It’s actually absurd, nothing short of preposterous – wanting to debate history at a time when combatting the pandemic takes precedence over everything else. As if it were not already sufficiently demanding to grapple with the current challenge of finding an appropriate response to the viral threat that is not going to simply vanish any time soon. In this light, it seems almost poignant to see images of a time after the pandemic being conjured up in many places – as if it would ever be possible to just pick up again, seamlessly and undaunted, from where one left off before the great outbreak.
In a roundabout way, that loops back after all to the topic of history or rather the question of how best to face its adversities and imponderables. It was long possible – with a reasonable prospect of success – to be guided by the phantasm of history as something that can be made: “history in the making”, as if simply setting the right course here and now would be all that it would take to enable a freer, indeed even universally valid, future. That has always been contradicted by the many aspects of this purported “making” that are not accessible to human protagonists. In other words, historicity is always to a large extent co-determined by factors that are beyond or beneath the radar of human agency – just think of the pandemic or also climate issues. That, mind you, does not mean that any kind of countermeasures to kickback against unwelcome developments should be rejected out of hand.
All this seems even more difficult if it is to be applied to the past, for the parameters that at some point in time influenced the course of history have become a distant memory today. Nevertheless, the emergence of a broad spectrum of retrospective making and attempts to put things right can be observed. The range of such highly legitimate claims spans remediation of damage done, the process of coming to terms with the past known as “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, as well as restitution of looted goods and economic reparations – the legitimacy of which always depends on who is claiming exactly what and from whom.
And yet numerous problematic issues arise here. For example, the call for “care and repair” invoked in many fields seems to run up against clear limitations when it comes to the after-effects of history, which are never quite the same for different participants. It is not just that it is impossible to revert to some situation in which historical injustice, not to mention catastrophes throughout the course of history, are simply erased. In many cases calls for reparation and reconciliation also turn into attempts to palliate damage after the fact that can do little or nothing to alter the initial scenarios. In this respect, calling for reparations, which encompasses a broad spectrum that extends from practical redress and compensation to the healing of (physical and psychological) wounds, is a thoroughly effective means of remediating history. At the same time, however, it also touches on problematic aspects such as a sectional historical perspective that frequently provides only a partial view, acts of historical intervention that inevitably come too late or attribution of an unwelcome victim status to entire population groups. However, all this should not distract from the need to accept real traumas and their after-effects for what they are: symptoms of an unjust or antagonistic course of history.
The debate about historically extended injustice and the corresponding reparations has become more explosive recently as a result of ongoing racist violence, the toppling of statues and similar attacks on monuments in many places or the effacing of tainted historical symbols and names. Within this context, the historical nexuses of colonialism, slavery and tyrannical regimes and their aftermath in the present are indubitably also being addressed. However, the decisive issue at stake here is whether, conversely, this will also lead to a fairer status quo or a more emancipated future. There are reasons aplenty, at any rate, to raise critical questions about the ongoing processes that purport to bring about historical corrections. And good grounds too to enquire about the conditions determining genuinely viable historical reparations.
In her essay, Saidiya Hartman thus speculates openly about an end to “white supremacy”, as she did in her last book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Based on a close reading of W. E. B. Du Bois’ short story “The Comet”, written a century ago in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic, Hartman invites us to engage in a captivating thought experiment on what it would take to overcome racist “white supremacy”, which remains a deadly force today.
An awareness that the present is constructed differently did not simply arise since the events surrounding the storming of the US Capitol on 6th January. Ana Teixeira Pinto takes this as a point of departure to reflect on insidious depoliticization of racist violence (viewed primarily as a crime rather than as a political act). Her findings, which draw extensively on the trend in art-world circles for historical tribunals, are sobering in as much as the lingering aftershocks of settler colonialism are currently perceived less and less as a political force. Gislind Nabakowski’s essay adopts a similar line, reading Elsa Dorlin’s Self-defense: A Philosophy of Violence to counter right-wing nationalist machinations and elaborating criteria in this spirit to establish effective historical remediation.
T. J. Demos offers an impressive demonstration of the ways in which a catastrophic past could be recodified, moving towards a radical futurism, through the prism of three artistic works by Thirza Cuthand, Black Quantum Futurism and The Otolith Group. Jochen Becker also deals with questions of historical and cultural translatability on the basis of a memorial exhibition in honor of African-American philosopher and activist Angela Davis – especially with regard to the relationship between Black Power and state socialism in the former GDR (where Davis was feted as a heroine in the 1970s). Other contributions, such as Julian Warner’s reflection on Blackness in Germany or Dierk Schmidt’s visual commentaries on the restitution debate, complete the highly diverse spectrum of questions unfurled here.
Will this in any way alleviate the global catastrophic write-off sparked by the pandemic? Hardly. But might this be a way to foster a better understanding of historical contrasts and disparities? We certainly hope so.