Historical Experiments

A conversation on philosophy, fiction, and the secret friendship between scholarship and ecstasy.

By D. Graham Burnett and David Kishik

Monday, March 06, 2023

Mural for the Santa Monica Library: Prologue, by Stanton Macdonald-Wright, c. 1934. Smithsonian American Art Museum, transfer from the City of Santa Monica, California, 1966.

Lapham’s Quarterly invited D. Graham Burnett and David Kishik to discuss two of their books, which play with the idea and practice of history: Burnett’s In Search of the Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), 2001–2021, coedited with Catherine L. Hansen and Justin E.H. Smith, and Kishik’s The Manhattan Project: A Theory of a City.


Is history an art? Or a science? This debate lies at the heart of some of the most challenging philosophy of the past two centuries. Thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger all wrestled with the time-bound nature of truth, and each of them struggled to understand what kind of historical knowledge was possible—and desirable. Meanwhile, card-carrying academic historians mostly went about the business of digging in archives, mastering dead languages, and assembling accounts of what had happened in the past, larding their tomes with more and more footnotes in an effort to prove that they were telling the truth. These weren’t novels. They were positive and empirical achievements of the “scientific” spirit.

But there were dissenters all along the way, practitioners of a host of hybrid, playful, and sometimes troublingly ambiguous mash-ups of history and fiction. Indeed, the genre of historical fiction was born across the very same period in the early nineteenth century that saw academic history increasingly codified as a university enterprise. Counterfactual histories, mystifications composed of (made-up) documentary sources, philosophical thought pieces staged as historical inquiries—in these and other literary games, history-thinking has served a host of aims that defy the scientific program of historical scholarship.

In the context of fresh debates around history, memory, and sources—and under the shadow of intensified concerns about ideological deception and “fake news”—both of us, separately, began to experiment with nontraditional approaches to the project of historical reflection. We are hardly the first to do so, and we have some very special company. The distinguished African Americanist Saidiya Hartman, for instance, has pioneered the notion of “critical fabulation,” a technique for producing deeper understanding of suppressed or forgotten aspects of history by means of an epistemically responsible integration of research and invention. In what follows, we discuss some other inspirations, but mainly we explore the delicate affinities that bind history, philosophy, and fiction. Out of these threads we wove our unorthodox projects.—D. Graham Burnett and David Kishik

Fortieth Street Between Sixth and Seventh Avenues Looking Southwest From 42nd Street, Manhattan, by Berenice Abbott, 1935.

D. Graham Burnett: David, you are a philosopher with an interest in history, and I think of myself as a historian with an interest in philosophy. In this sense, we share overlapping terrain, and are both drawn to the borderlands of our fields. Our recent books reflect this, since both are “odd” with respect to traditional disciplinary boundaries. For the readers of Lapham’s Quarterly, who care a lot about history, what would you say about the nexus of the historical and the philosophical in The Manhattan Project?

David Kishik: My book, like In Search of the Third Bird, deals with both the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history—what history is, how we can know it, how it is used or abused and to what ends. In The Manhattan Project my aim was simple…and impossible. I was searching for the philosophical significance of a particular place in a particular time: New York City in the twentieth century. It is this effort to make philosophy intensely specific, to think locally rather than globally, that accounts for the historical roots and preoccupations of my study.

DGB: What about the ways that your book experiments with fiction? Was actual history somehow not enough?

DK: I think of the fiction in my book as something like the horse that pulls the scholarly carriage along. In historical fiction this order is generally reversed: the historical scholarship does most of the pulling; the fictional cargo rolls along, carried forward by the research. Only after inventing my frame tale was I able to get my study rolling. By imagining a sequel to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, his unfinished book about Paris as the capital of the nineteenth century, my work on New York began to take shape.

DGB: I think this puts you in good company, in a way, because there is a rich tradition of philosophical works that are set in fictional frames, from Bacon’s New Atlantis to Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville. These philosophical fables fit the literary conventions of their moments even as they pushed new arguments—for Bacon, an argument about how scientific research should look; for Diderot, an argument about the absurdity of orthodox Christianity. But your work isn’t just a philosophy story. It deploys a specifically historiographical conceit: The Manhattan Project circles a found text, Walter Benjamin’s nonexistent magnum opus manuscript on New York. For the most part, however, you do not give us long quotes from this precious text that you claim to have “discovered.” Instead you use the conceit of this manuscript discovery as the occasion for a book about the philosophical problems that arise in reflecting on twentieth-century New York. In this sense, you want to think with the great Walter Benjamin about a problem—the history of urban modernity, the philosophical and existential problems raised by the new megacities of the modern era—that Benjamin himself thought about a lot. Through your fictional frame you set him up as an interlocutor in your investigation. Does that sound right?

