I’ve been re-reading a little book on Baudrillard because it’s the only thing that fits in the pocket of my brand new coat (excessive money spent – we’ll say no more about this). In it I’ve stumbled upon a section about Baudrillard’s relationship to history and his debt to Nietszche that really appeals to me. It goes like this:
Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Unfashionable Observations of 1874, criticised historical inquiry in his time for making the present look just like another episode, and the creative acts of individuals humble by comparison. It burdened individuals with more knowledge than they could absorb; it encouraged a resigned relativism because change implied that the present was unimportant; and it generated irony and cynicism because it engendered a sense of late arrival…”
When I was doing my doctorate I got really excited by a passage in Forster’s Maurice – it’s a fairly iconic passage used in a lot of scholarship in a fairly throwaway fashion. In it, the character of Dr Cornwallis, teaching young undergraduate men (including our hero) says of a piece of translation that they are about to undertake, “Omit: a reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”. I remember thinking this was extraordinarily radical considering how we now approach history. Current academic practice is one of dislocation – people in the past were nothing like us. They are incomprehensible to us by the standards that we generally operate by, and we have to hygenically and distantly analyse their behaviour with none of the emotional outbursts and resonances that we might use to examine contemporary matters.
This is considered true in basic historicist approaches, but even more true in historicist approaches to literature, where the assumption seems to be that one of the implicit acts of criticism is some kind of model-making of the minds of the audience (or author) of a work. Only by understanding the people do you understand the work. Personally I always thought this was a highly dubious intellectual move – particularly when undertaken in an absolutist fashion. Too many questions emerge from this kind of behaviour: Whose is the mind? Who does it represent? What about divergent readings from the period? Does it idealise a particular kind of reading or intepretation? Is the mind that we use to understand the text simply itself generated by us from the text itself?
Similarly there are problems with a complete lack of historicism, of course. It would be delightful to think that one could try and force a modern mind through a text without any historical information whatsoever, in such a way that they were encouraged to think about the text purely in terms of contemporary society – but it’s simply not possible. The mind constructs a fictional world as it reads – it contextualises, it tries to fit disparate and apparently nonsensical elements together. The practice of reading a work removed from historical context is simply an exercise in the conceptual reconstruction of that period. And this is never more true when you’re thinking about texts in other languages, where even basic comprehension the text requires a reconstructive leap.
So why is the statement in Maurice so challenging? Because it amounts to a statement that texts from outwith your cultural frame of reference aren’t just there to be examined analytically and distantly, nor even merely to undermine your assumptions of ‘normality’ and push you towards total moral relativity. Instead they can have very real and potent social and political effects. They are inevitably political, weapons / devices with no function other than to stimulate, entertain and use in argument and discussion to forward a case, a goal, a political end…