The Reading List: Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History

I currently participate in a small reading group with colleagues from the Political Science, Romance Languages and Linguistics, and Religion Departments. Many of the works we have read explore the relationship between politics and religion in the context of modernity, and we recently discussed Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004.  Fasolt is Professor emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, and he has written extensively on political, social, and legal thought in medieval and early modern Europe. The Limits of History is noteworthy for its use of a relatively narrow historical case study—an examination of the work of the seventeeth-century German scholar Hermann Conring (1606-1681)—as the springboard for a broad historiographical critique. Fasolt’s engaging and lively analysis moves deftly from close readings of Conring’s works on political authority to a wide-ranging theoretical examination of the social and political implications of historical research.

This work is of particular interest to me in connection with my own research on Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrimage sites, specifically my exploration of historical narratives employed by advocates for the authenticity of Batathota cave temple (shown above in my 2016 photograph) as the true site of Divaguhava, the Cave of the [Buddha’s] Midday Rest, one of the sixteen great pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka linked to the tradition that Gotama Buddha visited the island three times during his lifetime. For those who know something about the modern history of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourses, it is probably not surprising to observe that these narratives, as identified and employed by advocates for the site, are not simply collections of “facts” about the past; rather, even a cursory analysis suggests that these narratives, whether as transmitted through published texts or mediated through oral accounts presented by lay officials at the site, serve a variety of social ends that might be characterized as “political” or “religious” (both of which are vexed categories that demand careful unpacking, particularly when contrasted with one another). What is less obvious is the political work accomplished by my own historical analysis, and this is precisely where Fasolt’s analysis provides some crucial insights.

The substance of Fasolt’s critique is relatively straightforward. He seeks to raise historians’ awareness of the links between historical analysis and the emergence of several key features of western modernity. According to Fasolt, freedom and progress depend upon the distinction between past and present, which the work of historians creates. Historians, through their commitment to discovering what “really” happened in the past on the basis of historical evidence, make possible the emergence of an individual subjectivity characterized by freedom from the past. The doing of history, he suggests, has become so naturalized that we have lost sight of the social and political conflicts that gave rise to it. He writes: “History enlists the desire for knowledge about the past to meet a deeper need: the need for power and independence, the need to have done with the past and to be rid of things that cannot be forgotten. Whatever knowledge it may pick up along the way is but a means toward that end” (Introduction). Thus historical work is an exercise of power, one that can have dangerous consequences, particularly if those who undertake it regard it as “a natural, neutral, harmless, and universally applicable form of thought” (32). As he puts it: “The past, as a familiar saying goes, is a foreign country. Historians are just as active in invading that foreign country, conquering its inhabitants, subjecting them to their discipline, and annexing their territories to the possessions of the present as any imperialist who ever sought to impose his power on colonies abroad. To call their activity a conquest is no mere figure of speech. It is a perfectly accurate description of history’s political effect” (Introduction).

Does this lead him to conclude that we must stop doing history? Not at all. The problem isn’t that we seek knowledge about the past. Rather, the danger of an unreflective historical consciousness is its intrinsic imperialism, at least when it is universalized and naturalized by the quest for objectivity: “History, in all its variations, continues to draw strength from the conviction that there is nothing wrong with the standards of objectivity, only with their implementation” (35). Drawing on the metaphor of a camera, he describes those who operate within an historical consciousness as acting “like the photographer who never looks at anything except through the lens of his camera. We seem to have lost the ability to recognize that history is merely one way of looking at the world, a good way (because our freedom depends on it), but one that neither shows everything to us nor shows anything without refraction” (32). Evoking the language of religion (which is surprisingly absent from his analysis of Conring’s own works), he observes: “Seen from outside … history rather appears to be the intellectual form that secularized Christianity has given to its preoccupation with the salvation of the soul. It is the same preoccupation that was in earlier times cast in the forms of theology and canon law. History is the ritual examination (especially by experts officially trained and licensed) of certain objects (mostly preserved in archives, libraries, and museums) without which the distinction between past and present could not support the weight placed on it by the established church— that modern church embodied in the nationstate whose symbols are printed on every dollar bill and whose members worship at the altar of nature. History serves to keep the modern world united. It is linked to violence in the same way that Christianity was formerly linked to the Crusades” (230).

These are powerful assertions, and they raise troubling implications for those of us who, like myself, regard historical analysis as foundational to our critical work. How does it reposition, for example, the way that I think about my work on Batathota cave temple? While I am only beginning to attempt to work through the implications of Fasolt’s historiographical critique, at least one possible direction for further reflection comes to mind: the recognition that historical discourses are culturally embedded in complex ways, both in the Euro-American tradition of Buddhist studies within which my own work is situated, and in the postcolonial emergence of Sri Lankan nationalist and religious discourses. What is at stake in asserting that a particular event is “historical,” for example, the visit of Gotama Buddha to a particular Sri Lankan cave? The asking and answering of that question by lay officials at Batathota cave temple, and by me as a North American scholar of Buddhism, point to important areas of convergence and difference that I hope to explore in greater depth as a result of having encountered Fasolt’s rich and illuminating book.

Constantin Fasolt. 2013. The Limits of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

The Reading List: Margaret Atwood

Recently a colleague put together a dystopian fiction reading group. We get together and discuss how speculative narratives of a terrible future can illuminate our lives under a president that many fear will make our present reality leap forward into that future. The first book we discussed is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopia that takes place in the near future in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts. The book appeared in 1986, when I was in high school in Boston (and two years after 1984 had us all thinking about Orwell’s dystopic future). I read Atwood’s book a few years later, in college, and haven’t returned to it since then, so this was a welcome excuse for me to re-read it. In addition, I had just finished re-reading Atwood’s Year of the Flood because I had assigned it to my class: “Religious Perspectives on Sustainability.” (After all, what is “sustainability” but a story we tell ourselves about the future?) So I looked forward to reading The Handmaid’s Tale again in light of her more recent work and after so many of my own formative years have intervened.

