill-judged it might have been to say it so close to the event?’ There was a short pause, and then a graduate student named Wolf Holliger began to speak. “It was a deliberate attack on something which cannot be directly attacked by a subversive organisation. Not in purely military terms. The World Trade Center buildings are emblematic of global capitalism. You can’t easily attack the idea of global capitalism, but you can attack something which symbolises it’. Kishati responded, saying, ‘so you think Stockhausen meant by describing the assault as a work of art, that it was a symbolic attack?’

Holliger responded in the affirmative. ‘And that makes it a piece of art – in Stockhausen’s mind at least, since art works with symbols, symbolic constructions, and symbolic acts. Plus the fact that it was captured on many cameras, meaning that the event has been represented in terms of images.’ ‘Indeed’, said Kishati. ‘And images which will haunt our imaginations.’ Kishati paused for a moment, and Doctor Ganz took the moment to remark that ‘the attack was clearly conceived in terms of spectacle, in a place occupied by millions of people who would see and experience the attack. It wasn’t about removing the function of the World Trade Center in global capitalism, but about showing that someone really hated either capitalism, or the US, which is the engine of global capitalism. Which means that since the function of the attack was symbolic, rather than representing a real and damaging attack on global capitalism, it might be considered as a piece of art.’

‘Ok’ said Dr Kishati, ‘We’ll take that as our starting point for today’s discussion. Mainly because the event can be understood as a representation of something beyond the act itself. Which is an aspect of the meaning of history. I think we have just witnessed something of immense historical importance, not just for the United States, not just for global capitalism, the people of the world, but, in the long-term at least, also for the perpetrators.‘

Kishati reached into a folder sitting on the table slightly to his left, and took out two or three sheets of papers. ‘We might begin be asking ourselves what our understanding of history is, given that there is an element of spectacle involved in it. Does anyone want to attempt a definition?’ He looked around the table, and saw no takers. Then after a few seconds, another graduate student, named Jan Schmollen, shifted in his chair, and began to speak. ‘Well we know it is about ordering information. It is also about asking questions, in consequence of the need to order information’
Kishati smiled. ‘That’s quite correct. Historical writing as we understand it began with the Greeks, and their word for it was ‘historia’, and it always implied both ordering and questioning patterns of information. Other earlier cultures wrote about events also, but it isn’t always clear the basis on which they are recording events. They are almost exclusively official and royal accounts of the actions and deeds of kings. However accounts written at different periods of a reign might relate past events in quite different ways, which is difficult for us to understand. The point does not seem to have been consistency, and what they understood to be to be true is often unknown to us.’

‘One Egyptian pharaoh – or rather his scribes - wrote about a campaign in Syria in which he fought a great battle against the Hittites. He described it as a victory. This was the first contemporary account of the event to come out of the ground when scientific excavation had begun. Unfortunately for the pharaoh, eventually a Hittite account of the same battle emerged from an excavation, and related things differently, suggesting that the Egyptian king was lucky to escape with his life. It would be easy to assume that there was a heavy element of propaganda in the Pharaoh’s account of the battle, and quite possibly also in the Hittite account. At this distance it is hard to say what the difference in the accounts means. But they are quite different, so whatever the objective was in writing about the battle, it wasn’t about what we might imagine to be an objective account. They may have had no such concept.’

Kishati paused, and adjusted his spectacles on his nose. ‘However, the origin of historical writing might have been quite similar. The word ‘historia’ joins together a number of ideas which we do not automatically connect in modern times. Such as the importance of blood, which is often referred to in antiquity. By this I mean the importance of the family and family connections. This concept was often extended to social groups such as the gens, the clan, or the tribe. It was an important idea in Greece, in ancient Rome, and also in Mesopotamia and in Egypt.  The beginnings of historia therefore can be understood in terms of a response to the importance of social ordering which was understood in terms of blood relations.’

‘Ancient times were often violent times. There could be internecine warfare, war between tribes, or between groups of tribes. It could be war against an alliance, or a war to make an alliance possible; a war for resources, for trade, a war to enforce justice and rights, or to establish or reinforce power and prestige. Any number of things in fact. Often there would be several grievances wrapped together. And almost always the gods were understood to be involved in the struggle, as we can see strikingly illustrated in Homer’s Iliad. I will return to this aspect of what history is a little later.’

‘The point I’m making is that change was often an important aspect of life in antiquity. Change could happen because of the nature of personal relationships. Marriages, dynastic relationships, personal and tribal enmities, changes in climate, bad harvests, changes in regional power, the demand for tribute, and so on.’

Kishati paused for a few seconds. ‘Change needs to be explained, because it happened all around, and often it was an unpredictable phenomenon. The same is true today, but we use a different set of models and approaches in order to explain things which happen. We think our modes of explanation are generally more powerful and accurate than those in use in the ancient world, and in fact we use our tools retrospectively to understand what was going on in antiquity.’

