Translated by: Avi Pitchon
Image: “Display”, Yochai Avrahami
Can general statements regarding history be made? Because of the prevalent contemporary suspicion towards a certain kind of a philosophy of history, such statements have become nigh impossible. The kind of philosophical interest in history, which have been rendered marginal in recent decades, is the one striving to ascribe history with shape or meaning, to think about general forms of historical processes, historical rationale, an arrow of progress, or an overall narrative of human history. A philosophy of history that’s really no longer legitimate is that which thinks about History with a capital H. Philosophy, which was, at some stage, able to ask “what is history” – Hegel instantly springs to mind in this context – has largely become a thing of the past, a subject mainly taught as part of the history of philosophy.
The obvious evidence for this suspicion of the philosophy of history is a prevalent manner of a contemporary use of the term “historical”. The term is often utilised with no clear meaning, mainly in order to negate another meaning. In critical discourse it is often argued that various things – human sexuality, the economy, the family, the body – are “historical”. But a prevalent use of this term is negative: things are argued to be historical in order to say they’re not permanent, transient, not immanent, not natural or not universal.
Through Marx’s thought, I would like to present another line of thought: placing the adjective “historical” in the focus of philosophical thought about history. Marx imbues the adjective “historical”, that is to say, that whose existence is historical, with clear meaning, and not a strictly negative one. His thoughts about history, about History, should be read through his thought about the historical. However in order to do that it is necessary to do away with several accepted notions regarding Marx. Marx is one of the thinkers who are identified, among other things, with the illegitimate direction of considering an overall framework of history. Marx was indeed capable of seeing History, humanity’s entire history, as a subject for thought. How else could he possibly write an observation like “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”? Indeed, that possibility attributed to Marx’ thought posits the easiest avenue through which to critique him today. Karl Lowith, for example, argues that at the foundation of Marx’ historic thought lays a Jewish messianic grasp of a struggle between the spawn of light and the spawn of darkness. “The real driving force behind this perception is a transparent messianism which has its unconscious roots in Marx’s own being, even in his race”. Lowith continues: “It is the old Jewish messianism or prophetism – unaltered by two thousand years of economic history from handicraft to large-scale industry – and Jewish insistence on absolute righteousness which explains the idealistic basis of Marx’ materialism”. (It’s easy to ridicule a philosophical position that way – but one should note the absurdity of this refutal: a discrediting of an overall grasp of history in the name of a “Jewishness” existing unchanged, and unconscious, for 2,000 years).
The principal point to be raised regarding Lowith is that every overall grasp of history could look unfounded. Every statement that “history is (the progress of reason, an eternal recurrence, a pendulum movement, rise and fall, a circle or a triangle)” could seem equally arbitrary: a projection of an a-priori idea onto the infinite abyss of actual history. Yet this arbitrariness is the outcome of focusing our attention on the concept of general history. An encompassing concept of history would seem random when lacking a reflection on the mediation, the substance within which history is moulded into one form or the other. A philosophy of history which does not firstly ponder the historical, the meaning of being-in history, is doomed to seem arbitrary.
In the Grundrisse, Marx posits a complex conception of historicity, when he examines the relationship between the history of the economy and the development of economic thought. At the centre of his examination stands the emergence of the notion of labor in classical economic thought. This examination of the manner with which a concept is entangled with history is twofold: Marx presents a history of a concept, but while doing that, brings up a concept of history as well.
Marx writes that it was “an immense step forward” by Adam Smith when he brought up the general notion of labor as source of wealth. Economic traditions preceding Smith’s classical economics, such as those of the Physiocrats or the Mercantilists – traditions currently considered the pre-history of economics – sought the origin of wealth in a particular strand of activity: commerce, agriculture, production. Adam Smith was the first to present the abstract concept of labor as the source of wealth. This historical progression isn’t merely an intellectual achievement. It is not just a discovery of “the abstract expression for the simplest and most ancient relation in which human beings […] play the role of producers”. Smith’s achievement, Marx argues, is intertwined with economic history itself. The abstract notion of labor is a historical outcome of a society where labor itself had become abstract. “Indifference towards certain jobs is suitable to the form of society where individuals can easily shift from one work to another, and in which the specific line of work is for them an arbitrary matter”. When the relation of a person to his craft isn’t “natural”, organic, when a person can switch between jobs, one can think of work as an abstract concept. In a capitalist economy, where labor exists as an abstract phenomenon (We have “a jobs” and in the morning we go to “work”), can the abstract concept of labor emerge as well.
