In my last post, I explained briefly what kinds of questions I find appealing in the fields of history and utopian theory. In this post, I would like to elaborate on where I believe these questions come to the fore most vividly, and how the historical location of such questions influences my choice regarding subject-matter and period. The alert reader can see that I am writing in a strangely ‘passive’ voice: I do not simply pick the subject-matter – the subject-matter suggests itself to me, given my commitments. To some extent, this is the product of the fact that academia is a calling, and perhaps history (or the humanities in general) has an even higher ‘calling-potential’ than most other academic fields.* But I have to admit it’s also partly a personal defect and occupational hazard: to historicise even oneself beyond the recognition of agency. This is something I’m still working on, I promise.
If there is one topic that has never ceased to captivate the (largely Western) political imagination, it is the civilisation-barbarism complex. Any superficial knowledge of the course of human history must include also knowledge of considerable cruelty, ignorance and hatred. For some scholars, the study of history provides plenty of reason to plunge into great pessimism about the future of civilisation, and about its ability to withstand the barbarians – who are always imagined ad portas; already ‘at the gates’ of human compassion, insight, and love. For the great English historian Eric Hobsbawm, for example, civilisation had receded to make way to the tide of barbarism since at least the start of the First World War.