“I feel like I should have elbow patches,” joked Professor Ethan Kleinberg, gesturing at the sleeves of his leather jacket. It is hard to picture Kleinberg, who has a pierced ear and who made self-deprecating remarks about his untamed hair, in anything quite so starchy. As Director of the Center for the Humanities and a Professor of History and Letters, Kleinberg spends much of his time studying ancient history, but his demeanor is decidedly modern. It is this mélange of old and new that governs Kleinberg’s teaching, writing, and reading. Kleinberg spoke to The Argus about his literary influences, which range from “Frankenstein” to Foucault.
The Argus: So, do you want to tell me what’s on your bookshelf?
Ethan Kleinberg: Sure. Well, I’ll start by telling you what’s on this bookshelf because I’m finishing [writing] a book called “Haunting History: Construction and the Writing of History,” so in this office, we’ve got a lot of different types of history. Most recently, strangely, I’ve been reading this guy named Chladenlus, and Chladenlus is an eighteenth-century German theorist. He worked in hermeneutics, but he also wanted to write a philosophy of history, and he’s someone that’s often quoted, but I realized he has a lot of suppositions that don’t make it into the quotes. Somehow I’ve gone back there. Normally, the stuff that I read is much more postmodern, so I surprised myself by going back and reading so much Chladenlus and this other guy, Droysen. And then Dilthey, which makes more sense. So you have this weird combination of these old German historical theorists and then Derrida, and Foucault, and Sarah Kofman, and Gumbrecht, and Paul de Man. So it is a kind of mash-up of old and new.
But then the other thing I’ve been doing, which has been really exciting, is teaching the College of Letters [COL] antiquity colloquium. So I’m reading Homer, and here we have Virgil, and then next to it, Seneca. But then I’ve just been reading other earlier texts, too, surrounding it. So I’ve been reading really old stuff. And there, I was reading a lot of Herodotus, who is considered either the father of history or the father of lies, depending on who you read, and Thucydides. So going back and thinking about two questions: One is, this is sort of before history was anything like a discipline, so why these become the touchstones of history. But then also what they’re actually doing, what their interests are, and how that speaks to us now. So I got all those things going on. I guess the other thing that I’m reading right now is Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I mean, I’m reading that because my daughter was interested in it, so we’re reading it together. But now I think that’s gonna be part of the last chapter of my “Haunting History” book.
A: Can you talk more about that book?
EK: Yeah, so what I’m trying to do in this book is do two things. One is to do an intellectual history, because deconstruction largely has not been welcome to the historical profession. So one thing I want to do is explore why that is, why it has been considered more like a monster or a malicious ghost or spirit for history that bedevils it. More like a poltergeist, maybe, that tricks it, leads us down the wrong alley, or maybe actually wants to hide there with a chainsaw and hack our historical heads off.
So I want to do that, but then I’m interested in the ways that it’s actually really useful for the writing of history because I think that the past haunts us. It’s not something that has properties in the way that [gestures to a cup] perhaps this cup does or you or I do. We can’t actually get to it. It’s present and absent. And it is there in these palpable ways that we feel, and yet it isn’t there in any material sense, so I think in a lot of ways it’s like a ghost. And other theorists have said this as well. I’m not the first. But deconstruction’s really interested in the way presence and absence play off each other, that things aren’t just present. They’re also contained in those absences, and this turns over on itself. And so I see it as a really useful tool in writing a more robust history that can do different things. One thing it can do differently is reimagine the form of how we write history. In many ways, we’ve been constricted because we write history like it’s gonna go into a book like that, but in this day and age, we can imagine it going into a non-material mode where other things can happen, so some of the suppositions that we took as foundational can be overturned, or turned and turned again. Deconstruction’s very good for that kind of turning, revising, rethinking, haunting. So my brain is always there right now. But fortunately, all those things move very well into the courses I teach, and certainly the stuff we do at the Center, too.
A: What other texts did you look at to write that book?