The simpler part of this argument by Marx is the connection of a concept to a historical reality. Concepts can emerge in a specific historical reality. But, with that we still haven’t said much. With that, Marx isn’t saying more than what a certain strand of intellectual history is saying, attributing an evolution in thought to actual historical transformation (but by doing so avoids saying something general about history: according to this line of thought, history always takes place elsewhere, with the history of thought merely reflecting actual history). A fuller concept of historicity is found in Marx’ addressing of Smith’s difficulty in developing the concept of labor: ”How difficult and great was this transition was may be seen from how Adam Smith himself from time to time still falls back into the Physiocratic system”. Here already transpires a rich notion of historicity, of being-in history. It is an understanding of historicity in terms of a limit to thought. Historicicy is characterised not only by a thought that becomes possible at a certain moment, but more so by what can not be thought. This historical characterisation is apparent in regards to the era preceding Adam Smith. A pre-capitalistic economy is one in which the abstract notion of labor cannot be thought. Understanding such an economy as historical, as part of a sequence leading to capitalist economy, consists of the fact that the abstract notion of labor is absent from it. It is of course a characterisation that can only be attributed retroactively, looking back from a later point in time. However, if historical knowing is a particular kind of knowing, it is necessarily entangled with what could be understood retroactively. Looking back, the real meaning of the organic, “natural” relationship between a person and their craft which is typical of pre-capitalist economy, is that the abstract concept of labor, as well as the actual framework of abstract labor, are absent from that time.
Marx continues to point that out: “This example of labor shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity–precisely because of their abstractness–for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and posses their full validity only for and within these relations.”
The abstract category “labor” is valid for all times. How come? The claim that human labour is the origin of economic value – the base stipulation of classical economics – can be presented as abstract and a-historical. Meaning, one can examine every society through the perspective of labor: how a society produces itself, who’s producing, how do the products of labor distributed, exchanged, change hands, and eventually, who lives on the back of who’s labor. That is the meaning of the “abstract” validity of the concept of labor for all times. It is not an absolute validity since in an actual sense, labor isn’t yet abstract. Social production isn’t organised according to this category (for example, a manufacturer is yet unable to write “work” in a chart alongside other means of production, and people do not go to “work”). For that reason, and from the perspective of labor as an abstract category, the correct way to describe pre-capitalist economy is as a period where the concept of labor is absent.
But Marx’s argument does not stop here. The idea of the limit, of the unthinkable as a historical characteristic, can also be applied to capitalist economy itself. Capitalist economy is the product of an actual abstraction of labor, that is to say of an actual manifestation of an abstract category, valid for all times. Yet, this unveiling also involves a concealing. What become invisible as the concept of labor emerges is precisely the historicity of that very concept. Precisely since it is abstractly valid for all times, the concept camouflages its own historicity, the fact that it is especially valid to capitalist economy. This blind-spot is apparent in Marx’ view of the way history simultaneously interprets and hides itself. The capitalist form of organisation, as the most complex economic form, provides a key for the understanding of previous forms. But this interpretative motion contains also an inner threat of the veiling of historical uniqueness. “The bourgeois economy thus supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society. One can understand tribute, tithe, etc., if one is acquainted with ground rent. But one must not identify them.”
Capitalist economy provides a key for the understanding of predecessor economies: capitalistic exploitation, profit-driven production or the employment of workers for the sake of accumulating surplus value, are the internal principle of previous exploitative relations. A feudal lord charging tribute or tithe, a craftsman who employs an apprentice, those are past means of accumulating surplus value. The principle of surplus value is wrapped, in those means, with various mystifications, such as the lord natural right to the land. Yet the motion of this interpretation provided by history itself is also a movement of veiling: to think of the relations between nobility and serfdom or between craftsmen and apprentices as economic exchange relations means missing the unique historicity of these relations, the fact that the abstract concepts of labour and exchange were absent from it. This threat is concealed within the abstract concepts themselves. Precisely because they’re abstract, and thus valid in some way – an abstract way! – for all times, they hide their own historicity.
Marx therefore portrays a complex relation between concept and history, the connecting thread of which is various kinds of limit to thought. The absence of a concept determines the historicity of one period, with what is possible or impossible to think in it. And in a similar way, the presence of this concept at another period determines what is thinkable or unthinkable at that time.
