A few weeks ago I was in Toronto and had the pleasure to attend a lecture by Susan Buck-Morss, Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Theory at Cornell University, entitled “Inheriting Culture: History in a Communist Mode“at Ryerson University. It was the second time I got to hear Susan Buck-Morss speak in Toronto (the first time was her talk “Global Imagination Against Global Power” at York University in 2004).
She opened her lecture with a humorous anecdote about the title of her talk, explaining that when she presented this talk in China, she was advised to remove the word “communist” from her title, because apparently it is not a good time for communism, even in China. So, this Toronto event was the first time she could use her provocative title.
As part of her larger project to resurrect universal history, Buck-Morss examines the way in which we inherit the past as private or national property.
History breaks down into image, not stories. (Walter Benjamin)
According to Buck-Morss, “legends appropriated by power become orthodoxy, setting parameters of the “right” belief. Constructs police and control how the past is to be read.” Thus history enters political theology (right beliefs, conformism, collective memory). There is a symbiotic relationship between knowledge and power.
“History writing is about the balance between preserving order and truth. But the past is never given to us as a whole – that which survives in archives is fragmented and survives by chance” (destruction of libraries: Bosnia’s National Library, 1992).
Buck-Morss contemplated transitoriness as the order of human happiness, because “only in passing is truth available to us. It’s not that truth changes, we do.”
Art teaches us to see things. It is training in observation. (Walter Benjamin)
Buck-Morss collaborated with Pakistani artist Emily Jacir working in Germany forDocumenta 13, their collaborative book, featuring Jacir’s photographs, and Buck-Morss’ essays, entitled The Gift of the Past – Das Gift der Vergangenheit is in print.
The earth’s reflection first seen from the moon (in images mediated by groundbreaking technologies) provided a unity of vision, anticipating the utopian goal of the global. But on earth, humanity is still a body-in-pieces. Modernity’s hoped for “family of man” remains a cacophony of cultural differences and clashing civilizations. Earth’s blue planet is the sacrificial offering to competing deities of economic growth. The disrupting forces of the present puts pressure on the past, scattering pieces of it forward into unanticipated locations. No one owns these pieces. To think so is to allow categories of private property to intrude into a commonly shared terrain wherein the laws of exclusionary inheritance do not apply. A global transformation in the collective imagination calls for History in a Communist Mode. The lecture provides exemplary cases of a communist inheritance of the past in regard to recent practices and histories of art.
Susan Buck-Morss is Professor of Political Philosophy and Social Theory in the Department of Government, and a member of the graduate fields of German Studies and History of Art at Cornell University. Her training is in Continental Theory, specifically, German Critical Philosophy and the Frankfurt School. She is currently researching and lecturing on politics and religion, theories of sovereignty, legitimacy and faith, and economies of political vision. The recipient of prestigious awards, she is the author of seminal studies in literary theory, visual culture, philosophy and political thought, including The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, and most recently, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History.