The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a society in the grip of a theocratic tyranny. Religion in the book is wholly negative, a thing of control, hypocrisy, and fear. The Year of the Flood is part of a series of novels called the “MaddAddam Trilogy.” The first book, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003, The Year of the Flood in 2009, and the final book, MaddAddam, in 2013, so they are much more recent and the product, perhaps, of a more mature author. Somehow during those years between 1986 and 2003, Atwood has maybe not let go of her judgment of religion (or people who profess to be religious), but made her critique of it less vitriolic, and at the same time broadened her depictions of religion to incorporate hope and love as well as fear and hate.

The irony is that the epilogue at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves the reader with a more hopeful sense of the future — that the religious unmaking of society and re-making of it into something inhumane and literally barren — is only a blip in human history, a short and distasteful meandering off the path of if not progress, at least social stability. In a way, this negating of the horrific consequences of theocracy works to emphasize how wrong and powerless those who seek to rule that way actually are. It also makes sense of the way the book is somewhat one-dimensional: the society she creates has no history and no future, like a laboratory experiment that cannot be moved outside of its controlled environment. However, in our reading group we agreed on the chilling realism of how the state easily took control of the financial sector, making it impossible for women to control their own money, and how this combination of technology and patriarchal ideology so effectively subjugated half of the population in a matter of hours.

In MaddAddam, all of American (and Canadian, and in fact the entire global) society is implicated in Atwood’s dystopia, and the destruction goes far beyond the social world, infecting the animals, plants, and earth itself. Yet the group that manages to survive the “waterless flood” does so at least in part because of their ability to embrace religious rituals, worldviews, and morality, creating a blend of ecological science and Christianity that they form into a religion that literally works to save their lives. They value the effects of ritual to bond people together, the meditative practices that cultivate a sense of connectedness between humans and non-human beings like bees or pigs, and the mantra-like performance of recitations that allow them to remember the past and the heroes of the earth, like Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. Although not all of the members of the religion “believe” in it, their practice of it reflects not hypocrisy, as it does in The Handmaid’s Tale, but a pragmatic and realistic embrace of religion in spite of doubts and skepticism.

These differences give us insight into how authors of speculative fiction can reflect the fears and concerns of their times. While The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on the growing power of evangelical Protestant Christian males to control women’s bodies, lives, and even minds, in MaddAddam the “bad guys” are scientists and business people, who seek to control the genomes of humans, animals, and plants, with little thought for a future beyond the deposit of profits into the bank account.

In the 1980s, “Liberal” America (and Canada) was grappling with a perceived sudden re-animation of a politically active conservative Christian voting bloc and culture. The prevailing narrative of the preceding decades among the “mainline” Protestants told of a growing ecumenicalism, an assumption that religious practice and choices should be private, and the embrace of a civil religion that was bland enough to accept any and every “god” and yet religious enough to distinguish us Americans from the “godless Communists.” (See Robert Bellah, and Will Herberg) Sectarianism – the championing of one version of Jesus over any other – or even any public Jesus talk at all, was unseemly, especially for someone in an elected position. John F. Kennedy had given his speech, almost unthinkable today, denying that his religious commitment would influence his actions as president.

In 1980 all three candidates for president professed themselves evangelical Christians, a clear sign that the religious narrative was changing. With the election of Ronald Reagan, the so-called moral majority gained a public voice and began a struggle, from the school-board level on up, to gain political ascendancy. The Equal Rights Amendment had failed to pass. The perceived progress made in racial justice left feminists of all races feeling that identity politics downplayed gender in favor of elevating male leadership in movements like the Black Power Movement. The triumph for women’s rights of Roe v Wade came under attack, and the anti-abortion movement began to gain a more vocal platform. It began to inspire individuals to threaten and carry out attacks on clinics where abortions were performed. Operation Rescue was formed in 1986, with an explicitly Christian rationale. It is easy to see how Atwood can find a dark inspiration in the news stories of the day.

Likewise, in our contemporary era, where news and social media are filled with stories of genetically modified crops that reap massive profits for global agri-corps who sell both the seeds and the pesticides that they are engineered to resist, and drug companies creating designer drugs that exist solely to replace previous drugs now available in cheaper generic forms, and oil companies proclaim their commitment to a “green” future while seeking government subsidies to pull ever dirtier fossil fuels out of the ground, it is easy to see where Atwood’s inspiration for the MaddAddam series comes from. However, the way she depicts religion in these books has become more humane and humble in the case of the God’s Gardeners, and funnier in the case of the oil-based version of Christianity that one of her characters runs afoul of during the course of the story.

Although the future is bleaker in The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s own vision of humans and the religions they create and embrace seems more open to both the mystical possibilities of a world without clear-cut moral answers, and to the way religion can be a powerful force for human resiliency in the face of civilizational collapse. The Year of the Flood can speak satisfyingly to both the religious seeker and the anthropologist. Its dystopic vision reflects how our fears have changed, from threats to religious freedom to threats to the continued existence of humanity, and perhaps even the earth itself. Personally, I’m very glad to have Atwood’s characters demonstrate a way to persist with grace, grit, and humanity, with or without religion.