DK: Yes, exactly. My book is set up as the kind of work academics call “secondary literature”—except that the primary source does not exist in any conventional sense. Benjamin actually said that the true historian must “read what was never written”; I tried to take this gnomic dictum quite literally. My book is an effort to do just that: read the text that Benjamin never got to write. How do I go about that? Well, practically, there’s lots of comparing and contrasting in my study. For example, I think about the place of the flaneur in the streets of Paris and hold that against the fate of the homeless in New York. In another section, I examine how art nouveau and minimalism came to represent the aesthetics of these two cities. I am interested in these moments of parallel or conjunction. Why do Baudelaire’s poems and Warhol’s films work as the gospels of these two world capitals? What can be said about the function of Baron Haussmann and Robert Moses as their master builders or demolishers?

DGB: I’m struck by the idea of writing history with a ghost companion. I think In Search of the Third Bird works in a similar way. My colleagues and I use the book to pursue the history of something ghostly and evasive. We are chasing the immediacy of aesthetic experience, that special shiver that has haunted writing on art and nature. One can write around that idea. But can one ever get at it? Like a phantasm, like a bird, it eludes the grasp. One might go even further and suggest that the immediacy of aesthetic experience evaporates when we turn to look at it squarely. Something of that dynamic haunts In Search of the Third Bird.

DK: Yes, I see it. In Delirious New York Rem Koolhaas claims that he is Manhattan’s ghostwriter, and I felt, with respect to Benjamin, like the ghostwriter of a ghostwriter. You, too, enroll a ghost as an accomplice in your thumping work of historical-cum-theoretical-inquiry: the “Birds” themselves, this putative underground society of radical “attentionauts” who are the book’s notional quarry: the “Order of the Third Bird.” Did this group ever exist? As you and your coauthors present them, they are certainly spectral, since they have gone to such great lengths to erase their own history. Indeed, part of the conundrum of the book seems to be that the scholars of ESTAR(SER)—the Esthetical Society for Transcendental and Applied Realization (now incorporating the Society of Esthetic Realizers), which makes the history of the Birds its business and is responsible for the book itself—may actually have, as its subject, genuine adversaries. Which is to say, the shadowy Birds evidently try to unwrite their history as fast as you and your coauthors can write it! This gives rise to the comic subplot of your book: that its many demonstrative falsehoods and quirks may in fact be traces of “enemy action” by the playful and evasive Birds, continuously tweaking things in order to hide and tease. By these lights, the failures of “real” history in the volume—the parts that Google searches cannot confirm—are pressed into service as proofs for the existence of these avian figments.

DGB: Not only that—we raise the possibility that Birds may creep around those who try to read our book, along the lines of Julio Cortázar’s great 1964 mystery tale of literary stalking, “The Continuity of Parks.” So while Heidegger sees philosophical truth as a constant process of uncovering, one is tempted to suggest that historical truth must constantly reckon with the active forces of concealment. In your book, too, I sensed an interest in the twisty ways of Borgesian metafiction. Or is it Auster’s New York Trilogy that inspired you?

DK: Both, big time. It is the detective story that perhaps best captures the mood I was seeking in The Manhattan Project. New York City is so vast and varied that I needed to use Benjamin’s ghost as a kind of presiding spirit who could gather and hold all those fragments together, synthesizing the metropolitan multiplicity into a single literary montage. This need for a thread by which to navigate the labyrinth—this is surely why so many novels about New York and other large cities are detective stories. The private eye is ideally positioned to connect the city’s disparate dots. The Manhattan Project is thus a kind of procedural—only instead of solving a crime, my protagonist is weaving a theory. Some of the strangeness and power of In Search of the Third Bird lies exactly in the weave of the interlocking chapters, the density of the citations and footnotes and intersections. It is baroque! It reminded me of Benjamin’s dissertation on mourning plays or the mad paratextual excesses of Pale Fire.