EK: Interestingly enough, it begins by doing this intellectual history as a ghost story. I call it a “geist story” because “Geistesgeschichte” is “intellectual history” in German, but it also could be a ghost story. So it begins with that framework in the way the specter of deconstruction, and Derrida, since his death, has been haunting history. But then I move and actually move between literary texts and historical texts.
One that I use is “A Christmas Carol” by Dickens. I’m very interested in the way that Marley was “dead: to begin with.” You know, the story starts with an absence that becomes a presence, but the different ghosts that visit Scrooge are actually quite telling. You have the future and of course, the present, but then you have the past, and the Ghost of Christmas Past is this very interesting, amorphous creature that’s always shape-shifting and different, and you’re never quite sure what it is. And it’s only Scrooge that wrestles it into shape. So Scrooge is, I think, a lot like the traditional historian trying to wrestle this multiplicity of things and events and ideas into some shape that makes sense to him. But every time he does so, it shifts again, and he has to grapple with it at another time.
Then I have a Kafka story that I use about the Great Wall of China and about the idea that it was built in such a way that they only built certain parts at certain times, and that no one knew whether parts were really built or had been torn down or were never built at all. And what interests me—you know, Kafka’s incredibly ambiguous—but what interests me there is the possibility that we as historians often go back and make assumptions about the totality of the Great Wall as a whole and try to reconstruct parts without really knowing whether those parts were really there, or whether we’re putting them in. So again, you have an interesting presence-absence problem, a past-present problem, and Kafka’s a good way of getting into it.
So I’ve been trying to move now between Washington Irving, these different sort of spooky literary texts, and then historical texts, so either works by historians—Saul Friedländer and Tony Judt among others—but also theorists of history such as Dilthey and Droysen, but then also thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida, Koselleck. It’s very COL, now that I think about it. There’s philosophy, there’s literature, there’s history. So this has been a lot of reading lately. It’s good, though.
A: What do you read for pleasure?
EK: I like detective novels. I like sort of older, classic hardboiled ones—Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler—and then I like newer ones. I like the ones coming out of northern Europe. So I move between more contemporary detective [novels] or mysteries and these older, more classic ones, and then I really like the classic Russian novel. I’ll always go back to Dostoyevsky. I really love that.
And then this might be odd. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I have [a copy of] Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” that in a certain point in my life, I tore up into five sections. I broke the spine, so I have discrete sections of it, and they just sort of sit there. And if I go on a trip, I’ll grab a section, and I don’t really care about what order it’s in. It’s whatever I go for, and it’s always different to me when I read it again. So that’s sort of a go-to pleasure book, Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
A: How did you come up with that idea?
EK: I think the book was too heavy, and so at first I did it so I could read it like a serial novel. I didn’t want to have it in my backpack. I guess if the iPad had been invented then, I never would have done it because I would have just downloaded it on my iPad. But I broke it up, and then I think I brought the wrong part once and then I realized I kind of liked that. And so I just do that sometimes still.
So yeah, those are the things I like to read. What else do I like to read? I like absurdist plays, literature. That’s fun, too. I guess that’s what I’m reading these days. I mean, I’ll read almost anything. I read “Moby-Dick” over the summer just because I thought I should read “Moby-Dick” over the summer. I mean, I live in New England now and I was driving through Mystic all the time. So I did that. It took me a really, really, really long time. I was surprised. I think [it was] probably because I was reading in the evening. I [usually] read during the day, so I probably didn’t have the energy to do it, whereas I read Homer in a few days, probably because it was for a class. So maybe that says something about me: In my leisure time I’m not as focused as when I think I’ve got an end.
A: Can you remember some of the books that were major influences on you early on?
EK: Yeah. Well, we can start with “The Brothers Karamazov,” which was really important to me. It blew my mind, as did Kafka’s “The Castle.” It sent me reeling. And then I was very interested in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” also. And then I read Judith Butler’s “Subjects of Desire,” and that also sort of blew my mind in all sorts of ways. It was really great, and it sent me into these other texts.
