On enigmatic traces

Marc Bloch states in The Historian’s Craft that the primary characteristic of historical observation lies in the reconstructing of knowledge from tracks or traces:

Whether it is the bones immured in the Syrian fortifications, a word whose form or use reveals a custom, a narrative written by the witness of some scene, ancient or modern, what do we really mean by document, if it is not a “track”, as it were – the mark, perceptible to the senses, which some phenomenon, in itself inaccessible, has left behind? (1953,54-55).

Thus, the trace stands for or takes the place of the past. An indirectness, which according to Ricoeur gives an enigmatic character to history from a philosophical point of view. Something that does not concern historians much, as their priority lies in their engagment with verifying the value of a documentary trace to a past event (TNIII, 143; MHF, 278).

Yet, history based on documents is meaningful, according to Ricoeur, so long as historians, in contrast to collectors of mass data banks, hold on to the idea of a debt “to people of flesh and blood to whom something really happened in the past” (TNIII, 118).  He sees the historian as providing a useful and nuanced corrective to collective memory, the final result of mass data collection. In view of today’s huge collections of big data and data mining, it is salutary to remember Ricoeur’s reflections from the mid-1980s.

The concept of traces was something Ricoeur reflected a great deal over in both Time and Narrative as well as Memory, History, Forgetting with the help of the writings of, among others, Bloch, Le Goff, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Bergson and Lévinas.  In his notion of historical time, as a connecting bridge between phenomenological time and ordinary time, he sees time as being refigured by historians through reflective instruments, such as calendars, generations, and archives, documents and traces.*

Of these, a trace is accepted as one, only when historians can recognize it as such, by rethinking, re-enacting, and retracing its significance, thus enabling a return to the past (TNIII, 146, 183, 77).

Traces are fragile. They may be altered, effaced, destroyed, made inaccessible or forgotten (MHF, 415-416, 472, 284). They indicate a here and now – of past events or activities of human beings. They mark the passage of time;  give a temporal distance. They are datable, and thus inscribed in time (TNIII, 229).

Ricoeur identifies 3 types of traces: the physical, material trace, which along with archived documents and the questions of historians constitute the basis of historical knowledge (MHF,177); the affective, the existential that we experience as impressions through encountering traces; and the cerebral, cognitive traces of memory (MHF, 415, 427).

Traces disturb, by their very presence. With Lévinas**, Ricoeur believes that traces imply an Other, a historical Other (TNIII, 124-126), thus attesting to Bloch’s “evidence of witnesses in spite of themselves” (Bloch, 61).

*See also my previous posts: On Calendars and Historical Time, and On intertwining history and the Other.

**Levinas, “La Trace”, in Humanisme de l’autre homme, 1972,  57-63.

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On intertwining history and the Other

Who is our other? In Time and Narrative, vol. 3, ch. 4, 109-116,  Ricoeur seems to give a surprising answer. At least that’s how I understand it. Here, he examines historians’ use of time. He discusses how they bridge the lived time of human beings and cosmic time through three different reflective instruments: calendars, the succession of generations and archive traces; with the caveat that it is not the historian who spends much time reflecting on these instruments, but the philosopher of history.

While his reflections on calendars, archives, documents and traces are fairly straightforward, Ricoeur’s meditation on the succession of generations is less easy to fathom at first glance.

We certainly do know what is meant when we speak of generations, such as the Victorians, the Edwardians, the Baby Boomers, the ‘68ers, the Millennials and others, and ascribe certain general attitudes to them. Attitudes deriving from common influences and shared experiences.

According to Ricoeur’s reading of, among others, Alfred Schutz, Karl Mannheim and Dilthey, a generation is a combination of biological and social time, hence birth, ageing and death, along with the social activities of individuals. A generation has certain traditions from the previous one, i.e. continuity, yet at the same time, is defined by the acquisition of the new, which marks it as different from the parent generation. Thus, Ricoeur understands Dilthey’s concept of generation as being both open and closed, tradition and innovation, something acquired and yet having a common orientation (p. 111).

When time is added to this mixture of influences received and influences exercised, according to Ricoeur, it helps us to understand the idea of a succession of generations. He sees it as a chain arising from the intertwining of new possibilities and transmission of that which is already acquired. In other words, the passing generations carry traditions with them, while at the same time being open to new innovations, with the dead being replaced by the living.

Ricoeur discusses (p.110) how the idea of a generation, according to Kant, in the 3rd proposition of his Idea of a Universal History on a Cosmopolitan Plan, is the interweaving of human history and the human species in the ethical task of creating a civil society, where the previous generation makes huge efforts and sacrifices not for their own well-being, but that of succeeding generations.