‘We wouldn’t for example argue that if something bad happened in antiquity, it was because the gods were displeased for some reason. We wouldn’t look for some fault in ritual observance, nor would we look at a list of omens for a clue as to the intentions of the divine, as the Romans did. We wouldn’t look at the entrails of a sacrificial animal in order to gain an insight into the cause of the ill-fortune.’

‘Not only that, we would not look seriously at their contemporary understanding of the event, or their attempts to clarify and rectify the problem. All these things are simply nonsense, and so they are studiously disregarded by us. We look at the event and its context, and look for the kinds of causes which we expect to be operable in the modern world, and interpret accordingly. We look for the material, political and social causes which lie beneath most if not all public events.’

‘In doing so, we have effectively removed a key concept from consideration in the ancient world, which they understood to be intimately involved in change, and which they considered to be one of the causal factors of great importance to the conduct of human life.’

‘We have removed the divine. And we have removed the gods. That is an important step in making events, and the human story in antiquity, intelligible to us. But it means that we are not using the materials available to us to analyse the ancient world in terms which they themselves would have understood. They would have some grasp of what sense we make of their world, since essentially what we do is analyse the past in terms of Aristotle’s concept of the efficient cause, which is what we are doing when we explain things in terms of a materialist conception of the world. But they would have thought of this as a very limited mode of explanation, which is why they employed another three principle causal mechanisms. These other causal mechanisms are the formal, the material, and the final causes.’

‘There is no need to discuss the other causal mechanisms in any detail, at least not at the moment. We think we do not employ them, though we do. We simply do not single them out as causal mechanisms. It is important however to be clear that, though there is a material cause available to Aristotle, that is not the same thing as what we now understand as part of the materialist conception of the world. When we look at antiquity in terms of that conception, we are looking mainly at the efficient and physical cause of change. That is what we think lies beneath all change, though it may not be obvious to us unless we explore the evidence in detail.’

‘The upshot of the materialist conception of the world can be understood in different ways. One of these is the implicit assertion that everyone in antiquity was wrong as far as their understanding of the true forces acting in their world is concerned. That’s quite an assertion. We aren’t saying that they understood some aspects of their world, but hadn’t yet found their way to a modern interpretation of their reality. We are saying that they were for the most part plain wrong, and about most things. A world populated by gods, demons and spirits, replete with magic and ritual, and the worship of divine images, the sacrifice of animals, and the ritual examination of the entrails of sheep and other animals, in order to understand the will and intention of the gods, is a world of nonsense. And as it is nonsense to us, it was nonsense then too, though, for whatever reasons, they failed to understand this.’

Ralf Ganz looked over to Kishati, and said: ‘I think you are talking about false consciousness’.Kishati looked across the table, and smiled. ‘I am indeed talking about false consciousness. Which is one of the explanatory mechanisms invoked by the creator of the materialist conception of the world, Karl Marx, to explain how it is that we find so many different modes of understanding among the human population. Most of which are nonsense, as we know.’

‘The idea of course is that whatever people actually believe about their world, they are actually functioning within an array of societal and physical forces which we understand in terms of materialism. That is Marx’s great advance, and his legacy to the modern world.’
Ganz looked over again, and began to speak. ‘That insight did not arrive all of a piece, and it is perhaps worth spending a few minutes about its origin’. Kishati signalled that he was happy to hand over to Ganz.

‘Most of you at this university will know that Marx’s doctoral dissertation was on the Greek philosopher Democritus, who was the inventor of an ancient form of materialism, which sought to understand reality in terms of the interplay of small objects which he called atoms. So we got a material conception of the world, and the very beginnings of atomic theory from the same person. So Marx was interested in materialism from his days as a student.’

‘The actual route by which we got Marxist theory is actually quite complicated, and involves an engagement with a body of ideas apparently wholly at odds with a materialist understanding of the mechanics of change in the world. The explanation for this may be that since Marx was looking, not just at the mechanics of change in the world, but wanted to create a doctrine in which man could be the principal agent of change, rather than an intellectual framework which merely provided an explanation of change.‘

‘Firstly, it is important to know that Democritus did not necessarily make a radical break with other Greek ideas about the world in creating his materialist theory. It is perfectly possible to understand it within a Parmenidean picture of the world, in which only one thing is ultimately real, and that one thing does not change, and is wholly transcendent of physical reality. But the physical world is filled with a near infinity of things, and Parmenides did not deny the evidence of our senses, except to say that the world of the many is a species of illusion.’

‘We do not dwell on that way of looking at things however, and prefer to understand the world in terms of an uncritical acceptance of the existence and reality of matter, and the physical forces which are associated with it. That is the principal difference between materialism in antiquity, and modern materialism.’ 

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