Danielle Coriale: Jamming the Historical Machine

History by Frederick Dielman (1896). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by Danielle Coriale

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s ([1874] 1997) “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” the first of four essays published in his Untimely Meditations, opens with an image of quietly grazing cows and slowly builds to a bitter critique. Unlike those critics who “smear their thick brush-strokes” “across the most graceful design,” Nietzsche tackles the impulse that would motivate such critics to regard their smears as “corrections” (1997, 87): a pernicious form of objectivity that infiltrated Germany in the nineteenth century. According to the meditation, this form of objectivity spread from positivist science like a “fever” (60) or “infection”  (120-122), destroying all personality, originality, and emotion in the historical writing of his generation. It was a naïve epistemology that stripped false away from true; it was no more than “idolatry of the factual” (105).

Nietzsche’s case against objectivity would be the first of many.[i] Alfred North Whitehead (1925), Isabelle Stengers (2000), and Bruno Latour (2004) exposed its limitations in the sciences and argued for more generous alternatives that do not mistake fact for truth. In literary studies, Eve Sedgwick (2003) made one of the more powerful cases against facticity. Writing at the peak of New Historicism’s early popularity, she argued that the paranoid logic of exposure and demystification had come to dominate the field (Sedgwick 2003: 139). Although her theory is rooted in psychoanalysis, her formulation is similar to Nietzsche’s. Paranoid knowledge, she argues, disavows the “affective motive and force” behind it while “masquerading as the very stuff of truth” (138). And Sedgwick touched upon a point of special interest to Nietzsche when she concluded that paranoid reading practices gathered momentum in historicist studies because they were “infinitely doable and teachable protocols of unveiling” (143). This postulate hints at the paradox of disciplinarity that Nietzsche explores in the first meditation. If scholars could become so inured to the foundational principles, methods, and forms that circumscribe their disciplines, then the practical regimens that defined disciplinarity could actively inhibit originality and creativity. As Whitehead so elegantly put it in Science and the Modern World, the narrowness of professionalized knowledge makes it effective, but also “produces minds in a groove” (1925, 197).

Like Sedgwick, Nietzsche was interested in the teaching protocols that imbue young men with an historical sense. Carrying his metaphor of infection forward, he insists that the “fever of history” spreads pedagogically (120-122). It is transmitted to students by the “basic unit of intellectual life in the academy”—the discipline (Anderson and Valente 2002, 1). Toward the end of the first meditation, Nietzsche protests the “historical education of modern man,” arguing that it had become purely instrumental (1997, 116). The routinized practices that defined historical education in nineteenth-century Germany seemed mechanistic and teleological to him: “the words ‘factory,’ ‘labour market,’ ‘supply,’ ‘making profitable,’ and whatever auxiliary verbs egoism now employs,” he writes, “come unbidden to the lips when one wishes to describe the most recent generation of men of learning” (Nietzsche 1997, 99). Nietzsche apologizes for having to use Marxian language to conjure his dystopian vision of universities, but explains that such a characterization was only natural. Schools were no more than factories that produced the “speedily employable man of science” rather than the “free cultivated man” (117). In this regard, the first meditation is untimely yet again. Its critique of the German academy in the nineteenth century anticipates our current dismay at the business models that have been installed in universities throughout the United States. The meditation also underscores a different explanation for the homogeneity that Sedgwick observed in her graduate students a decade ago. Confronted by a precarious market, they would have no choice but to adopt what Sedgwick describes as the “near professionwide agreement about what constitutes narrative or explanation or adequate historicization” (Sedgwick 2003, 144).

Even as the first meditation offers a still-resonant critique of the academy, which often assists the commodification of creative thought and intellectual labor, it also diverges from the critical mode. Hayden White ([1973] 2014, 66) once described it as Nietzsche’s “most destructive work,” but the meditation is also “additive and accretive,” to borrow Sedgwick’s words (2003, 149). It releases a reservoir of pent-up emotions—envy, disgust, fury—that counteract the dispassionate analysis associated with critique. To do otherwise, Nietzsche concluded—“To take everything objectively, to grow angry at nothing, to love nothing, to understand everything”—would only make one “soft and pliable” (Nietzsche 1997, 105). Nietzsche’s undisciplined writing is anything but pliable, of course. It refuses to comply with the conventions of truth discourses, which pare away falsehoods to arrive at singular truths. Rather, it jams the historical machine by unleashing waves of metaphor. One might remember the forgetful cows, for example, when history itself appears in the guise of an animal later in the meditation. Nietzsche describes the positivist historian who, reflecting on an action in his past, “dissects it, prevents it from producing any further effects by analysing it, and finally skins it for the purpose of ‘historical study’” (102). Through metaphors that pull against one another in this way, the meditation offers a model of knowledge as poesis. It multiplies meanings rather than separating the false from the true, and accumulates metaphors that cannot be distilled into a single fact. Like the “genuine historian,” Nietzsche “remint[s] the universally known into something never heard before” (94). In the climate of austerity that we are currently enduring, such proliferations resist the seemingly objective, quantitative methods and forms of expression that are encroaching upon the humanities daily, promising to make our knowledge more useful, appealing, and accessible—or as Nietzsche would have it, softer and more pliable to the will of others.

[i] For an excellent study of varieties of objectivity that flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity.


Anderson, Amanda and Joseph Valente, eds. 2002. Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Daston, Lorraine and Peter Galison. 2008. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2: 225-248.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. [1874] 1997. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life in Untimely Meditations.” In Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale and translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2000. The Invention of Modern Science. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

White, Hayden. [1973] 2014. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North. 1925. Science and the Modern World. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Danielle Coriale is Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Carolina.  She is working on a book manuscript, Captivating Subjects: Victorian Fiction and Animal Science.