Historians use the idea of the succession of generations in a more practical sense.* Thus, for instance, in terms of history’s outermost limits in the relations between the self and the other, the Shoah or Holocaust, historians such as Saul Friedlander, enquire into how it is perceived by succeeding generations (e.g. Introduction to Friedlander (ed.), Probing the limits of representation (1992).  And archive collections around the world, whether witness testimonies from the Holocaust and 20th century genocides, or, e.g. on World War I enable succeeding generations to obtain a glimpse of the lives of previous generations in times of strife.

It took me a while to understand Ricoeur’s thoughts on the succession of generations, but upon long reflection, I believe, that he illustrates how our other is none other than past and future generations, in other words, our predecessors and our successors, thus implying that we who are alive today belong together as a generation.

*cf Wulf Kansteiner, Moral pitfalls of memory studies:The concept of political generations (Memory Studies, 5(2) 2012, 111–113, ) for a critical view of use of the term generation.

Performing in historic spaces: an interview with Patricia Halverson, Chatham Baroque

(Patricia Halverson DMA has a doctorate in Early Music Performance Practice from Stanford University)

How were you inspired to study music? And make it your profession?

Music was important to my parents and consequently, my siblings and I were exposed to music (classical, primarily) and encouraged to take music lessons as a means of education and enrichment, not necessarily towards the goal of making music a career.

As a high school student I was interested in either pursuing music or in becoming an occupational therapist. Certain opportunities in music came my way—stimulating workshops, travel, and encouragement from musician friends—leading me to pursue music studies in college and later, in graduate school, at Stanford.

Why Early Music?

It was a case of being in the right place at the right time in terms of opportunities that presented themselves. For instance, while in high school I had the opportunity to tour with an early music collegium at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. One of the attractions of music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods is the explorative and flexible nature of music. I attended my first year of college at the College of St. Scholastica. I spent the remaining three years of undergraduate study at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Both schools are liberal arts schools, meaning that students develop a major area of focus but are also required to have a number of credits outside of the primary discipline.

And approximately what centuries are we speaking of here?

Much of the music I studied and performed while in college was music from the 16th century. Currently, I perform regularly with a group called Chatham Baroque. Our focus is 17th century and early 18th century repertory.

Do you also think about the historical context of your music? What sources do you use, apart from musical scores?

We love to perform in historic spaces. It is inspiring to us and it also informs our approach. This does not happen terribly frequently but we have had this experience in Latin America, Mexico and in historic churches in South Carolina, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In terms of historical context and sources, it is important for players of early music to be well versed in historical performance practices. This knowledge informs programming choices, ornamentation styles, the arranging of music, to name just a few examples. In Chatham Baroque we try always to have access to facsimiles of the music we play or to use clean modern editions.

You play on an authentic instrument from those times? What difference does it make?

The instruments I own are copies of original instruments. I use strings made of pure sheep gut or gut core covered with silver. Gut strings as opposed to nylon or steel strings have a significantly different sound. The bows used by players of early music are quite different from modern bows Since much of the music has references to dance, the bows make a big difference in playing stylistically.

Does it sound different to playing on a modern reconstruction?

That is a question which is impossible to answer simply because it depends on the builder and the overall condition of the instrument. Original instruments, especially members of the viola da gamba family, are not very common and are expensive to purchase and maintain. There are countless examples of original instruments in excellent condition, most likely with some restoration needed at various times. I have never had the opportunity to purchase an original instrument nor have I been in the market for such an instrument. I would be delighted if one were to fall into my lap!

How about costumes, have you ever performed your music wearing costumes from that time?

Occasionally, but the costumes were modelled on appropriated dress from the time, not authentically produced. Performing in costume is not something I would pursue. In general, I would say that playing in costume is something that amateur musicians are more likely to do.

Would the costume affect the playing? And how about your audience, would they experience the music differently? Am asking because of a weird experience: I once listened to an ensemble playing wonderful music, Renaissance I think it was, but suddenly I felt their sober dark suits were incongruous with the sounds emanating from their instruments.

It is likely that costumes would affect the playing. As for the audience’s experience, it depends a good deal on their expectation.  I believe that audience members may enjoy costumes because they can provide a visual enhancement of a purely musical experience. But I would guess that most musicians are not happy performing in costume.

What is the best performance your ensemble has given?

That is a challenging question. It is fun to perform concerts and I feel extremely fortunate to have wonderful and talented colleagues with whom I perform on a regular basis. When things go well in a live performance, it can be a thrilling experience. The other side of the spectrum are those concerts that are deflating. It’s like a bad day at the office. What keeps me going are the performing experiences that go beyond the “normal.” This can result with a particularly moving piece, or if the effort of the performers aligns in a special way.  The involvement or response of an audience or the treat of performing in an acoustic perfect for the repertory can also bring on one of these “magical moments.”

