Sublime Historical Experience, Real Presence and Photography

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Martin Jay University of California Berkeley

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In addition to the testimony of the author’s own “sublime historical experience” during a visit to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, this essay draws on Georges Didi-Huberman’s analysis of four photographs from the Holocaust in his Images in Spite of All to demonstrate the power of Ankersmit’s argument. It speculates on the relationship between such experiences and theological notions of “real presence,” which also seek to collapse the distance between past and present and confound conventional historicist notions of temporal continuity and contextual determination. Against Ankersmit’s claim that sublime historical experiences occur only when a civilizational transformation causes nostalgia for a lost past, it argues that they may also be felt when traumatic events for whose return no one yearns disrupt the intelligibility of historical narratives and meaningful representation.

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