Exile as Event

This is the prepared text of a presentation to the General Seminar commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the University in Exile.

I want to start with the concept of exile itself; exile understood as an event that was produced, one might even say mandated, by an Event with a capital E. That Event — the rise to power in Europe of Nazism and fascism was most dramatically consummated by the 1933 Enabling Act of the German Parliament, granting Hitler the right to amend the German Constitution without parliamentary oversight for a foreseeable four years, essentially establishing him as a dictator. 1933 was a pivotal year. This capital E Event, incorporating all the legal, political and social repercussions of the rise to power of the Nazis, set off the responses of many institutions within and outside of Europe to provide havens for individuals caught up in the repressive force field of these movements and conditions. My own interest in Events as an historical and sociological concept leads me, on this occasion of an 80th anniversary of the University in Exile, to think about what exile means and what it means to have institutionalized the very singular, exceptional, and dislocating event of Exile. Not only did the University in Exile emerge out of and in response to rupture and displacement, it sustained the rupture of its origins in its very name. What does it mean to be a University in Exile? One might even say that the creation and original condition of the University in Exile was an event itself. And as such, shouldn’t it be a state of being that is temporary by definition, as exile looks forward to return and reterritorialization? So here is a question worth asking: what becomes of permanent exile or of the making of exile a permanent position, place and force? What advantage might we derive from reconceptualizing the University in Exile as an event rather than a memory, an event that like all events is capable of life still? I think my panelists will be specific on this and cognate questions. By way of preparation, let me here just advance, or retreat, a bit here into my more general project to reconceptualize events to get the conversation going.

Historical events have been mainly studied and conceptualized by historians. And they have been largely committed to understanding events’ specific causes and consequences. Sociologists have been interested in events only intermittently and half-heartedly, more committed as a discipline to enduring conditions and general laws of social life. I’m seeking a rapprochement between understanding events as singular and understanding them as universal. So here’s my angle of vision. It’s my contention that historical events need analysis that is sensitive to both events’ mobility and process and also sensitive to their shapes and forms. In other words, in a bid for a kind of quantum sociology, I claim that events behave like both particles and waves. Events take shape(s) are given names and codified in doctrines, manifestos, declarations, constitutions, bank closures, foreclosures, exiles, and so forth. But events are also on the move, changing hands, washing over and reconfiguring diverse spaces and populations, now violent, now peaceful, now in the doldrums where, as news reporters covering war zones and standoffs like to say, “nothing is happening today.” Most people who study events tend in one or another direction in their analyses — event as particle; event as wave. I’ve argued that such previous analysis has been hampered by an inability to capture and account for both the shape-taking qualities of events (in the forms of constitutions, revolutions, wars, declarations, maps, calendars, manifestos) and the mobility and developmental quality of events as they spread, grow, morph, or get bogged down.

In my own study of events, I’ve been especially interested in their beginnings: what is it like to be in the initial moments of an historical event that is not yet clearly one — either in its meaning, its intensity, its breadth or its consequences? What occurs when we pivot our attention away from our everyday, but don’t yet know exactly where to look or who to listen to, let alone believe? Indeed, it is a challenge for scholars studying transformative historical events to capture the enormous sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and disorientation such events can provoke, especially in their initial stages. But it is not just as scholars that we experience a world out of whack. As social beings and political citizens we have all experienced the vertiginous sensation that we may be entering a new historical moment or era, one that does not yet have a name or a clear trajectory, or well-defined shape. A remarkable, unexpected, and often violent, rupture (thousands of protestors in a square, airplanes flying into buildings, financial markets in free fall, hurricanes devastating a city) sets off the series of actions that only gradually and, often with difficulty, coheres into something that can be bounded in time and space, categorized, and named as “such and such” event (9/11, the Arab Spring).

“Political semiosis,” a framework I’ve proposed, provides leverage into that universal sensation of disequilibrium. It’s a mechanism able to analyze event formation, mobility, and deformation. It is comprised of three distinct features with different operational logics: a performative feature, a demonstrative feature, and a representational feature. Events take shape via a speech act or its performative equivalent that materially changes the social and/or political world, including the identities of actors and relationships (a judge announces “I find the defendant not guilty,” a group of individuals declare the founding of a university). Demonstrative terms index and distinguish proximal and distal entities and relations (this, that, these, and those) and include the deictical features of speech — pronouns and adverbs of time and place (here, there, now, and then). Demonstratives highlightorientations within and toward situations. They demarcate the spaces of exile and return, for example — the there and the here. Representations are copies of the event (discursive, pictorial, symbolic, gestural), generated and sent to audiences and witnesses at a distance. Representations attempt to stabilize, sediment, or institutionalize the historical transition in the face of uncertainty, distance, and resistance. In summary, participants in historical events attend to, or orient toward, times and spaces of rupture and the new; they heed or resist the performative acts; and they recall and relive these acts through their representations. When the features of political semiosis coordinate to constitute an event, one widely recognized, a turning point is reached. However, uptake is key and can never be assumed in advance.

Sociologists study the social and political forces that seek to shape and name these ruptures. The analytical approach of political semiosis attends to the contestations of power and struggles over forms among diverse social, political, and cultural forces. It can even provide an explanation for the absence of uptake when events bog down or get caught in what I call an “event eddy.” (I believe Jim will pose a cognate question to us today — are we, at the New School, in an event eddy).

Now, 80 years on from the disorienting and rupturing initial stages of the Event known as the Holocaust and World War II, and the subsequent event of the creation of the University in Exile and similar institutions of rescue and safe-haven, we are, it seems dealing with memory of such events rather than the Event itself. I take exception to this. I suggest that “memory studies” in the social sciences (of which I have been a participant) is at something of a dead-end, and that the issues and themes that have propelled such studies (memory vs history; collective vs collected memory/ies; memory and forgetting; memory in the service of the past vs memory in the service of the present) while extremely productive and illuminating, have also made a series of assumptions about the life span of historical events themselves. For example, one major assumption — that collective memories are about events that have finished, has created analytical blindspots. Assessing the nature and capacities of the forms in which events live and through which they move is an alternative and, I would argue, more fruitful way of understanding the relationships between memory and social and cultural mediations. And these forms include more than just memorials and monuments, they include institutions like universities themselves.

Max Weber, one of the great founding fathers of Sociology, was deeply concerned with authority and legitimacy. One his central types of authority was that of charisma – the visionary, rupturing, exceptional form of leadership that breaks with the past and points toward a newly conceived future. Of course, charismatic leaders and charismatic moments cannot endure over time and generations, for better or for ill. For such endurance, institutionalizing mechanisms must be generated. But this presents a conundrum. How do you institutionalize (routinize is the more appropriately banal term for this) the anti-institutional? Here’s where a focus on the University in Exile as an ongoing event that both takes shape and moves might be productive for us. The trick is to both institutionalize (that is, to give solidity and shape forms) and still hold onto the mobility, vitality, and even self-conscious provisionality of the “event” of the University in Exile. An institution may have memories and can be memorialized, but I would argue that it should be best understood as an event that continues to take shapes and move. Institutionalizing exile is, if not an oxymoron, then a concept in genuine tension with itself — and that is something worth considering.

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Robin Wagner-Pacifici

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