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.

What now? Scholarly Work in the Wake of Trump’s Election

By Professor Vicki L. Brennan

In the days following the election I felt as though I were in a fog, upset about what seemed to be a validation of the role that misogyny and racism had played in the election, anxious about what a Trump presidency would mean for the United States and the world more generally, and unsure about what I could or even should do to respond to and act on any of this. I joined the ranks of many who made donations to nonprofit organizations. I vowed to make my own political commitments more clear and also to avoid the insularity and negativity found on social media sites. But still, I wondered (and still do): What now? What role do we as scholars have to play in Trump’s America? These questions seem especially vital given both the nature of our expertise (see my colleagues comments above for evidence of that) but also due to the fact that our expertise seems less valued and respected than ever before in a supposedly “post-fact” world.

Scholars of religion are responding in a number of ways. What follows are links to statements, op-eds, and analyses that have appeared in the weeks since the election that provide some answers to the question: “What now?”

Disciplinary Resolutions and Statements: The annual meetings of scholarly organizations most relevant to my own research and teaching interests took place soon after the election; the American Anthropological Association meeting from November 16-20; the American Academy of Religion from November 19-22; and the African Studies Association from December 1-3. I decided to stay home this year, so I viewed the meetings from a distance, via text messages from friends, live-tweeting feeds, and blog posts made by those in attendance. Based on these observations, it seems that for many these meetings were sites for the building of solidarity and plans for action.

A number of the scholarly associations with which members of our department are associated issued resolutions or statements in response to the election:

Op-Eds, Blog posts, and other Analyses: Scholars of religion have also been publishing their takes on the election in a variety of venues. These are just a few of the things I have found useful for understanding the role that religion played in the election, the impact that a Trump presidency might have on religious communities in the United States, as well as possible answers to the question: What do we do now?

Omid Safi writes about how to respond to hatred with love at On Being, and uses the iconic film Star Wars as a potential guide to our action:

Somehow our means and our ends have to be consistent. We can’t hate our way out of Trump. There is still the need for love, for love to move into the public spaces. There is still the need for that love to be called justice when it is public, and for that same love to be tenderness when it moves inward. In confronting the Dark Side, let us never turn to the Dark Side. Let us not become the very quality we so despise.

In the days since the election, various lines from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon have been echoing in my mind–certainly his observation that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, the second time as farce”–but more crucially his reminder that we live in a world that has already been shaped by historical forces:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Historians have much to offer to our understanding of our own time, how we got here, and how we might move forward. For an example of how historians of religion are responding to Trump’s election see: Kelly J. Baker in the NY Times on the alt-right, the KKK, and white-collar Supremacy. The bloggers at Religion in American History have also made a number of posts on the election, including one by Elesha Coffman on conservatism in the 1980s and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the current moment and another by Janine Giordano Drake on the Federalist papers and the electoral college.

With the nod to Marx we might also note the need to fully comprehend the role that economics–and particularly the rise of inequality globally–played in the US election. Cornel West writes on the end of American neoliberalism:

What is to be done? First we must try to tell the truth and a condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. For 40 years, neoliberals lived in a world of denial and indifference to the suffering of poor and working people and obsessed with the spectacle of success. Second we must bear witness to justice. We must ground our truth-telling in a willingness to suffer and sacrifice as we resist domination. Third we must remember courageous exemplars like Martin Luther King Jr, who provide moral and spiritual inspiration as we build multiracial alliances to combat poverty and xenophobia, Wall Street crimes and war crimes, global warming and police abuse – and to protect precious rights and liberties.

For those of us who want to integrate these historical lessons into our classes, Savage Minds includes a link to the Trump 2.0 syllabus in their round-up of materials on how to teach the current moment.

As scholars we need to be able to speak to the questions of truth, facts, and reason that have emerged in the wake of Trump’s rise. I hope to write about this issue in more depth in the future, since questions of religious “truth” and cultural forms of knowledge lie at the center of my research and teaching. For now, here are links to two articles that I find thought-provoking at this time: First, Biella Coleman discusses politics, performativity, truth, and lies in a post that offers a possible role that scholars who analyze religion might play in addressing our current crisis

Fake is only fake if you’ve bought into a notion of the real. And the question of what is real is even more urgent and vexed today. But theory and scholarship won’t get us out of this predicament. What we need is a pragmatic practice that recognizes the centrality of fantasy, emotions, fiction, performance, and myth for politics and political messaging.

And finally, Chimamanda Adichie reminds us that “Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about” on the website for the New Yorker:

Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion. Every precious ideal must be reiterated, every obvious argument made, because an ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. It does not have to be like this.