Or the best CD you’ve made? Can readers listen to some of your music online?

Espanoleta on the Dorian label (no longer in print but on iTunes). Henry Purcell: Sonatas and Theatre Music, also on the Dorian label. Bach & Before, on Chatham Baroque’s own label. Chatham Baroque’s music can be heard online by searching for Chatham Baroque on YouTube.

Music touches something deep within us, when I listen to music from earlier times, I feel we’re sharing something authentic with human beings in the past who heard the same music. As a performer, when you play, do you ever feel the frisson of history?

As I mentioned earlier, it is essential to be familiar with the history and have a knowledge of performance practices from the period during which the music was composed. For me, performing live does not involve or require a connection to the past. Rather, it is more about the moment—the music, the performers and what happens spontaneously on stage as a response to the connections between the performers and hopefully, with the audience.

How about other Early music ensembles? Who do you feel has particularly contributed to the field?

Important pioneers in the field include Gustav Leonhart, Frans Bruggen, members of the Kuijken family. They are all European. It is the case that teachers and performers from western Europe have led the way as leading performers and teachers in the early music movement. In today’s world there are an incredible number of important ensembles and orchestras to list and many ensembles evolving in the States and beyond that I have not yet heard or know.

What are you reading at present? Have you a favourite author, book, film, play, painting or building that you find inspirational?

I read a mix of things, mostly fiction. Nothing of great note lately, though I greatly enjoyed David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.

And music? Who are the composers, perhaps from other historical periods, who inspire or fascinate you?

I attend many live performances each month. It is a necessary part of the continuing education in the life of a professional musician. I really enjoy hearing music totally unrelated to early music. My husband and I attend several concerts performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra each year. It is broadening and moving to learn new works and hear their programs in a live setting.  Nearly all of the PSO’s repertory is music that I will never have the opportunity to perform.  I am a big fan of the music of Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, and Verdi.

Humanity and history: what do these terms mean to you as a musician? And what do the present day migrations signify to you?

Regarding humanity and history, we live in a conflicted world filled with inequalities. More often than not, technology offers a distracting palate and trumps face-to-face conversation. I would like to think that the arts and music in particular have the potential to inspire and move viewers and listeners in a way that is new and healing.

On history and the fabric of life

Paul Ricoeur ends his magisterial work on history philosophy, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli with a reference to Søren Kierkegaard’s discourse on the biblical birds in the air and lilies in the field (2000, p. 656). Why does he do so?

The works of his compatriot, Albert Camus, may hold a clue. Camus, too, similarly to Ricoeur endeavoured to make sense of the history of the 20th century which they were born into. While their beliefs were unalike, Camus contrasts the fates of his characters against the sun, the light, and the sea.

What does this have to do with history philosophy, one may wonder. Many years ago, I followed a university course on history philosophy with a brilliant teacher, where we read the classical 19th and 20th century works of history philosophers. While I failed the actual exam, my readings and reflections left me with a vague glimpse into how human beings considered their relationships to the divine and to nature. Over the course of history up until today, it is our changing views of this threefold relationship that constitutes our thoughts on history. At times, we treated the forces of nature with awe, as being divine. At other times, we have believed that the divine had given us lordship over nature or that we had raised ourselves above nature. That humankind was progressing to a higher form of development.

It took a Freud to remind ourselves that we too are a part of nature. The muddy trenches of WWI shattered forever our dreams and visions of mastery. In the Shoah or Holocaust of WWII, we tasted its bitter dregs. In the Cold War threats of nuclear annihilation, very much current in Camus’ lifetime (he died on the 4th January 1960), we foresaw what destruction humanity was capable of. Ricoeur who lived into the 21st century and had time to reflect on both the Truth and Reconciliation commission at the end of Apartheid and the wars in ex-Yugoslavia before his death on the 20th May 2005, endeavored to find a way for human beings to live together with truth, justice and reconciliation.

What our present generation of human beings can leave to the future generation is thus, according to Ricoeur, in Kierkegaard’s words, for the human in distress to contemplate the birds and lilies, and see how glorious it is to be a human being, thereby releasing their worldly cares. Ricoeur proposes: “…in opposition to this ruinous competition … the possibility of a work of forgetting, interweaving among all the fibres that connect us to time: memory of the past, expectations of the future, and attention to the present.” (Memory, History, Forgetting, 2004, p. 504; á l’inverse de cette ruineuse compétition…le possible travail de l’oubli, tissé entre toutes les fibres qui nous rattachent au temps: mémoires du passé, attente du futur et attention au présnt-original French version, 2000, p. 654-655).

On a present absence

(see also blog post: On an impact of WWI)

Hayden White, in his 2007 review of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History Forgetting observed: “I am not sure whether it is significant for his philosophical development that he was orphaned as a child was technically considered a ward of the French state, and was raised by grandparents …” (Reprinted in H. White, The Fiction of Narrative, 318-39, 2010, p. 338).

