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History and Theory 45 (October 2006), 328-336

© Wesleyan University 2006 ISSN: 0018-2656

FORUM: ON PRESENCE
3. “PRESENCE” AND MYTH
F. R. AnKersmit
aBstract

There are no dictionary meanings or authoritative discussions of “presence” that fix the significance of this word in a way that ought to be accepted by anybody using it. So we are in the welcome possession of great freedom to maneuver when using the term. In fact, the only feasible requirement for its use is that it should maximally contribute to our understanding of the humanities. When trying to satisfy this requirement I shall relate “presence” to representation. Then I focus on a variant of representation in which the past is allowed to travel to the present as a kind of “stowaway” (Runia), so that the past is literally “present” in historical representation. I appeal to Runia’s notion of so-called “parallel processes” for an analysis of this variant of historical representation.
I. Introduction

Representation literally means “making something present again.” Let me begin with a comment on the word “again.” Making something present “again” suggests the absence of what is made present by representation. Similarly, one can only show something again if it is not on display right now. So if we add this to our definition, “representation” then means “to make present again something that is absent right now.” It follows from this that the notions of “representation” and of “presence” are closely and indissolubly linked: the notion of “presence” is part of the meaning of the word “representation.” All of this is in agreement with how we actually use the word “representation.” For think of such paradigmatic uses of representation as pictorial representation or political representation. The portrait of a person P makes P somehow present again, even though P himself or herself may be on some other continent or may even have been dead for centuries; in the case of political representation, the people’s representatives represent in our parliaments or legislatures the people in its absence. What was said just now about representation is even more dramatically true of a third paradigmatic us of “representation,” historical representation. We have historical writing in order to compensate for the absence of the past. So whereas in the cases of pictorial and political representation the represented has a logical priority to its representation, in the case of historical representation the reverse is the case, namely, that the represented—that is, the past—depends for its (onto-)­ logical status on its representation. No representation, no past. Of course, there always is a past in the sense of certain events temporally preceding the present

But one may also ask whether the past can actually be carried into the present by historical representation. “Spots of Time. Philosophy of history was thus understood to be the counterpart of the philosophy of science in which one focused on the question of the validity and truth of scientific theories.“presence” and Myth 329 and the future. “The past” may. hence. In a groundbreaking article. more specifically. Arthur Danto. II. Harold Searles. I shall indeed rely on an argument that has recently been proposed by Runia in an essay that was published in October 2004 in this journal and that will undoubtedly become a classic in the history of historical theory (though I hasten to add that my account of “presence” may well differ from Runia’s use of it). stated that enactments are not the . All this shows that the past is more of a cultural construction than is the sitter for a portrait or the electorate represented in our parliaments. elaborating on Freud’s idea. However. Runia on “parallel processes” In the essay referred to a moment ago Runia introduces the notion of so-called parallel processes. Epistemological discussions of (historical) representation can also focus on how a text may make the past present again in the sense of being a substitute or replacement for this absent past. who theorized that what is not adequately remembered may be repeated in the therapeutic situation through unconscious enactment. and.” in Eelco Runia’s memorable metaphor.1 How this can occur is the topic of this essay. This is why philosophers of history such as Hans Georg Gadamer. in much the same way that one may carry a souvenir from a foreign country into one’s own. and I have typically relied on the so-called substitution theory of representation in order to explain historical writing. Eelco Runia. indeed. the past would be made “present” in the present in the most literal sense of the word. Having done this I shall conclude by showing that my argument about “presence” may shed some new light on the notion of myth. of making it present again. 315.” History and Theory 45 (October 2006). Now. The historical text is then not merely a textual substitute for the absent past—nay. Under such circumstances. the past then travels into the present as a kind of “stowaway. this notion ultimately derives from Freud. in this short essay I wish to suggest that the notion of historical representation can be interpreted in a different way. evaporate into an eternal present—which is the case when a civilization feels no need for written or oral representations of the past. much of contemporary philosophy of history has dwelled at length on this notion of historical representation and on how a historical text can properly be said to represent part of the past. . In order to clarify this most peculiar way of representing the past. that myth may well be more present in contemporary professionalized historical writing than we now believe. As was to be expected. are of a past in the real sense of the word. but not always is this indubitable fact interpreted to mean that these earlier events are categorically different from the present (and the future)— and. most of these discussions have taken the form of an epistemological analysis of how the historian’s text is related to the past. As Runia points out.

