Desolation and Enlightenment book cover
Desolation and Enlightenment book cover

Desolation and Enlightenment--History or Memory?

Feb 2, 2004

Report of an 11/18/03 "Beyond History and Memory" seminar, a series cosponsored by the Council's History and the Politics of Reconciliation Program and Columbia University.

The "desolation" of the twentieth century—the total war of the two World Wars, the totalitarian regimes of both the right and left, and the Holocaust—has raised several important questions that scholars are struggling to answer to this day: How did major political philosophers in the post-war period account for the failure of the European Enlightenment and the promise it had seemed to hold for progress and reason?

How did these philosophers view the state, whose resources had just been mobilized for purposes of disastrous violence, and especially the liberal state, whose protection and strengthening was now a moral imperative? In understanding political desolation and struggling to prevent its return, what role can interdisciplinarity play—how should the humanities and political science work together more fruitfully? What contributions can be made by newer approaches to global problems, such as feminism, post-colonialism and subaltern studies?

At an 11/18/03 "Beyond History and Memory" seminar, Ira Katznelson discussed the work of two important group of scholars engaged with these questions from the mid-World War II years until the late 1950s. Gayatri Spivak responded with thoughts based on her work as a feminist, a post-colonialist scholar of literature, and a human rights activist.

Analytical SummaryOn Desolation and the Enlightenment

Katznelson chose the Goya etching "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" as both the frontispiece of his recent book, Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge after Total War, Totalitarianism and the Holocaust (Columbia University Press, 2003) and as the emblem for his talk. The etching portrays a man—a bureaucrat perhaps, or a scholar—who has fallen asleep at his desk surrounded by a phalanx of monsters, both winged and terrestrial.

This haunting image represents Katznelson’s theme. How did an important, insufficiently studied group of scholars grapple with what seemed to be a rupture in a history of progress and human reason rooted in the Enlightenment, when “the sleep of reason” produced monsters—the descent of the twentieth century into total war, totalitarian rule in two powerful states, and the genocide now known as the Holocaust?

The scholars discussed in Katznelson's book comprise of two groups: Firstly, the European émigré political philosophers Hannah Arendt and Karl Polyani, who had experienced the war at first-hand, and secondly, the interdisciplinary group of American scholars (William E. Leuchtenburg, Richard Hofstadter, Harold Lasswell, Robert Dahl, Charles Lindblom, David Truman and others) who formed a seminar in 1945 to discuss the state.

His presentation of the book's main themes was an effort to bring them into the Seminar’s ongoing discussion on history and memory, and also an effort to establish a dialogue with Spivak. a scholar of the humanities who uses a different framework to approach many of the larger questions with which Katznelson is concerned. Katznelson was inspired by the task that Harold Lasswell identified for social scientists in 1955, that of “reconstructing our institutions of Enlightenment.” ["Impact of Psychoanalytic Thinking on the Social Sciences," in Leonard D. White, ed., The State of the Social Sciences , University of Chicago Press, 1956, p. 115.]

The scholars he studies saw a need for repair, for new approaches to the study of politics and understandings of the character of modern states, for the fortification of both their field and the tasks of the Enlightenment. Their challenge was how to do this in the face of the discrediting of the earlier narrative of progress and the assumptions of an older historiography. Their solution was to draw on the resources of twentieth century social sciences in order to build a new knowledge for a new and more robust liberalism, connecting the philosophical macro-level of social inquiry with fine-grained empirical, modern social science methodology.

The Enlightenment has been a point of contention among scholars ever since World War II. Many have rejected it, seeing in the Enlightenment itself the cause of modern desolation. On the right, this position was represented by Leo Strauss, who championed a return to more ancient, Classical sources, and on the left, by scholars of the Frankfurt School like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. The latter were more ambivalent in their relationship to the Enlightenment than the Straussians but rejected its dependence on scientific, aseptic reason as the cause of modern “normativelessness.”

The scholars to whose work Katznelson now seeks to attract renewed attention sought to rebuild rather than reject, to establish a realistic version of enlightenment which would include an assessment of its accomplishments, internal conflicts and limitations. In coming to terms with the horrors of events, these scholars suggest that what is needed is, in the words of de Tocqueville, "a new political science for a new world" [Democracy in America, New York: Knopf, 1947, p.7], an effort to understand the source of modern barbarism and treat evil as an analytical category.