DGB: The publisher called it “a book made of books, at the end of the era of books.” We aimed to create literature from the most elaborate conventions of historical Wissenschaft—mincing, bibliophilic scholarship in all its glory.

DK: As I was amaze-reading these games, I kept wondering what you and your madcap coauthors were really searching for In Search of the Third Bird? Is there some “eddy in the stream of becoming,” as Benjamin puts it, swirling at the origin of this epic project?

DGB: Well, I have always been interested in a kind of paradox that lies at the heart of history. On the one hand, it is central to the true historian’s creed that everything is historical. Everything changes. Nothing is “trans” or “supra” historical. Nothing is beyond or outside of history. This is a potent doctrine. It is a solvent of all apparent verities, because all verities rely on a given time and place for their status as verities—the thinkers committed to the most radical version of this view genuinely deny that any truths can claim to “escape” time, to be true always, to be eternal. You may set yourself the task of explaining why this idea emerges here or there, why this group of people think this thing is true at this moment. But the operative issue is that nothing is forever. Everything is a matter of when. But let’s raise the other hand: Is this creed itself—historicism, as it is often called—itself merely historical? There’s a puzzle! The true historian presents historicism as true, as if only benighted (or Pollyannaish) persons could hope for a kind of truth that is anything other than contingent on time and place. But the historian’s confidence in this proposition has about it a claim to always-and-everywhere rightness that historicism itself seems to disallow.

DK: Ah, the good old “if everything is relative, then so is this relativist claim.” It always feels to me like a Chinese finger trap. German philosophers after Hegel were obsessed with this historical puzzle.

DGB: Exactly! But no working historians are Hegelians these days. And in this sense, it is possible to detect a whiff of bad faith in garden-variety historicism, which claims for itself a universal truth that it is unwilling to justify or to grant to its subjects. And this leads to an awkwardness, too: lots and lots of human subjects, in many times and places, have made claims to truth that they did not believe to be historically contingent—claims about the gods, and beauty, and justice, to take just a few important examples. But when historians take up those histories, they cannot but be unsympathetic. History votes definitively against all such claims—votes against them by means of its core methodology. History cannot handle the transhistorical because the claim in the term itself—that history can be transcended—defies what history does and is. Because for those most radically committed to historicity, there is no transhistorical.

DK: I see. And this is why good historians can tolerate only up to a point the philosophers’ shenanigans—their hopeless search of a metaphysical truth.

DGB: And so In Search of the Third Bird’s absurdo-comical cat-and-bird game of a bunch of historians pursuing historical subjects who actively subvert historical method picks up on this deep problem. It is not a problem that can be “solved,” exactly. But it can be dramatized, and I think In Search of the Third Bird tries to do that—among other things.

DK: I love the absurdist tone of your book. Whatever else it is, it is amusing. This was something I had to wrestle with in my own project. One of the hardest things I confronted was the challenge of letting go of the miasma of gravity and pathos that surrounds “Saint Walter” Benjamin, who so tragically cut his life short before finishing his work. It wasn’t easy to pivot his life into a counterfactual tale that takes shape as a strange romantic comedy about an aging philosopher and his beloved adopted city. So I wonder: Can we continue to care dearly about history while letting go of its severity? Can we ever escape the melancholic trappings of the historical record? Is it possible to be absolutely serious and to play at the same time? Is this what Nietzsche called “gay science”? Does that interest you?

DGB: Joy matters. Jokes, though, can be dangerous, because they so often draw distinctions between who is in and who is out. I realize that the play in In Search of the Third Bird is not for everyone, and that some folks are going to pick it up and not get it—and some may well feel immediately that it is not “for” them, in a way that will not feel good. I wish this were not the case. But I am not sure what to do about it. Except to be totally willing to answer questions! I like talking about the book, and what it tries to do, and I am happy to talk about that with anyone. But where joy is concerned, the most important thing I can say, I think, is that the book was an outrageously collaborative effort, with literally dozens of coauthors. And in the course of the work I had experiences of shared thought—experiences of the free play of mind, and world, and others—quite unlike anything else I have known in my life. Ecstasy? Yes!

