Luisa Passerini is committed to a method that looks at ‘the silences and the oblivions of history’ as closely as, or more closely than, the manifest continuities. Her response to my review of her book Europe in Love, Love in Europe, like the book itself, is fascinating and illuminating as much for what it omits as for what it states explicitly. The clarification that she offers of the methodological assumptions of her style of cultural history is very welcome, and I am glad to have this opportunity to respond to it. Passerini is an authentic and rigorous scholar; her theoretical consistency is unquestionable, as demonstrated in her reply above; and her refusal to wrench the subjects of her research violently out of context is irreproachable. Scholarly propriety is, in fact, the principal theme of her response; thus her ‘puzzlement’ at my quotation of Burckhardt from a secondary source should certainly be read as a polite reproach.
Less nuanced is the charge that I have ascribed to the author views held by the objects of her study. Interestingly, I am not the only reviewer of Europe in Love to have been criticized by Passerini for this.footnote1 Furthermore, she claims, I have ignored the importance to her work of psychoanalysis, which enables, indeed obliges us to read historical phenomena less in terms of cause and effect than as symptoms of metaphorical ‘illness’. Finally, she objects to my use of the terms ‘historicism’ and ‘ahistoricism’—in particular, to my suggestion that her diligence in treating historical traces with ‘the utmost philological attention to them and their contexts’ is pursued with such excessive rigour that it leads, in effect, to ahistoricism, that is, to the presumption to speak from a position outside history. Such an idea, Passerini intimates, testifies to ‘the breakdown of a common tradition’ which, with characteristic generosity—or is it excessive historicism?—she attributes to the ‘diaspora of languages’ within different generations of the Left.
The term ‘historicism’, as is clear from her response, is indeed used by Passerini and myself in quite different senses. Raymond Williams distinguishes (at least) two usages: the first, positive, denotes ‘a deliberate emphasis on variable historical conditions and contexts, through which all specific events must be interpreted’. This is the sense in which I have used it, in relation to cultural history in general and what I take to be Passerini’s methodology in particular. The second, hostile sense, associated with Karl Popper’s assault on Marx and Hegel, refers to ‘forms of interpretation or prediction by “historical necessity” or the discovery of general “laws of historical development”.’footnote2 As Passerini notes, it is the opposite of this that I criticize in Europe in Love. Thus—si parva licet etc.—I am not at all sure that the ‘discontinuities’ between Passerini and myself, a generational break and/or different intellectual traditions, are as significant as she thinks they are.
After all, Passerini virtually concedes that Europe in Love advances no explicit argument as such, adding that to ‘mobilize’ characters from history as political solutions in the present is potentially dangerous. I would agree that such caution is justified, as is her reluctance to condemn, with casual hindsight, the fascist sympathies of her subjects. What then is the role of the historian for Passerini? What, in particular, could be the rationale behind her scholarly interest in a collection of largely forgotten, often unattractive or even politically reprehensible figures? This is a question I posed in my original review, but the only answer Passerini offers here is entirely negative, no less so for its symptomatic use of the indefinite article: ‘a primary task of any historian today’ she writes, ‘is to avoid the exclusive pretensions to continuity of traditional narratives’. The reason for resuscitating Mitrinovic et al., in other words, is nothing other than the fact of their current obscurity. Is it any wonder that reviewers, desperate to locate a position in—or a point to—Passerini’s project, have assumed that her vision for the future, unstated and implicit as her methodology requires it to be, might nevertheless have something to do with the views of the characters whom she champions in the book? The rediscovery and sympathetic portrait of the little known communist partisan Frank Thompson, executed in Bulgaria in 1944—the elder brother of the historian E. P. Thompson—is one of the real achievements of Passerini’s book. With her refusal to harness Thompson for our times, however, one is led to conclude that the real object of her study is the fetishized methodology itself.
In this respect, I would argue, Passerini’s anxious concern for methodological propriety verges on the squeamish. She is dismayed at the prospect of what Heidegger calls Zuhandenheit, literally ‘readiness-to-hand’, instrumentality, or (Lucien Goldmann’s translation) la manipulabilité. footnote3 Yet this revulsion, theoretically founded as it is, leads her towards an intellectual position disconcertingly similar to what is called, in non-academic circles, ‘hedging’.
This is most apparent in the question of Passerini’s ‘antecedents’. She objects strongly to my comparison of her work to Burckhardt (a comparison which is heavily qualified in the original review), as well as to my contrast of her perspective with that of Eric Hobsbawm—yet she then goes on to qualify her own rejection of Burckhardt, on precisely the grounds that I compared them, and to distance herself from Hobsbawm, on precisely the grounds that I counterposed them! I cannot remember ever reading a sentence that hedges more than the following: ‘between such work and mine, or that of some of my contemporaries, I see the mixture of continuity and discontinuity that typically unites and divides different intellectual generations.’
This is a point that was central to the concerns of my review. Passerini’s book is an ideal object to read ‘symptomatically’—as a text spooked by its own contemporaneity. She reacts with distaste when she is mentioned in the same sub-clause as Blair—yet her preferred ‘lover’s discourse, translated into historical terms’, gives her, and us, no tools to think politically that are distinguishable from suspect official discourses. As Roland Barthes writes, ‘the lover speaks in bundles of sentences but does not integrate these sentences on a higher level, into a work’.footnote4 Passerini is faithful to this method of proceeding. The problem is simply the difficulty of invoking her fragmentary narratives in the developments of an accessible political position. That it is ‘impossible to derive a linear path from the Greeks to Maastricht’ is undeniable. But need this mean ‘abandoning’ every historical determination of European identity, leaping across an ‘abyss’ between all certainties? It seems a politically defeatist conclusion.