To do this, it is necessary to return to the origin of the twentieth century's desolation. One of the most interesting features of this intellectual quest was the linguistic challenge scholars in the late war and early post-war period faced. The linguistic task itself for the scholars discussed in Katznelson’s book was one of innovation, because the existing linguistic status quo in fact and meaning was no longer sufficient. They were challenged to create words that compressed meaning. The very words chosen to express the desolating events which animated their work did not exist before the twentieth century. Churchill, for instance, described the Holocaust as “the crime without a name."

"Total war" was invented during the First World War to describe the new methods of warfare used in that war. And the term “totalitarianism” was invented by anti-Fascist Italian journalists in the 1920s—and only later proudly and self-consciously adopted by Mussolini. An important question Katznelson has tried to answer in his book is the degree to which the work of the scholars he studies are relevant today, as political knowledge struggles to overcome the boundaries of Eurocentricism and include the history and memory of those whose experiences of desolation have not been European.

Today Arendt is criticized for her Eurocentrism, yet, significantly, the important middle section of The Origins of Totalitarianism is on imperialism. Arendt saw imperialism, together with anti-Semitism, as the two most pernicious inventions of the nineteenth century which made possible (although not inevitable) the Holocaust in Europe.

Katznelson feels that Arendt can be fairly criticized today for not giving Africans agency, and in this respect she was a prisoner of her era. But in the context of her times she was also a pioneer in her globalism. For Arendt, finally, the hallmark of twentiethth century modernity was the emergence of human superfluousness, the permanent possibility of homelessness, statelessness as a global condition in which there are significant numbers of permanently stateless people who have left one Westphalian state but have not been admitted to another.

Arendt’s greatest fear was the export to the center of the democratic world of the extreme superfluousness of the death camps, once considered to be on the margins, the normalization of what was once considered a rupture of the normal under the conditions of totalitarianism and imperialism. And in the groundswell of refugees, illegal aliens, trafficked persons and migrants scattered by extreme poverty across the world, including across all the democratic states, we can see that Arendt’s fear has been realized.

Finally, in relationship to the dichotomy of history and memory, we see in Arendt and Polyani in particular a deep resistance to representation of the recent, disastrous past. Essentially, this was a distrust of collective memory. These scholars turned away from the genre of victims' testimonies and memoirs. Instead they used political science to transcend memory for the purpose of understanding.

But on the other hand, the work of both the emigré and indigenous scholars was inspired by a multi-layered confrontation with memory and the cultural moment of memory. All were attempting to come to terms with the shock to the optimistic legacy of the Enlightenment, but at the same time, they opted for history rather than memory, and a social science based on the twin pillars of fear and guardianship.
Response by Gayatri Chakravorty SpivakKatznelson talks about the effort to "recast political knowledge as a quest to renew and protect the western tradition of Enlightenment" [Desolation and Enlightenment, p.1]. What do the humanities, including the study of non-western literatures and cultures, offer to this quest? Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the eminent literary scholar and pioneer of post-colonialist and subaltern studies, is, together with Ira Katznelson, engaged in trying to move towards greater interdisciplinarity between literary and social sciences, which they both believe can, indeed must, complement and strengthen one another.

To illustrate her sense of the challenge implicit in trying to create both strong disciplines and true interdisciplinarity, Spivak quoted the political scientist Robert Dahl. He was worried about the social sciences being concerned with meticulous triviality and political theory taking up “permanent cohabitation with literary criticism”—a prospect that he, unlike Katznelson and Spivak, apparently viewed with horror! Apart from Lionel Trilling, Spivak does not believe that during the period of which Katznelson writes, enough scholars in the literary humanities were deeply engaged in dialogue with political scientists, a dialogue that is needed to further the establishment of what she calls a true "liberal imagination."

This dialogue may also be what is needed to correct what Katznelson calls the "blindness" of the Enlightenment in the face of "disaster and the loss of self-assurance" [Desolation and Enlightenment, p. 2]. It is commonly believed that the literary minded political theorists, ie, post-modernists are simply critical and essentially want to reject the Enlightenment. But Derrida, for example, wrote in his “Mochlos,” "It is at our peril that we ignore the Enlightenment."

Spivak believes that rather than looking for critical distance from the Enlightenment, post-modernist literary critics are in search for critical intimacy with it. Katznelson used the word "rectify" in his book, saying that he seeks to rectify the common mistake of overlooking the contributions of the two post-war groups of scholars that are the subject of his book. It is on the word "rectify" that Spivak decided to hinge her responses to him, suggesting corrections both to common ideas about democracy and about the nation-state.