500 Muslims were slaughtered by the Serbs under the nose of a Dutch UN batallion). . but may also come to shape the interaction between these psychiatrists and their supervisors. Only if scrutiny takes place (preferably. Michelet subconsciously brought himself to a position in which he could be fired from the Collège de France. 298-299.”3 As an example of how this may actually work in history Runia refers to Arthur Mitzman’s claim that Michelet had “re-enacted” in his own life parts of the history of the French Revolution: In order to narrate the fall from grace of Danton. and as the very term “re-enactment” already suggests.4 In this way the historian. although perhaps not so surprisingly. . and of the way Dutch politicians reacted to their involvement in the greatest mass-murder in Europe since the Nazi regime. 309. Eelco Runia. The responsible politicians behaved as if the Srebrenica drama had taken place in a wholly different galaxy without any ties to their own cozy little world. simply nothing happened right at the beginning.. Michelet. Michelet orchestrated his own falling from grace. In his essay Runia transposes this notion to the domain of history. Ibid. by the patient her or himself). Ibid. r. This is precisely what Runia provides in his discussion of the tragedy of the Srebrenica massacres (where 7. in the interaction between therapist and supervisor) as well.. The Michelet example certainly is quite suggestive. anKersmit prerogatives of patients. reproduced in his own life the structure of the historical event he was studying. and sent into exile to Nantes—where he subsequently wrote the famous Danton pages of the Histoire de la Révolution Française.2 The idea is that the problems that send patients to their psychiatrists may not only be “re-enacted” by the patients’ interaction with their psychiatrists. The issue here is what happens when a nation that believes as a matter of course in its moral supremacy (and could afford to do so thanks to its political insignificance) suddenly has to recognize that it has heaped on itself all the dirt a nation may gather upon its immersion in grand politics. He argues that parallel processes differ “in two ways from the Collingwoodian reenactments: they do not refer to in vitro representations. dismissed as the head of the Archives. they behaved as persons regressing to the innocence of childhood in reaction to the irruption of an overwhelming reality. but we will need a more substantial analysis in order to grant credibility to parallel processes in the practice of history. of course. they are not the intended result of a conscious effort but the unintended ripple of subconscious processes. second. . Surprisingly. can the chain be broken. It was arguably also a . 299. after having done so he compares parallel processes to Collingwood’s renactment theory. but occur within the supervision (that is.” History and Theory 43 (October 2004).330 f. According to Mitzman. but to real—in vivo— interactions. Mechanisms of repression and dissociation worked at top speed. “‘Forget about It’: ‘Parallel Processing’ in the Srebrenica Report. The picture one gets is that of a false coin that can unproblematically be passed on from one person to another as long as nobody carefully scrutinizes it.

So we might well ask ourselves what lessons about presence and representation we may learn from Runia’s analysis of the NIOD Report. For if representation is always a “making present again. 185-328. then see “Het drama Srebrenica: Geschiedtheoretische Beschouwingen over het NIOD-rapport.. So here again the NIOD Report scrupulously copied real life. the whole thing was handed over to the historians of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD). . to relegate it to history by trying to transform it into something of the past demanding a historical rather than a political analysis. For to a truly amazing extent the historians of the NIOD copied the behavior of the politicians and of the military authorities at Srebrenica. you read me correctly: by “presence. So. Now. Though the weapons of historical theory proved to be equal to the challenge. registered almost anything that could be registered with regard to the tragedy. at least. Representation and “presence” I remind the reader that I started this essay by discussing (historical) representation. a representation and the “real thing” represented by it are by no means identical. Ankersmit et al. For by its size and structure it transformed “Srebrenica” into a topic unfit for public debate. first. comprising with its enclosures more than 7. This is why the report written by the NIOD historians may count as a striking example in historical writing of parallel processing. I refer the reader to Runia’s essay for an enumeration of all the parallels that can be discerned in this case. we cannot fail to observe that Runia’s parallel processes are the very ne plus ultra of representation. “deterrence by presence” was successful. But. Think. But here we really get “the real thing” twice: the NIOD . The main aim of Dutchbat in Srebrenica was “to deter by presence”—yes. special issue of Tijdschrift van Geschiedenis 116 (2003).” ed. So instead of an unsparing and relentless political investigation immediately after the drama.000 densely printed pages. this chapter had the character of being just one more essay rather than of being a judicious synopsis of the results of these 7. R. essentially. as Runia most perceptively argues. restricting myself to the following. of a series of individual studies of individual aspects of the tragedy. and though in a final chapter some conclusions were offered. this time. but on the other hand presented this vast ocean of data in such a way that it was virtually impossible for the reader to make sense of it. The report consisted.“presence” and Myth 331 mechanism of dissociation that made them take the drama out of an unbearable present.5 III. this would not be the end of it. it effectively barred any further discussion. Historians were now asked to do what politicians could not and would not handle themselves.” then the copying of past occurrences involved in parallel processing seems to provide all that representation might ever hope for! “Normally.” The idea was that the sheer presence of a mere two hundred lightly armed Dutch soldiers would be enough to keep the Muslims in and the Serbs out. For on the one hand this Report. Most saliently.” in the case of painting or of historical representation.000 pages of historical research. as Runia observes. of Runia’s essay discussed here. F. “deterrence by presence” was also the subconscious aim of the NIOD Report. This proved to be the military miscalculation of the decade.

