History and Theory 54 (February 2015), 96-105 © Wesleyan University 2015 ISSN: 0018-2656
PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY’S RETURN
The STrucTure of World hiSTory: from modeS of ProducTion To modeS of exchange. By Kojin Karatani. Translated by Michael Bourdaghs. Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 2014. Pp. 384.
Kojin Karatani’s Structure of World History seeks to rescue the philosophy of history and restore to it the relationship between philosophical reflection and historical practice. This connection is particularly pertinent in Karatani’s case since he had earlier worked out the philosophical scaffolding of this monumental study in his book Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, which embarked on a “return to Capital once more to read the potential that has been overlooked.” By juxtaposing Marx to Kant and vice versa to discover the importance of exchange over production, he found what was to become the informing principle of his later philosophy of history. While Karatani’s accounting of the structure of world history presumes to recount the passage of the world’s history from nomadic societies to the present as a condition to rethink “social formations” from a perspective that recalls the form of a stagist philosophy of history attributed to Marx and Engels, he has abandoned its informing principle of the modes of production. Instead, he offers the perspective of modes of exchange, which means waiving any consideration concerning who owns the means of production: the putative “economic base” underlying superstructural representations like the state, religion, and culture upheld by a vulgate tradition of Marxian historical writing and discounted by bourgeois historiography as deterministic. The decision to shift to modes of exchange means rooting the primary mode of exchange taking place first in nomadic societies, rather than forms of production and archaic communal ownership of land. Although his revised scheme still accords priority to the economic, the putative division between base and superstructures still persists, even though the latter are still produced by the former, which is now the mode of exchange. Whereas Marx privileged commodity exchange as dominant, Karatani places greater emphasis on the earliest mode of exchange, which consists of the “pure gift,” associated with early nomadic social formations and reciprocity practices by clans, and seems to offer nomadic/clan communalism as a model that resembles Marx’s own strategic linking of the surviving Russian commune and contemporary capitalism. The point to this project is to transcend the hegemonic trinity of capital, nation, and state and satisfy a desire to share with other globalists a vision that aims to overcome the defects of capitalism and the nation-state and the failure of a
Marxian expectation that nation-states will simply wither away with the final surpassing of capitalism. To this end, Karatani’s appeal to Kant offers to inject a moral element absent in the merely economic structure of history that will thus provide the promise of “world peace,” which ultimately requires an abolition of the nation-state as a condition for realizing a “simultaneous bourgeois revolution” that would finally overcome state and capital and establish a world federation.
Keywords: modes of exchange, Marx, Kant, world history, pure gift, nomads, capitalism, nation, state, association. philosophy of history’s return 97 “Above all,” insisted the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt in his Force and
Freedom: Reflections on History (Weltgeschictliche Betrachtungen), “we have nothing to do with the philosophy of history.”1 Demanding the elimination of the form, Burckhardt’s verdict advised a permanent moratorium on all subsequent attempts to understand the historical philosophically, since history “coordinates” and is thus “unphilosophical,” whereas philosophy is dedicated to “subordinat(ing) and is unhistorical.”2 Burckhardt was responding to what might be called the culture of historical excess in the late nineteenth century, indexing the concerns of his moment’s preoccupation with intense specialization and facticity that sought to achieve an all-encompassing world history through appeals to universal reason. Burckhardt was convinced that only cultural life, as imprinted in the great civilizations of the Italian Renaissance and ancient Greece, which he defined as the “sum total of those mental developments” in their uniqueness and singularity, can accomplish the great task of constituting a world history. His most immediate target was the form of a philosophy of history as it embodied the idea of a universal unfolding envisioned by Hegel, which, in his time, had already subsumed history and eclipsed the spontaneous play of cultural forms.
What seems so compelling about this reminder of Burckhardt’s preference for cultural spontaneity as the true vocation of historical practice was his conviction that cultural forms must appear in their static, unchanging countenance, suddenly materializing and illuminating a creative moment in the past that continues to speak to new presents. Burckhardt was persuaded that his moment had already required the abandonment of the dominant form of writing national history that was affirming the Hegelian identification of the modern state and history. He was thus convinced that the condensed cultural creativity of the broader civilizations always successfully exceeded their originating pasts to become timeless monuments in his present, thereby valorizing the capacity of lasting cultural elements to provide a heritage of meaning to later presents.
By the same token, Karl Marx similarly abandoned any further affiliation with the philosophy of history in The German Ideology, limning Burckhardt’s disavowal of the “Hegelian philosophy of history” with his own critique of how idealism has invariably resulted in reducing questions of real and political interest to “pure thoughts.” In place of the concept as the focus of historical analysis, which produced only “ghost stories” and a narrative descending from heaven,