I attended the presentation, “History and Repetition”, by Kojin Karatani in Fowler Museum on April 5th. Karatani seemed to highlight two main ideas in his hour-long presentation: how history repeats itself and his viewpoints on the matter, and how we can identify the structure of how it is repeated.
Throughout his lecture, Karatani brought up both Karl Marx and George Hegel. He said that Hegel was one of the first philosophers to introduce the world to the idea of history repeating itself. Hegel wrote that events that “at first appeared merely a matter of chance and contingency, [became] a real and ratified experience”. What I think Hegel meant was that when history repeats itself, we may initially ignore it and attribute it to chance, but we should realize what is happening, and attempt to learn from it. Karatani noted that it is not only critical to recognize when and if history is going to repeat itself, but it’s also important to know what to do to positively affect the future by learning from mistakes made in the past.
One important quote I found fascinating was from Karl Marx in regards to Hegel: “he forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. I find the notion of history repeating itself as true, and I do agree with Hegel on that, but what Marx said intrigued me. Karatani mentioned many tragic events that seem to repeat itself in history. The world eventually recovered from those tragedies, but did we learn from them? Marx suggests that letting history repeat itself for the worse is a sign that we have not learned from mistakes made in the past. Yes, there are some natural events that we as humans don’t have control over, but it’s how we recover from those events and what we do to prevent them that truly display how we have learned from them. Allowing tragic events to happen again and again would simply be farce.
Another thing that Karatani brought up that I thought was interesting was the idea of how history repeats itself. He said that what counts is not the repetitive events that occur, but the repetitive structure; the similarity is not what is important, but the structure behind them. He went on the say that the repetitive composition of history tends to occur in cycles of 120 years or so. This 120-year cycle seemed slightly fabricated and arbitrary, but Karatani cited some particularly persuading examples. He mentioned the major earthquakes that have happened in Japan and the two pollution events occurring at the Ashio Mine separated by 120 years. But, as he mentioned before, it is not important to focus on particular events that seem similar. What’s important is the structure. To this end, he alluded to the concepts of imperialism and liberalism that seem to occur in 120-year cycles.
Before the lecture, I had not given much thought into the notion of history repeating itself. I did, however, recognize it. After the presentation, I’m not necessarily more interested in the subject, but I feel like I’m more aware of how I can learn from history and why it’s important.