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Moved by the Past

Moved by the Past: Discontinuity and Historical Mutation

Eelco Runia
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    Moved by the Past
    Book Description:

    Historians go to great lengths to avoid confronting discontinuity, searching for explanations as to why such events as the fall of the Berlin Wall, George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, and the introduction of the euro logically develop from what came before.Moved by the Pastradically breaks with this tradition of predating the past, incites us to fully acknowledge the discontinuous nature of discontinuities, and proposes to use the fact that history is propelled by unforeseeable leaps and bounds as a starting point for a truly evolutionary conception of history.

    Integrating research from a variety of disciplines, Eelco Runia identifies two modes of being "moved by the past": regressive and revolutionary. In the regressive mode, the past may either overwhelm us -- as in nostalgia -- or provoke us to act out what we believe to be solidly dead. When we are moved by the past in a revolutionary sense, we may be said to embody history: we burn our bridges behind us and create accomplished facts we have no choice but to live up to. In the final thesis ofMoved by the Past, humans energize their own evolution by habitually creating situations ("catastrophes" or sublime historical events) that put a premium on mutations. This book therefore illuminates how every now and then we chase ourselves away from what we were and force ourselves to become what we are. Proposing a simple yet radical change in perspective, Runia profoundly reorients how we think and theorize about history.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53757-5
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-X)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. XI-XVIII)

    Sometimes, in unguarded moments, I mutter to my students that “historians don’t think.” I usually add that there’s nothing wrong with their mental abilities but that the discipline puts a premium on “sorting things out,” and that consequently the history departments spit out specialists inorganizingthings who have somehow lost the capacity to tolerate messiness. And “thinking,” I go on, is turning things upside down, is awakening dogs that lie sleeping, is taking things apart, is, in short, willfully making a mess. In most disciplines, of course, being allergic to messiness is no issue at all—in history, however,...

  4. 1 Burying the Dead, Creating the Past
    (pp. 1-16)

    The earth in Beaumont Hamel, just northwest of Thiepval, is an undulating green. The trenches have been partly filled up, the ridges of the bomb craters are eroded, and patches of grass and moss cover the softened contours like the down on the antlers of a stag. I ask myself: why would someone like me visit the place where the twentieth century was born from Flemish mud and French debris, the site of the battlefields of the Somme, Ypres, and Verdun? That descendants of the soldiers who perished in the Great War make pilgrimages to where it all happened may,...

  5. 2 “Forget About It”
    (pp. 17-48)

    On April 10, 2002, in a live television broadcast, the director of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) presented the first copy of the long-awaited NIOD report about the “events prior to, during, and after the fall of Srebrenica” in 1995 to the Dutch minister of education, culture and science. In three massive volumes (totaling 3,394 pages), four book-length “partial studies,” and a CD-ROM containing another eleven such studies,² the NIOD described and analyzed the inability of a battalion of Dutch peacekeepers to protect the Bosnian Muslims herded together in the safe area of Srebrenica. The contract between the...

  6. 3 Presence
    (pp. 49-83)

    Philosophers of history have long been led astray by the phenomenon of “meaning”—first by pursuing it, then by forswearing it. The story of how philosophers of history have read meaning into history ends somewhere in the 1960s. The story of how they have tried to read itout ofit begins with Geyl and Popper and is—though there is not much of an audience left—still being told. The first story is much too long and much too fascinating to tell here, in this chapter, but there is no escaping saying at least something about how—in the...

  7. 4 Spots of Time
    (pp. 84-105)

    Most historians seem to believe that such a thing as the past exists. Of course, if you ask these historians straightaway they will admit that no, indeed, the past is just a thing of the past. The next moment, however, you can hear them talk happily about their—or, at least as probable,our—“relationship with the past.” And there’s no escaping it: if you define yourself as having a relationship with something or someone, you thereby indicate that you believe that that something or that personexistsin a way that is on a par with the way you...

  8. 5 Thirsting for Deeds: Schiller and the Historical Sublime
    (pp. 106-119)

    As a Dutchman I may not have quite the right credentials to comment on Friedrich schiller’s vision of the historical sublime. Schiller writes: “Who doesn’t prefer to marvel at the great contest between fertility and destruction in Sicily’s farmlands, doesn’t prefer to feast his eye on Scotland’s wild waterfalls and hazy mountains, than gaping, in rectilinear Holland, at the unsavoury victory of perseverance over the most stubborn of elements?”² And Schiller is indubitably right. Tourists looking for the sublime shouldn’t visit Holland—though with the murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Theo van Gogh in 2004 and with the...

  9. 6 Into Cleanness Leaping: The Vertiginous Urge to Commit History
    (pp. 120-143)

    In one of the many memorable scenes in Robert Musil’sDer Mann ohne EigenschaftenGeneral Stumm is looking for the one idea that will bring his country redemption. He plans to lay this “great redeeming idea” at the feet of his beloved Diotima, confident that his trophy will make an indelible impression on her. In order to find his prize, Stumm visits the place where it surely can be found: the Viennese Court library. For the general, who is not very comfortable with books, the library is “enemy territory” and consequently, for him, locating the “great redeeming idea,” capturing it,...

  10. 7 Inventing the New from the Old
    (pp. 144-157)

    Right now, in the twenty-first century, our involvement with our past much more resembles the way history figured in the eighteenth century than how it functioned in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. Today’s equivalents of the eighteenth-century antiquarians—the professionaleruditithat swarm in and around the history departments—are diligently bringing chunks of the past to light, while historians who are less than professional—yes, downright amateurs—make off with all the loot and write the books that sell. The task of trying to say sensible and timely things about the process of history...

  11. 8 Crossing the Wires in the Pleasure Machine
    (pp. 158-178)

    Though history—res gestaeas well ashistoria rerum gestarum—progresses by leaps and bounds, the mind of the historian is inclined, in the words of Henri Bergson, to “neglect the part of novelty or of creation inherent in the free act.” Our intellect, Bergson goes on, “will always substitute for action itself an imitation artificial, approximative, obtained by compounding the old with the old and the same with the same.”² If there is one single issue that deserves to shape discussions about the relation of history and theory in the upcoming years, it is, i think, how to circumvent...

  12. 9 Our Own Best Enemy: How Humans Energize Their Evolution
    (pp. 179-202)

    “As for me,” Tocqueville sighs in hisSouvenirs, “I don’t know where this long voyage will end; I’m tired of repeatedly mistaking misleading vapors for the shore, and i often ask myself whether the terra firma that we have sought for so long really exists, or whether our destiny might not rather be to ply the seas eternally!”² Though Tocqueville’s lament was prompted by a specific occasion—the fact that in 1848 he had once more to live through a revolution—the sentiment it expresses is a more general aftereffect of the French revolution: the hesitant realization that the moment...

  13. Coda
    (pp. 203-204)
    Walter Benjamin

    There is a picture by Klee calledAngelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned towards the past. Where a chain of events appears beforeus,hesees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 205-236)
  15. Index
    (pp. 237-242)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-246)