after whose history?

As an anthropologist, I understand the question “what is history” to be empirical; history and its concomitant social value is what a group makes of it. I ask simple questions, such as – how does a group teach its history? Through songs? On game shows? In detective novels set in the Victorian age? As a museum exhibition or perhaps through national curriculum and standardized tests?

After I have a sense of the range of historical genres, I do close readings of a few exemplars, comparing and contrasting respective content. Based on what remains constant throughout the different texts, I come up with a working definition of core history for a particular group. In the US, for example, the Revolution is an unquestioned element of the history that makes us Americans; after all the Tories and their ilk ran off to Canada in order to remain British subjects. Indeed, 1776 as the defining moment of being American not only appears in classrooms and textbooks, but also in musical theatre, commentary during baseball games, and automobile commercials. Similarly, based on what varies in these same texts, I get a sense of ongoing debates how this history is interpreted, and by extension, how we should be using it to create particular kinds of Americans. Thus, the Civil War looms in American consciousness, precisely because we still grapple with the contradiction between the self-evident truth (to us as heirs to the Revolution) of all men being created equal and the historic facts of slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, not to mention contemporary debates over the status of First Nations and immigrants.

I contextualize all this analysis with respect to the relative status of sites where these texts are produced, disseminated, read, and sometimes debated. In the United States, universities have higher status but are less a feature of everyday life than are supermarkets. Consequently, I know that Americans recognize the texts used in university history classes to be more accurate, but not as accessible as the historical fictions sold in supermarkets. I know this because Americans read and enjoy pulp fiction – Abraham Lincoln vampire slayer, for contemporary example – more often than we struggle to make sense of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Likewise, I also know that accessibility is often confused with democratic practice, so that reading Louis Lamour’s western adventures can be considered as valuable as reading Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History.

I mention my intellectual predilections and cultural heritage because yesterday I attended the opening of OCAT’s exhibition After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer, which struck me as quintessentially European in its preoccupation with the philosophical status of history. Moreover, it raised questions about how this preoccupation might inform understanding history in and of and for Shenzhen, where the point of reform and opening has been to launch China into the future.

As curated by Boris Groys, the exhibit highlights the philosophical continuities and contradictions within and between Kojève’s public and private lives. On the one hand, as a philosopher, Kojève followed Hegel in understanding the desire for equal and universal recognition as being the motor of history. This was explicitly a political project that was realized through the French Revolution. On Kojève’s reading, our lives are post-historical precisely because once the French Revolution brought to consciousness the understanding that the role of the State is to facilitate the realization of universal desire, history as such ended. In turn, it is the task of those of us living in post-historical societies to perfect our States, so that forms of political recognition are increasingly equitable and just, allowing for individuals to achieve their desires. This understanding of history shaped Kojève’s public life in two ways. First, as a philosophy professor in Paris, he maintained that he was not teaching anything new, but rather transmitting Hegel’s thought to a new generation of students. Second, at the end of WWII, Kojève abandoned philosophy altogether and became a diplomat, working to establish the European Union.

On the other hand, as a private citizen, Kojève remained fascinated by history, even as his methodology remained Hegalian. At the same time that he began his diplomatic career, Kojève began collecting postcards of historical important buildings and monuments. These postcards were post historical in that they ignored the present in favor of commemorating that which the French Revolution had already made obsolete. Importantly, these postcards became the template for Kojève’s photography, which, on Groys’ interpretation, aimed to bring the philosopher’s idiosyncratic vision of the world in line with that of the dominant vision of the era. Indeed, Kojève’s photographic practice manifested the Hegelian values of “objectivity” and “neutrality” as defined by the dominant trends of an era. Altogether, Kojève collected over 10,000 postcards and took over 5,000 photographs, none of which he displayed to the public. Instead, he filed the postcards and one slide of each image by location and time, creating a massive – but unknown – private visual archive that complimented and contextualized his public work.

At OCAT, Kojève’s importance as a philosopher of history is not evident from the displays themselves. Perhaps at the original installation at BAK-Utrecht (May 20 – July 15, 2012), visitors might have found Kojève’s private obsession to be intuitively interesting. After all Utrecht is just down the road from Haag (the Hague) and debates about the European Union must resonate in the Netherlands in ways that they cannot in China or the United States. Indeed, in a place where Kojève’s work in creating a new political public had concrete effects, I can also imagine a certain fascination with his private life, a desire to examine individualizing obsessions against the background of Hegelian neutrality. Moreover, Kojève’s itineraries began and ended in European cities. Consequently, visitors to the BAK exhibit could imagine themselves as departing from Ultrect and then on to Hong Kong, Calcutta and Madras before returning to Paris by way of Rome.

In contrast to my imagined BAK exhibition, at OCAT, Kojève’s appeal requires contextualization before it begins to make sense, let alone stimulate conversations about what history is and might be. His postcard collection has been represented on nine printed tablecloths and the photographic slides have been digitally reproduced and projected on concrete walls, but what to make of them? We might, for example, specify the question in terms of European history: how have Europeans conceptualized and deployed history such that it became a matter of philosophical debate, rather than say (as in Confucian societies) a matter of ordering the moral society? Moreover, in Shenzhen, we are aware that international journeys begin with the visas that may or may not be granted to Chinese nationals so the question is also practical and not merely academic. Even those with Shenzhen hukou, for example, need a travel pass to visit Hong Kong. In additin, political class and economic status also determine access to an education in western philosophy because international schools can only accept holders of foreign passports, while Chinese schools continue to prepare students for the gaokao, which emphasizes mathematics, science, Chinese, and English to the exclusion of all other subjects.

There are, of course, other challenges to bringing European concerns to a Chinese public. An important one is mutual recognition as an element of international politics. Crudely, the desire for political recognition within China was not the only motive for the Chinese Revolution. Instead, one of the motivations of Chinese revolutionaries was achieving national recognition within the capitalist world system. From this perspective, the establishment of Shenzhen marked the beginning of history in the area and thus Shenzhen’s futurism becomes legible not only as an effort to move beyond Chinese history, but also as making that history legible to those outside China.

It is not my intention to rehearse an argument of Chinese exceptionalism, but rather to elucidate the challenges inherent to any cross-cultural conversation, whether it takes place linguistically or visually or musically. Many have argued that contemporary art accommodates cross-cultural dialogue more easily than language does because languages constrict possible enunciations, while anyone with eyes can understand works of art. And that’s my point. When we think of cross-cultural discourse as a linguistic practice, we are forced to come to terms with the work it takes to learn our native languages, let alone a foreign language. In contrast, when viewing contemporary art, we often forget that just as we learn grammar in order to understand what we hear, we also learn conventions for understanding and evaluating what see. In other words, for a postcard to become a philosophical statement and an exhibition of touristic slides to become a political act, gallery visitors need more than two eyes; we also need history lessons.

This weekend, OCAT has organized lectures to help contextualize the Kojève exhibition. All involved have worked to make the exhibit more accessible to the public, allowing the gallery to become a site of philosophical re-consideration of the meaning and practice of history. However, I suspect that making this history part of the exhibition itself – in addition to holding a series of lectures – might have been a more practical solution to the challenge of making the end of European history relevant to Shenzhen audiences, where we’ve launched into the future.

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