I really like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” too. That was a really eye-opening text. You know, because you grow up and you have this notion of this story, and then you read the book, and of course, there’s so much more there, right? Those were foundational texts. And I like Raymond Chandler. I don’t know, I’m from Los Angeles.
A: Besides the antiquity colloquium, what are you teaching this semester?
EK: Well, I’m running the colloquium here at the Center for the Humanities, which is on the theme of mobilities, so this is for the student fellows, the faculty fellows, and our post-docs. So we meet on Tuesday and have a two-hour discussion on the lecture from the night before. So that has me scrambling to read all sorts [of text] because we have different people coming in. So I’ve been learning all about South Indian dance and courtesan culture; those were the last two lectures. Earlier, I was much more in what I do. We had a woman from Gillenfeld who was working on a historical methodology, microhistory and macrohistory, but of course, I was going back and reading this great book by Carlo Ginzburg called “The Cheese and the Worms,” which is all about this figure who wants to understand…how science works. And so he’s doing experiments watching how worms are begotten from pieces of cheese, and then comes to a theory of what’s happening there, which is a kind of proto-scientific method even though the results may not be what we would consider accurate. It’s a fascinating book.
So this has been keeping me nimble, I would say. But the other thing I’m reading—I’m reading it right now [gestures to computer screen]—is I work as an editor for [the academic journal] “History and Theory,” and we read manuscripts that come in. We read a lot of manuscripts on all sorts of aspects of theory and philosophy of history. I’m reading one right in front of us that’s about art history and about whether figures like Hegel or Darwin are appropriate…for understanding the trajectory of art history or not. But we read all sorts of things, close and far, and that takes up a lot of my time, but I learn a lot. It sort of forces you to read things you don’t think you would read.
A: What do you think are the differences between the way you read to teach and the way you read to evaluate?
EK: It’s funny. Reading to teach, in a way, and reading to evaluate a manuscript, I think are very similar. It’s a critical assessment. You know, I never go in to teach a text so it sounds authoritative to the students, and this is how you have to think, and this is right. It’s always just sort of trying to work through and open it up and trying to figure out what’s at stake. Part of this is trying to think historically: “Okay, well what was going on at the moment it was read and what can we glean about that moment from looking at this text?” But also then thinking about how it resonates with us now, and what are we bringing into that text? So that kind of dialogue with the text, confrontation with the text, I think is very similar in both these modes. Obviously, when I’m reading to evaluate a manuscript, I’m trying to figure out where the argument holds, is there logical consistency, is it original, those things. I kind of assume that to be the case in the texts that I assign. I probably should show a text as an example of something that doesn’t work. But then when I read for pleasure, it’s quite different because I sort of want to escape, you know? I’m kind of on doubt when I become a critical reader of a literary text. I kind of just want to be spirited away. That’s actually one reason I like reading texts that my daughters are reading, because in a way, that’s what we’re talking about, that world. And so I’m trying to enter it, suspend disbelief with it. Although if my “Moby-Dick” experiment is any indication, I have a hard time doing that. I need to do more. I need a beach.
A: What’s a book you’re really eager to read that you haven’t read yet?
EK: That’s a strange question because my guess is, in some ways, it’s one I don’t know about, right? Although I’m sure there’s zillions of texts that I haven’t read that I need to. So I haven’t read all the way through, closely, Dante’s “Inferno.” I’ve read it, but in the times I’ve taught it, I’ve taught sections of it, so I don’t feel like I really went through it. I feel like this is a text I absolutely have to [read]. I mean, I’d like to take a course on it. I’d like to read it with someone who could really help me read it, you know? And that’s a text I want to [read]. I know a lot about it. I know tons about it, I’ve read tons about it, I’ve read it, in a way. But I haven’t really read it. It’s not complete in my mind.
This interview has been edited for length.