Johanna Chalupiak

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Judge the Dead

If we are all embedded in the moral, epistemic, and political contexts we are born into, should we be surprised that other people, born, living, and dying in different contexts, in different times, would live their lives in unique ways? When we feel inclined to pass judgement on the barbarities of the past, are we not simply chastising people for the mistake of living under a normative regime different to our own? And, finally, what on earth is the point of such historical blame, plied to past peoples, the exceptional, mediocre, and cruel, but most importantly, the long dead?

Without pretending to certainty, this paper grapples with the above questions. Half ironically, half in earnest, I propose that we do have good reasons for judging the dead. I would like to suggest that trans-historical blame, when appropriately applied, registers an understanding of the plurality of standpoints at play in historical situations. Not only does this attitude implicate us in more epistemically sensitive encounters with the past, it also functions as a therapeutic resource for those still struggling with the legacies of contested pasts. Understood in this sense, “judging the dead” is a constituent part of living well under contexts of oppression.

I present my paper in three parts. In the first, I dwell on the problems associated with the historical fallacy of presentism. I explain what presentism is, why, from a historian’s perspective, it can be seen as an error fatal to sound disciplinary practice. In the second section, I trouble one fundamental assumption of the anti-presentist view sketched above. Drawing on a narrative from the Spanish conquest of Cuba, I show how the anti-presentist might be operating with a homogeneous understanding of past cultural encounters. I explain how and why this, too, is an error fatal to the historical enterprise. In the final section, I turn to a discussion of Nietzsche’s uses of history for life, and suggest, while not without its own problems, a critical history has an important role to play in the cultural contests of the present day.