Ricoeur, in the set of interviews he gave over the course of 1994-95 to Francois Azouvi and Marc de Launay begins his reply to the question about his childhood, by stating: “Le fait décisif de mon enfance est d’avoir été un pupille de la nation” (The decisive factor of my childhood, was having been a ward of state La Critique et la conviction, 1995, p. 11).

Here he describes a photo of his father, taken in early 1915 when he had come home on leave from the Front, when the young Paul would have been barely 2 years old, sitting on his father’s knees with his 16 months older sister Alice (1911-1934). He explains how the photo hasn’t moved, but how he himself had got older to a point where he was forced to accept the paradox that he now had a father who was younger than himself.

Ricoeur alludes to a similar experience described in Camus’ unfinished posthumous semi-autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme, which had just been published in April 1994.  Here, the protagonist stands in front of the grave of his father whom he does not remember, when he suddenly spies the dates on the gravestone, and realizes that he at forty is now older than his father who died in his twenties, and reflects with pity and sorrow on the unjust fate of his younger father, le père cadet (p. 31).

Although Camus, too, was a ward of state like Ricoeur, he unlike the orphaned Ricoeur had a mother, a partially deaf and largely silent woman whom the young Camus adored and whose silent suffering he observed over the years.

Silence was what Ricoeur experienced about the mother he never knew. He once explained he had never met anyone who had known his mother or who could describe her to him.*   In La critique et la conviction, he admits to his two interlocutors that the absence of his mother, and her family, and a mother figure in his life, as being highly traumatic (p. 13). He confesses that his only experience of the maternal is what he has learned from seeing his children with his wife. “Le mot <<maman>> a été un mot prononcé pas mes enfants, mais jamais par moi” (p. 13 -The word mother is one used by my children, but never by me).

Given some of Ricouer’s philosophical enquiries into memory, forgetting, and the passing of generations, as well as his emphasis on recounting stories, narrativity, and his search for who we are, our identity, a tentative answer to Hayden White may be that traces of Ricoeur’s traumatic beginnings lie at the very heart of his life’s work.

**Jean-Francois Duval’s interview with Ricoeur in 1997, Paul Ricoeur <<Ce que je suis est foncièrement douteux>> republished in Philosophie magazine 67 mars 2013.

On calendars and historical time

Calendars keep track of important events in our lives. In a sense historians do the same, but over a longer perspective, and only backwards into the past, rather than also looking forwards into the future as we do when we check our personal calendars. In Time and Narrative (vol.3, chapter 4, 104-109), Ricoeur reflects on the significance of the historians’ use of calendars. Time, in this context, which he terms historical time, is in his view, a bridge between our ordinary lived time and cosmic time.

The antecedents of calendars lie far back in the mists of time, in a primordial or a mythic time comprising the entirety of human existence and the world. In mythic time, through periodically occurring rituals, human beings gave meaning and order to their lives in relation to the rhythms of life they observed within and around them in the cosmos and the biological cycles.

In Ricoeur’s words, ordinary time, “the lived experience of active, suffering individuals was integrated into the time of the world outlined by the visible heavens” (p. 106). Thus calendar time with its universal structure makes it, according to Ricoeur, a socialized form of time bridging lived time and cosmic time. Here, he quotes Emile Benveniste who calls this “chronicle time” (fn. Le Langage et l’expérience humaine (1965).*

All calendars start from a founding event in human history, such as the birth of a religious leader or the beginning of a king’s reign. And, from this, all other events are dated, directed forwards or backwards in the calendar. Finally, calendars also take into account measurable cosmic features, such as the movements of the sun, moon and the seasons.

Yet, a calendar is far more than mere physics and astronomy. According to Ricoeur, the smallest common denominator: the instant, or the “present moment” (p. 107) is something we recognize and experience as human beings, i.e. it is phenomenological. Hence, the concepts of yesterday, today and tomorrow which hold meaning for us. Our ability to situate events in time requires us to actively pinpoint the present, the now (pp. 108 -109). Similarly with our measuring of time as near or far away.

We have the capacity to situate events that lie greatly distant from us in terms of time and space. An incident like the storming of the Bastille in 1789, symbolizing the French Revolution, a huge event in terms of history, enables us to define other lesser events in relation to it. Similarly, we define our lives from moments of history, such as where we were when we heard about the assassination of John Kennedy or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Thus, the calendar by chronicling time, which belongs to both lived time and physical cosmic time, stands outside the latter two, and, at the same time, mediates between them, and thereby, according to Ricoeur, brings narrative time into the world (p.109).

*See his footnotes in pages 299-300 for the other sources he uses in this connection.