The limit to thought as defining historicity posits a few simple terms as a focus of a philosophy of history. It allows us to think about terms like “already”, “still”, “not yet”, which in a context of history necessitate philosophical thought. In some aspects feudal economy is “not yet” capitalist. In it, implicitly, are foundations that will assume full expression in capitalist economy, however it is not yet a capitalist economy. These are completely mundane terms, which still demand a philosophy of history. They demand and enable us to think about how a thing isn’t just what it is, but how it is already something else and how it is not something else just yet.
A view from psychoanalysis
Freud developed a similar framework for thought, not in the context of political thought but in the local context of the subject’s biography. This framework is particularly evident in the context of the way a person assumes sexual identity. In his essay “on the Sexual Theories of Children“, Freud describes the amusing ideas children develop in relation to questions no one is giving them direct answers for: how do children come to the world? What does marriage mean? What are the differences between men and women? Among the theories he details: in marriage parents urinate in front of one another or that marriage is when “two people show their behinds to each other (without being ashamed)”, and of course, the utmost important infantile theory according to which women have a penis, too.
What is the importance of these erroneous theories? The immediate answer is that in parallel to these theories, the infant’s sexual identity is shaped. She or he grows up to become a man or a woman alongside the awkwardness of the questions, the acknowledgement that there’s a shameful secret around them, that the answers provided (“the stork”) aren’t true; she or he grows up alongside the erroneous knowledge develops in relation to those questions. She or he grows up to be a man or a woman alongside not knowing what a man or a woman are. But, this immediate answer doesn’t suffice. It instantly raises an additional question: what then happens when human beings eventually knows better? What happens when they already know the answers to the questions of how do babies get born and what do men and women do? Does they get over the mistakes involved in the shaping of their sexual identity? The full answer to that is that the correct knowledge regarding sexual affairs is probably the most cunning form of repression: to know about sex means to repress the fact that your sexual identity is formed around ignorance. To know means not to know that you don’t know. The proof is inside the story. As why is it that the adults do not answer the children’s questions? Why do they giggle or tell something made up? We know more or less why from our own experience (because parents are embarrassed by the questions themselves, because they want to protect the child’s innocence, because they think it’s not an issue suitable for kids). But all these explanations are different ways to say that parents don’t know the answers to the questions – not in the same way they know why is it good to eat fruit or why should one look both ways before crossing the road.
The context might be different, however same as with Marx, what imbues the narrative with consistency in Freud’s case are various forms of not knowing. It is a tale of unknowing passed from parents onto their children. But more so, the various moments in the biography of a subject are weaved into a narrative because of the metamorphosis of unknowing in its different forms. Same as with Marx, so it is with Freud, lack of knowleddge posits the fundamental terms of the story – “already”, “still”, “not yet”. The child is a man or a woman already when he doesn’t know what a man or a woman are. And when he knows what they are he still doesn’t, only in a different way. Now we can say: “already”, “still”, “not yet”, these are basic building blocks for a story just as much as they’re fundamental concepts in the philosophy of history. They’re concepts that can resolve a basic thing we ponder: how is it that history can take the form of a story at all (why isn’t history merely “one damned thing after the other” as historian Arnold Toynbee attributed to some other historians – an expression which articulates the strongest contempt towards the philosophy of history).
Freud’s sensitivity to questions of history shouldn’t come as a surprise. At the foundation of his thought is an acknowledgement of the paradoxes rising out of a full commitment to being in time. Here, for example, out of a lecture about femininity: “In conformity with its peculiar nature, psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is – that would be a task it could scarcely perform – but sets about inquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with bisexual disposition.” That is no apology. It’s not that psychoanalysis cannot answer the question “what is a woman?”, and proceeds instead to answer another question, “how does a person become a woman”. What it is, is an acknowledgement of the fundamental dilemma raised by the notion of existence in time. The realisation that one becomes a woman comes instead of a definition. That is to say, what is expressed here is the realisation that one cannot provide a definition to that which is becoming, beyond a description of said becoming. Of course, political history isn’t the case here, nevertheless Freud provides a view of a basic question in the philosophy of history, meaning, what is it that could only be understood within the framework of an unfolding story.
In order to understand this connection between history and historicity – between history as a story and historicity as historic existence, we should to momentarily turn to one of the harshest critics of the possibility of historical truth.