DK: I cherish this secret friendship between scholarship and ecstasy. On that note, I’ve noticed that your Birds and my Benjamin (who must have been an honorary member of their Order) tend to fixate their attention not on things they wish to criticize but on objects of their deep and true desire, on redemptive or revolutionary moments. Our minor heroes detect in what came before the potential energies that can propel us into the future. A Benjaminian engagement with history doesn’t produce bedtime stories but alarm clocks: the point is to wake the readers up, not to let them drowse into the “Once upon a time…” How do you describe what happens to us when we attend to history? How do you search for needles in the historical haystack? How do they pop the dogmatic bubbles in which we perpetually live? How do we rob our readers of their own convictions about the ways things must be? Are we really birds in those moments or rather dogs, like Diogenes the Cynic?

DGB: The needles in the haystack as little tools of critical emancipation—ah, what a lovely image! But let me go back: Benjamin surely had some truck with the Order of the Third Bird! We will have to keep our eyes on the archive, and wait for a suitable source to emerge on that! As for your point about the importance of turning the attention on the objects of deep and true desire, and the power of pursuing the futurity that lives in the past—on all of that I could not agree more. The work of “critique” has to be paired with that of creation. This is, for me, the most exciting aspect of the new work that is happening at the conjunction of art and scholarship. Take, for instance, Counternarratives, by the brilliant John Keene—an amazing example of the power of fictive histories to transform the present and catalyze new visions for what must lie ahead. That is work that has inspired many of us who care about the poetics of history.

DK: Dogs and Birds?

DGB: I feel the force of your question. Diogenes the Cynic (the “Dog-like") was a disruptor. He declined to play along with convention. He stands in the tradition as a figure who broke conventions—whose philosophy was insurgent in its defiance of norms. Our Birds, by contrast, fly under the radar. They blend in. They are a secret society of those who are simply paying closer attention than everyone else. Their bond is the bond of those who give themselves to attention completely, together. Radical attention, for the Birds, is a form of life. And this, I think, is radical, given the ways that human attention is currently under siege within the new technologically mediated attention economy. In Search of the Third Bird is very much about that, if obliquely. In The Uses of Pleasure (1984), the French philosopher Michel Foucault famously said, “There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.” In this essential work, I think the Birds and the Cynics align.

DK: And our books, too; they are both invested in this work for sure.

DGB: Yes! I want to try to say something more about this issue of attention and history. You posed this problem a moment ago, asking, “How do you describe what happens to us when we attend to history?” It is a beautiful question. And it puts me in mind of the work of the Italian philosopher of art and art restorer Cesare Brandi (1906–1988). In the wake of World War II, Brandi developed an important technique for painting in the destroyed sections of old frescos and canvases. In order to preserve the integrity of the surviving original, he stipulated that the filled-in regions should be painted in a pointillist style: from a distance, those little dots blurred together. The painting took on an aesthetic integrity; it was made whole through these fictions. But take a step forward, and the pointillist dots resolved into a distinctive speckling, and that meant one could see what parts were original and which had been conjured by the restorer. I am drawn to a theory of history that works in the same way. What we want, I think, are forms of history that are responsive to our attention—that give different things at different scales, that change as we move close or step back. Moments of invention can be part of new integrities. I think of the powerful way that certain forms of artistic practice—installation, experimental documentary film, performance—permit these dynamics. Walid Raad. Ralph Lemon. Cathy Park Hong. All thought is essentially fictive: it leaves the world behind. That is how we take the world with us—we carry it with us in the form of thoughts, which are always phantasms. Thinking the past, therefore, must involve dreams, because dreams are what is deepest in us. They are the world in the mind. They are what we carry closest.

DK: For me, this is the work of the in-between spaces. Between any two points there is an infinitude. By these lights, instead of interpreting history, we interpolate it—what mathematicians and scientists do when they estimate data points between known values in order to draw their pretty graphs. This is also what theologians do when they find new meanings in ancient sacred texts, as I more recently did with the book of Genesis. We all search with candles for the interstices, the silences, the absences. From this perspective, you and I are scholarly centaurs: the body of a fact-checker and the head of a fabulator.

Explore other views on compilations and considerations of the past in our series of readings on the study of history: Polybius, Michel de Montaigne, Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hardy, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto, Voltaire, Charles Lamb, al-Biruni, Ibn Khaldun, Germaine de Staël, and Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland.