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History and The Hunchback



In 1926, Blaise Cendrars said a rather curious thing about science. He wrote: Science is history arranged according to the superstition and taste of the moment. [Blaise Cendrars, Moravagine, (1926), p. 57.] He was challenging the notion of science as an a-historical field of activity and exposed science as fraudulent in the sense that it was pretending to be something it was not. The culture of the scientific has for a long time persisted in the view of itself as somehow uncontaminated by the subjective imperatives of history. This view is to some extent responsible for the peculiar shape “Modernism” has taken. But that is another story. What is important is that Blaise Cendrars attempted to redress the problem by equating science with a certain kind of history: a history which arranges assumed truths (never mind what he calls them) according to the perspective of time and place.

At around the same time Walter Benjamin was writing his Theses on the Philosophy of History. The first thesis equates historical materialism with a fraudulent chess-playing automaton. Benjamin represented Historical Materialism as a puppet in Turkish dress, mounted at one side of a large chess-table, playing chess with his human counterpart. The human thinks he is playing with a robot, an automaton, but in fact, hidden under the table is a little hunchback: an expert at chess. The hunchback Benjamin calls Theology. It is he who is pulling the strings controlling the automaton’s moves. Considering his reputation in this most scientific and secular twentieth century, theology wisely keeps himself out of view. But the message is clear. History is really theology, a messianic arrangement of portentous signs in time and place. It does not look into the future, it looks into the past. The “angel of history,” proceeds with its back to the future..

Neither of these critiques is meant to invalidate either science or history. Both are useful methods with which to make sense of our environment. But whatever their use, the point is that they are not what they seem. Science is history and history is theology. Both are both driven by something else, something hidden. That leads us on to the subject of this debate, provocatively labelled “The invention of a Caribbean Architectural History.” What is that? What theology does it hide, what taste and superstitions does it try to organise into a whole?



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