When the structure of state and its normality became capable of killing entire populations, then Arendt described it as "a rupture with democracy". Sivak suggested that such a possibility is always structurally inherent in democracy itself. On the state and the nation-state, Katznelson described how Arendt studied the collapse into totalitarianism of modern liberal regimes and party systems. David Truman, on the other hand, one of the group of American scholars whose 1945 seminar discussed the notion of the state, looked inside the liberal state at its inner behavior. Both Truman and Arendt wondered how the liberal state could survive totalitarian threats in the presence of disaster. Katznelson suggested that we could benefit from looking at the character and security of liberal states, at their mechanisms for coping with peril, and at their ability to advance pluralism.

Spivak’s challenge to Katznelson and the scholars he investigates is a proposal that we rethink the state as a site of order. She cautioned that the words "nation" and "state" primarily belong to different sciences and should not be used interchangeably without distinctions being made. We need to rethink the state itself as no longer being a "nation-state." In a globalized world, and based on her own work on inter-Asian commissions on violence against women and trafficking, she suggests that we think in terms of trans-state jurisdiction rather than national sovereignty, and continue to re-invent the state as an abstract structure which can provide redress in a divided international polity.


Members of the audience raised two areas for discussion.

First, they wanted to hear more about the role of the humanities, especially literature, in the search to reclaim and fortify the legacy of the Enlightenment. Relating memory to literary genres (memoirs, eye-witness accounts, poetry), they asked about a place for memory and subjectivity in the work of reckoning with desolation.

Second, they questioned whether the intellectual history Katznelson analyzes betrays too great a naivete over the capabilities of the social sciences. A scholar of psychology asked for further thoughts on the failure of the Enlightenment, and about the relationship between social science and literary imagination and whether these can help us to understand why enlightenment failed as it did. He went on to say that Theodore Adorno spoke of the impossibility of lyrical poetry after Auschwitz, but others have suggested that only the literary imagination can help us in our task of rehabilitating the values of the Enlightenment.

A theologian also asked about the use of poetry and of literature in the historical study of desolation. St. Augustine noted the importance of memory as the impulse behind morally important history writing, and after all,memory is the first draft of history writing. Given the mistrust that Arendt and the other scholars in question felt towards memory and writing based on memory (which includes poetry, fiction and memoirs like those of Primo Levi about Auschwitz), can we risk having memory fall silent in the writing of history? For Katznelson, the Enlightenment is unfinished business, a work in progress. Part of the implicit challenge is the semi-porous boundary between social science and literary imagination.

Spivak agreed that morally important history writing includes also personal memory and journalism. She says that these forms are the first draft of history. Memory is the first clue. It is only in exercising the imagination through reading literature that we can learn how to relate to the singular and unverifiable, categories for which the social sciences have no place.

A human rights scholar expressed his skepticism of modern social sciences and the limitation of language. What is the relationship between the struggle to rehabilitate the Enlightenment and the facile search for righteousness, which conveys a sense of Cervantes’ Don Quixote scanning the horizon as people dream of an ultimate rationality?

In reponse, Katznelson said that where the Enlightenment was responsible for disaster was in its vulnerability and insufficiencies of anticipation or guardianship. It was most innocent precisely about human character and the possibilities of evil. The social scientists whom Katznelson discusses recognized a superficiality in the thinking of the pre-war generation of scholars in their field that undercut its sophistication. For example, he notes that Truman, in a 1965 address, critiqued earlier generations of social sciences for their “vacuous behaviorism,” meaning that their assumptions about human character were too thin and simplistic. Continued skepticism about the claims of the social sciences, however, is a healthy reaction.

A final, open question from an intellectual historian for all to consider was why the important place of the study of imperialism in Arendt’s seminal The Origins of Totalitarianism remains so often overlooked today. The participant who posed the question has heard senior scholars who should know this work well claim not to have noticed this part of Arendt’s book. Is this claim disingenuous? Does it seem that the relatively easy acceptance of the idea of reparations for Nazi crimes and the continuing resistance to even thinking about reparations for issues related to imperialism are due to different understandings of responsibility and the liberal state? And might understandings that might have been conditioned by the socio-cultural position of the intellectuals under discussion as European émigrés or westerners more generally?

--Prepared by Elizabeth (Lili) Cole, Carnegie Council Senior Program Officer

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