Posted by: HAT | June 14, 2010

Challenge of History

See the tell

wrestling with the past can take various forms

A friend told this story as a matter of fact. It starts with the sudden death of the dean of a college. The department staff had to clean out his office. That desk was notorious for being covered with paper, but what they found exceeded anyone’s imagination. The desk was something like a tell – the hill that forms when successive civilizations build new towns on the covered-up ruins of old ones. Apparently, when the stacks of paperwork still to deal with had reached a critical point, the late administrator had simply placed a fresh sheet of blotter paper on top of them, and started from that point, as from a new day one. “They found stuff that had NEVER been done. It went back YEARS.”

This seems like a good story to remember whenever someone trots out a theory that implicitly or explicitly sets the demands of history on thought and practice at zero.

Maybe that past doesn’t concern the present. Then again, maybe it does. Who knows for sure, until someone has to clean up what it left behind?

Walter Benjamin is probably right. The claim of the past to the present’s “weak Messianic power” cannot be settled cheaply.

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