“Critical Fabulation in a Minor Figure: Concepts for a History of the Present” with Lauren Guilmette, Foucault Studies (planned for 2021)
Keywords: Saidiya Hartman, critical fabulation, genealogy, ethics in the archive, language
Abstract: Michel Foucault’s name comes up only once in the main text of Saidiya Hartman’s 2008 essay, “Venus in Two Acts,” and once in a footnote of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019); yet, a critical conversation with Foucault haunts both texts, one rich with insights for the present-day legacy of Foucauldian ideas in decolonial feminist theory. Hartman describes a new way of dealing with lives whose only existence in the archive is having been touched and excluded by power. By linking Foucauldian concepts to Hartman’s thinking, the aim is not to thereby re-center his significance but to explore the ethos and methods implicit in Hartman’s concern for the ‘minor figures’ she finds in institutional archives.
“Without Provenance: Doing Phenomenology in the USHMM’s Photo Archives” Rethinking Modern Jewish History Through memory and Photography
Abstract: Unlike personal testimonies, photographs have, according to Barthes, a more certain referent and stable existence: “I can never deny that the thing has been there.” In Marianne Hirsch’s work, this ‘there-ness’ of the photo is sufficient to explore questions of constructed postmemories, which are 2nd and 3rd generation means of maintaining a connection to places and people never directly experienced. These postmemories are problematic for the historian, insofar as one’s “connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.” For well-documented archival collections, postmemory is ameliorated by the details of their provenance. Yet, what is ‘there’ for one who finds a collection of photos for which the extra details of this ‘there’ have been eviscerated by a lack of provenance—where investment, projection, and creation are the extent of our ability to grapple with the ‘there’? This paper considers the “John Howell” collection at the USHMM: an album of anti-Semitic signs taken across northern Germany in 1935. The lack of information regarding the photographer, the purpose of the photos, their preservation, and donation strongly preclude the production of anything but a ‘mere’ postmemory experience attached to them. I argue, however, that where the details of archival materials fail us, the possibility of a distinctly phenomenological and ethical engagement remains that can be taken up as a source of meaning and significance for the future.
“The Nazi War on Language”
Abstract: In this article, my guiding questions concern the discursive conditions for German fascism, on the one hand, and for the genocide against European Jews, on the other. How, I ask, can language be understood as a cause of both nationalism and genocide? How are these related in the case of the Third Reich, and what can we learn from this process that allows us to better understand the relationship between power and political subjectivity in general as a function of language? Underlying my analysis is the assumption that language in its various forms—as a grammatical system, as a vehicle for cultural logic, as a political tool, as the primary medium of sociality—can have profound effects upon the ‘truth’ of material reality. Far from being a mere vehicle for the presentation of facts about the world, or a mere vehicle for normative prescription about ethical aims, there is a level at which language is responsible for the very shape of social and material reality insofar as it is linked to different forms of political power—power which may become violent on the basis of its prevailing truth.