That is to say. copy all the tactics of repression and dissociation that had so strikingly characterized the behavior of their political principals and whose actions they “represented” in their text. and. La vérité en peinture (Paris: Flammarion. . for here the past is presented again. there is the more common variant of representation—associated with paintings. we should distinguish between two conceptions of representation. 1978). . So the two notions of representation are most intricately entangled with each other. what the painting’s meaning is. 225. the actions of the Dutch government when getting itself entangled in the Bosnian vespiary. Meyer Schapiro. in various ways. historical representation. On the other hand. sculpture. Derrida parasitized this (as he was always so much in the habit of doing) in Jacques Derrida. This is the kind of representation to be associated with presence. Aristotle’s notion of mimesis—where representations and what they represent are categorically different. hence. When addressing this question. I would like to remind the reader of Meyer Schapiro’s well-known argument about picture frames.332 f. in the second kind of representation there is a continuum between the representation and what is represented. This is what was so strikingly the case with the NIOD Report: though the NIOD historians believed themselves to be the independent and “objective” investigators of what had taken place in 1995 in Srebrenica. of an already existing human artifact. But all this is different with the second kind of representation. they did not explicitly present this in their Report. “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in ImageSigns. In this case we typically miss the picture frame whose crucial semantic significance was so much emphasized by Schapiro. in fact. anKersmit researchers’ behavior really was the same as that of their principals. both domains now flowed over into each other like two lakes that suddenly become united into one after an earthquake or some other catastrophic event has removed the soil hitherto separating them. Is that not the best that representation could ever give us? As we may infer from the foregoing. r. literally being carried into the present. and so on—whereas the other seems to have to do with human actions: the NIOD repeated. For even though the NIOD researchers reproduced in their Report that which they studied. This is a suggestion that can fruitfully be elaborated. historical text. On the one hand. In this way the picture frame co-determines how we interpret what we see in the painting. it must strike us that the former kind relates to human artifacts—a painting.6 His argument was that the magic of picture frames consists in making us aware that we are entering an alternative reality when looking at a painting: the semantic function of the picture frame is firmly to set apart the two-dimensional world of the painting from the three-dimensional world of its observers. Semiotica 1 (1969). So what we see here truly is the very opposite of what Schapiro had in mind: instead of firmly demarcating the domains of the represented and of its representation. the representation and its represented are part of one and the same reality. they did. or perhaps more generally. This raises the question of how to distinguish clearly between these two kinds of representation. But there is a complication here. sculptures. there is the kind of representation of which Runia has made us aware where the representation truly is a repetition or reenactment of a previous action.

