As the December cold set in, the bones of our house and the brick and mortar of my body shuddered from its isolating frigidity. Our vintage gas heater flickering due to an outage, I spent countless days looking at the patterned breath of this once fire-breathing, now retired, dragon. Settled in their plague routine, both my parents and younger brother went about their days with ease, while I sat on the carpet, trying to absorb the heater’s occasional bouts of warmth, unable to move.
The world was crumbling, but for some reason Amma, Abba and Abdullah seemed unconcerned. India’s farmers were occupying Delhi by the thousands, pro-Navalny protesters were illegally detained in Russia, Erdogan was clamping down on student dissenters at Bogazici University, Belarus was still reeling from Lukashenko’s reelection, white supremacists had occupied the Capitol and at home, in Pakistan, students were being battoned for demanding equitable pandemic policies. Not to forget that the global vaccine war was forthcoming, one year into the COVID catastrophe. But, for some reason, online retail shopping and figuring out tomorrow’s lunch menu seemed to be the elephantine questions in our home. While the global sociopolitical world gyrated, our house sat in the cyclone’s eye, unfazed. I too sat idle, but I could feel the bitter inescapability of a collapsing world order.
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Antonio Gramsci theorized the notion of the interregnum in his prison letters written between 1929 and 1935 while he was incarcerated during the rule of the fascist government in Italy. Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman aptly describes this Gramscian concept as “the extraordinary situations in which the extant legal frame of social order loses its grip and can hold no longer, whereas a new frame, made to the measure of newly emerged conditions responsible for making the old frame useless, is still at the designing stage…” As opposed to a smooth transition in governance, the interregnum refers to a kind of break in power, a temporality marked by chaos and disorder, much like our current condition.
Imbued with a self-defeating, conflict-ridden capitalism, a global pandemic, ever-worsening environmental degradation and neoliberal, populist governance, our world’s morbid symptoms are apparent and life-threatening. What this macabre interregnum offers us, however, is a way to look at this moment between shifting worlds as a time of change, in contrast to a static interval.
As I think about our present situation, I find myself returning to the 20th-century German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin and his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In his ninth thesis, Benjamin reconfigures Paul Klee’s painting of the Angelus Novus as the “Angel of History,” pushed backward by a storm of progress, watching as the debris of the past accumulates before it. What Benjamin’s angel provides to Gramsci’s crisis of authority is the ability to practice history in a time of calamity. Benjamin, through empowering the historical materialist, as opposed to the more inactive historicist, seeks to redeem the past and rupture the present. Historical materialism argues that history is the result of material conditions which can be altered through intervention. For Benjamin, “History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now.” Benjamin’s historical materialist conceives of history not as lived past, but as a time of creation with the capacity for original action.
Associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University Paul Kramer identifies the role of a historian in a time of crisis as “disrupting inevitabilities, digging out lost alternatives, and widening the horizons of empathy.” Like Benjamin, Kramer exemplifies the regenerative quality of history in a time of crisis. He highlights the need for historians to “dethrone legitimating myths,” to be “archaeologists of the roads not taken,” and invites them to exact empathy as “a means towards other ends.”
Kramer utilizes Benjamin’s theses to recapitulate the purpose of history. Though Kramer’s call is to historians and students of history, this invitation need not be restricted to the aforementioned. In a time of crisis, all of us, historians or not, must put on our reading hats, search out the truth from the ever-accumulating pile of falsity and invite empathy into our hearts. Most importantly, we must not be idle spectators, silently watching history happen before our eyes. It took me a while to unseat myself from the paralyzed position I had occupied all winter and to think critically about our collective interregnum. And as I started to move, the cold, too, began dying down a little.
IMAN IFTIKHAR is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs regularly on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.