An archaeology of theoretical thought

Siegfried Zielinski urges us to seek the new in the old. I wonder if that theoretical principle could be applied to theory itself. What if we were to read past authors and ideas always under a new and different light? We could go even further and promote a continuous refashioning of the past by means of different imaginative exercises. An archive is not necessarily a repository of dead words and deeds. The archaeologist possesses the mystical power to resuscitate what was thought to be lifeless. Therein lies perhaps one of the main reasons for my interested in the past. Also, I have to admit that I’m usually much more interested in stories about failures and flops than tales of success. A monumental flop within the sphere of theoretical thought may indicate that an idea was prematurely born or shaped within an intellectual context that didn’t do it justice. I believe that’s the case with many of the obscure characters that draw my attention. Not coincidentally, I tend to evaluate their ideas under a framework that is never solely epistemological, but also aesthetic. Take, for instance, the obscure Fritz Mauthner. Reading the excellent work by Elizabeth Bredeck (Metaphors of Knowledge: Language and Thought in Mauthner’s Critique), I speculate wether Mauthner’s notion of Zufallsgeschichte (history of contingencies) can shed interesting light on some (media)archaeological principles. This history of contingencies teaches us that “what history lacks is as important as what it yields” (p. 42). The fact that the Zufallsgeschichte is not grounded on any divine or natural predetermination prevents the establishment of any generalization. History always “remains limited to particulars” (43) and also bound to human interest. Instead of being “true”, it must be useful. In Mauthner’s view, our knowledge of the world has a “metaphoric” dimension, since it is always mediated by language and its categories. One could say that knowledge is always, in a way, “aesthetic”. In a time when anthropocentric perspectives of the universe were still quite current, Mauthner endeavored a critique of the anthropocentric character of words such as “law”, “purpose” or “necessity”, which should be dismissed as linguistic illusions altogether. After writing this very brief and incomplete report, I read again a fortuitous passage in Bredeck’s book – which I had of course already forgotten – and smile: “Mauthner serves as a lens through which we can get a new perspective on issues in contemporary theory, while contemporary theory helps shed new light on the complexities of Mauthner’s own thought” (p. 29).