be compared to Schapiro’s picture frames separating the domain of represented reality from the domain of representation. . that is. Myth is our link to nature. to a truly amazing extent. Precisely this makes Runia’s argument about the parallel processes in the NIOD Report of so much interest. except the umbilical cord that tied them to their principals. it can. In this way the picture frame is both part and not part of the painting. But in both cases the framework really is there. to what transcends history and time. make us aware of the existence of this framework. similarly. the ever-changing historical reality in which we are living now. perhaps even always. nonetheless contributes to the painting’s meaning. Paradoxically. In Runia’s story. Myth brings us back to the beginning of historical time. Put differently. more generally. in the dramatic sense of that term. we tend to forget about the mythical framework enclosing historical representation. to that sublime moment when history came into being. I mean. an empirical confirmation of my claim about the presence of the mythical framework in history. arose out of what did not change. a limit to what we succeed in historicizing. the lesson to be learned from the NIOD Report is that there is often. And. As is so well expressed in the old adage. “Presence” and myth At this final stage of my analysis I want to relate presence to myth. of what was still part of nature. The mere fact that we can so easily translate Schapiro’s claim to the issue of how myth and history are related already suggests that myth must be far more omnipresent than we think in what we know as professionalized historical writing—however unmythical it may seem at first sight. According to Schapiro the picture frame is a part of the painting that. paradoxically. IV. Myth always brings us up to the limits of what can be historicized: for myth informs us how history. For it really needed the genius of Schapiro to make us recognize the semantic contribution of the picture frame to the painting’s meaning. the picture frame that ordinarily separates the past and its representation gives way to a unification between the past itself and its representation. and out of what did not have a history. We are ordinarily blind to the semantic role played by the picture frame. and that what we do not succeed in historicizing is what we are compelled to repeat. whoever is not capable of learning the lessons of the past is compelled to repeat it and to go on doing so until one is finally prepared to learn these lessons. the NIOD researchers had historicized everything that could be historicized about the Srebrenica drama. myth demarcates history from nature. To put it provocatively. for it is the absence of this framework in the NIOD Report that makes us recognize that it is normally present. even though it is nonmimetic. For Runia’s story about the NIOD Report is. so to speak. precisely this may.“presence” and Myth 333 A significant fact about this unity of the represented and its representation is that those involved in it are blind to it: the NIOD researchers were completely unaware of their parallel processing and of how they had unwittingly managed to copy in their historical writing. normally we forget about the framework of myth because it is there—and then it is no less effective and no less successful in making us forget about it than the picture frame. in this sense. the naive innocence of their principals.

but the loss of myth. These people were not kindly glossing over the terrible mistakes made by the Dutch government and the responsible military authorities: after all. probably. or whatever theological or racial denominations you may have. anKersmit In the NIOD Report the framework that ordinarily separates the past from its representation fell away. the appalling indifference of Dutchbat to the fate of the Muslims of Srebrenica tells a quite different story. and which succeeds in transforming even the most strenghtening and nourishing food into “History and Criticism”? Or. Myth now no longer merely contributed to historical meaning. No. when we truly wish to get to the bottom of things by historicization. The authors of the NIOD Report have. and fundamentally well-intentioned nation. r. and in both cases this behavior was inspired by a myth of what the Dutch and the Dutch nation fundamentally is like: decent. Muslims. too brutal a way to put it. But. of a mythical mother’s lap? One may well ask oneself whether this feverish and so uncanny fidgeting of modern culture is anything else but the greedy snapping and searching-for-food of the famished—and who would still wish to give anything to such a culture that cannot be satisfied by whatever it devours. except this myth. been no less open to the moral impasses in which the Dutch government and Dutchbat involved themselves in Srebrenica than anybody else. cooperative. of course. It did so by making the historians of the NIOD repeat the behavior of the responsible politicians. it no longer was merely a framework around historical representation. decent. and without prejudice against Jews. characteristically again. its restless gathering together of other cultures and its all-consuming thirst for knowledge signify. The issue is. For what the Report ultimately and unintentionally did was to try to perpetuate the myth of the Dutch as a sensible. avoiding by this overhasty reaction a discussion of the Report in parliament). what the NIOD researchers were blind to is not all that happened in Srebrenica—they knew about this better than anybody else will ever (care to) know. when . that their copying of the behavior of the government demonstrated that there was a limit to what they succeeded in historicizing.334 f. So—a myth it surely is! But this is. the loss of a mythical home. when the urge to historicize is high­ est.” The NIOD Report historicized everything that could be historicized about the Srebrenica drama except this. rather. These historians were not offering a bland apology for the involvement of Dutchbat in this major catastrophe. but it entered into the representation itself. I think. the cabinet presided over by Wim Kok resigned all of a sudden a week after the publication of the NIOD Report (though. That was the action performed by the NIOD researchers that they copied from their principals in a “parallel process. In his Geburt der Tragödie Nietzsche presented a most penetrating insight into this relationship between myth and the resistence to historicization: What else could modern culture’s insatiable hunger for history. nice. as I have expressed it myself elsewhere. and myth could then freely invade the domain of representation.