How is it that there is a story?
The most systematic doubt of the possibility of a truth value of narratives was developed by Hayden White. Out of an empathy towards the discipline White suggests that historians give up their pretence for objective truth and revert to the age-old relationship between history and literature. His argument is sharp and straightforward. The historical narrative, he argues, cannot be similar to historic reality – not in the same way an airplane model is similar to an airplane. A story cannot be similar to reality, since the creation of one involves literary techniques: sorting, selecting, arranging. There’s an infinitude of historical facts, therefore there are infinite ways to tell history: the question is which facts are selected, which facts omitted, and how does one organise the selected facts together. Were one to alter the selection or organise it differently, a different story is created. If, for example, the story begins at its ending – an accepted literary technique – we get a narrative of teleological character, unfolding towards a purpose, conclusion or goal. If facts are organised chronologically one gets a story driven by causality. A story, if to follow this line of thought, cannot be true in a straightforward, simple manner. Because there are many stories one could tell, there’s no way to determine between them.
In a way, White’s argument is unshakeable. That is to say, were historical narratives truly weaved out of historical facts, there’s no way to guarantee that one story will be closer to the truth than another. However,t his argument could be read not just as refutation of the possibility of historic truth, but also as an analysis of the conditions of possibility of historical truth. If all we have is facts, then there’s no one true story. Were we to combine all possible facts, the story itself would vanish. Yet, the same argument also follows through to say that if what we have are stories, then human reality cannot be formed strictly out of facts. In other words, White’s razor-sharp argument in fact presents an acute ontological dilemma about history. If what reality contains is just fact, then narratives have no ontological status. Facing that, if there are narratives, if there is a truth value to a historical narrative, then reality is not only built with fact. If stories exist, then fact isn’t all there is. To articulate it more radically, if stories exist, then human reality contains not just what is, but also what isn’t.
And that is what Marx and Freud have demonstrated, as a matter of fact. They attach value to the historical narrative because they supplement it with what is in various forms not fact: limit to knowledge, the unthinkable, the lack of knowledge. They organise the historical narrative around that which is not fact, or around that which is absent from factual reality. The significance of such a manoeuvre is prominent especially against one of White’s strongest arguments. The historical narrative, he argues, depends on omitted facts no less than it is on those that are included in it. From a “factual” point of view, that is a solid argument. If reality contains only fact, then the fact that a story depends on omitting some facts means that every narrative is partial, untrue. But if human reality is organised around a lack, around what was omitted from it, then reality can be given to narrative structure.
Medium and history
Some concluding words regarding art. This concept of history could explain why is it that there are true revolutions in the arts, or say something about the constantly sorry state of affairs where art sees more actual revolutions than politics. Art, or a medium as such, is where a true revolution can take place, since medium involves blindness, and therefore unknowing. That is possibly the most basic thing we know about medium. The medium is transparent. The medium undergoes real revolutions, at moments when it escapes its transparency and is revealed, that is to say, the moment it scrutinizes itself. The moment it does that is a historical moment in the fullest sense of the term: it is a moment when the unthinkable is thought, and equally so it is a moment when what used to be thought can no longer be. It’s a moment when history is. When history appear as a substance. After Duschamp places a urinal in the museum we cannot avoid thinking differently about a museum. But that is true for a medium such as television as much as it is true for art, just as is revealed to us this very instant with the reality genre, in which television deals with the question of the televisual (in this genre, all we see on TV acquires its allure not merely from what it is but from the fact that it is on TV). In the context of television, the movement between still and already, between the various forms of the unthinkable, can be demonstrated in the clearest way through the institution of celebrity. If once it seemed that people appear on TV because they’re famous, with the advent of the reality genre it becomes clear that people are famous because they’re on TV. Notice the analogy of that to the artistic avant-garde. When Duchamp puts a urinal in the museum, it becomes clear that the urinal is a work of art because it is in a museum, and not in the museum because it is a work of art.
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Auckland, New Zealand: The Floating Press, 2008, p. 6.
 Karl Lowith, Meaning in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949. p. 44.
 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Vintage Books, 1973. p. 104
 Ibid, p. 105
 Sigmund Freud, 1908,”On the Sexual Theories of Children”, SE 9, p. 221
 Sigmund Freud, 1933, “New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis”, London: Penguin Freud Library 2, p.149
 Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”, in The Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978
 Ibid, p. 90