as we just saw. of all historical writing (it is present at its beginning. to which the Angel has turned its back. Where we may see a chain of events. finally. . .  it perceives just one huge catastrophe. the most sustained effort at historical objectivity motivated the historians of the NIOD to sublimate objectivity into an actual copying of the past they investigated.. It depicts an angel looking as if it wanted to move away from something on which its gaze is firmly fixed. In the NIOD and similar cases the representation of action was effectively transformed into the action of representation. is illuminating here. In this way myth can also give meaning to “presence. . then. It has turned its face to the past. suggest where we may expect to find presence in a civilization’s cultural repertoire. Because of this.” as I once called it. For. The blind spot is the myth lying at the origin of the subconscious beliefs and convictions of a civilization. of a civilization. we will find ourselves in a pre. Once again the parallel process. Ibid. nations. also demonstrates why myth is to be found at the end.or transhistorical myth.” that is to say. and while the pile of ruins in front of it grows into the skies. no doubt about that!). This. This storm continuously pushes the Angel towards the future. and it wings are spread out. and is the place where actions represented will continuously repeat themselves in the action of representation. to awaken there the dead and to restore what was torn apart. But a storm is blowing from paradise which has caught the Angel’s wings and is so strong that it can no longer close these together.“presence” and Myth 335 Benjamin’s storms from paradise have achieved their greatest strengths. a nation. 2005). when we really get to the eye of the hurricane of historicization. at the same time. It is the “cold heart. Its eyes are distended. its mouth is wide open. . Myth manifests itself when historicization has. in a certain sense this truly is the ne plus ultra of objectivity: here the past is impersonated in the way that an actor may impersonate Napoleon or Louis XIV. IX). myth then begins to leak into representation. We had best characterize this blind spot as the report’s myth: for we have to do with myth when the past determines our actions while. or institution never succeeds in properly objectifying when thinking about itself and its past). Indeed. 368. Finally. This is what the Angel of History must look like. Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen. nation. but understood rather as what a civilization. and so forth. incessantly heaping ruins upon ruins and which are thrown down before its feet. we cannot objectify what makes us do so. hoping to do so in a way that makes the actual Napoleon or Louis XIV and himself as indiscernible as Warhol’s Brillo Box is from a real Brillo Box. and of what made them copy their principals. nation. 368. 367. See my Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press. “There is a  painting by Klee entitled Angelus Novus. Benjamin. as expounded by Runia.” See W. “Presence” is an appropriate term for referring to this stubborn persistence of the past in which it remains a presence in the present. or an institution. reached it limits. as well as at the beginning. It seems to wish to remain on the spot. in all of this myth is closely related to presence (the term “myth” is taken here not in the traditional sense of that word. and the continuum between nature and history emerges in which representation turns into a copying of the past. But precisely this transformation makes us aware of the blind spot of the NIOD Report: its authors started to behave in the same way as their principals but without being aware of it. 365. or institution. myth incarnates the parallel processes of civilizations. and these limits dimly and surreptitiously begin to announce their existence.

Obviously.” I have in mind the meaning of the notion. of how basic myth really is to how we conceptualize the past. Myth should not be relegated to some primitive and ancient phase in our interaction with the past: it is also to be found at the vanishing point of all contemporary professionalized historical writing—a characterization. so that it may remain with us indefinitely. For the lingualism of the philosophy of language. Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford: Stanford University Press. It is a typically “democratic” term in the sense that anybody may do with it what he or she likes.”10 Nevertheless. . rather than a promoter of. 2004). I do not wish to imply by this that presence itself—as a concrete historical or cultural phenomenon—can have a meaning itself. It does not have a meaning that we can all be required to accept. I am convinced that this really is the kind of notion we now need more than anything else. The notion of “presence” may help us to enter a new phase in theoretical reflection about the humanities and to address a set of wholly new and fascinating questions. Groningen University 10. its meaning always successfully evades our grasp. another meaning we may give to “presence. Indeed. I am referring here to H. So I wholly agree with H. and more specifically. Gumbrecht who says that “presence” may give us “what meaning cannot convey. U. if we wish to be admitted to the arena of theoretical debate. anKersmit Note that when speaking about the meaning of “presence. r. This essay has been an attempt to substantiate this claim and to show that the notion of “presence” may add to our understanding of all the intricacies of how we represent the past. Decisive is only whether one’s use of the term is useful and fruitful. Gumbrecht. and so on has become by now an obstacle to. Conclusion “Presence” is a new word in theoretical reflection on the humanities. The mantras of this now so oppressive and suffocating lingualism have become a serious threat to the intellectual health of our discipline. I should not hesitate to add. the urge to get hold of this meaning is irresistible—and this is why we can easily get caught by this loop of presence. For getting hold of this meaning is just as impossible as jumping over one’s own shadow. that is meant as a compliment rather than as a criticism of it.336 f.” V. this is. of hermeneutics. That is its sublimity. Looking at it from this perspective. again. Nobody can dictate to us what meaning we should give to the term. U. useful and fruitful insights. of semiotics. of tropology. and whether it may offer new prospects in philosophy and in reflection about the humanities. of deconstructivism.