Presentism: The Politics of Memory in the Age of Neoliberalism

Often defined as “presentism,” the regime of historicity of the beginning of the twenty-first century posits a kind of perpetual present, absorbing in itself both past and future. It corresponds with a neoliberal ethos that eternizes the current economic order and condemns any form of collective action. It avoids any critical elaboration of the past and promotes its reification (the “realms of memory”), neutralizing at the same time all its potentialities for a recollection oriented towards a political action in the present. Thus, in contrast with the two preceding centuries, which were shaped by the impact of the French and Russian Revolutions, the twenty-first century has begun under the sign of the eclipse of utopias. The disappearance of a visible “horizon of expectation” has generated a charged memory of the past century as a time of violence, totalitarianism and genocide, encapsulated by the image of their victims. The commemorations of May 8, 1945—the anniversary of the end of the Second World War and of the Sétif massacre in Algeria—are the mirror of three main spaces (entangled and not always geographically separated) that define the memory landscape of our global age: a Western space shaped by the remembrance of the Holocaust transformed into a “civil religion” of liberal democracy; an Eastern European space dominated by the legacy of Communism; and a postcolonial space exhuming imperial atrocities (from slavery to colonialism). The common feature of these mnemonic realms is their selective character that, focusing almost exclusively on victims, forgets the vanquished and rejects any idea of collective agency: antifascism, revolution, and anti-imperialism disappear from the history of the last two centuries. Between cultural industry and neoliberal Lebensführung, the legacy of past struggles becomes a kind of Marrano memory.

Enzo Traverso is a historian specializing in contemporary Europe with a focus on intellectual history of the twentieth century in a comparative perspective. He studied at the University of Genoa, Italy, and received his Ph.D. from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris (1989). He specializes in contemporary Europe, focusing on intellectual history of the twentieth century in a comparative perspective. Before coming to Cornell, he was a professor of political science at the University Jules Verne of Picardy, France, and a member of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He has also been visiting professor at several European as well as Latin American Universities. His publications include The Origins of Nazi Violence (The New Press, 2003); Fire and Blood: The European Civil War (Verso, 2016); The End of Jewish Modernity: History of a Conservative Turn (Pluto Press, 2016); Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory (Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2016).

On Thursday, September 15, Critical Theory presents a seminar with Professor Traverso on “Rethinking Left-Wing Melancholia: Between Marx and Benjamin” from 2-4 pm at 820 Barrows Hall. Advance registration is required. To register, please contact

Co-sponsored by the Program in Critical Theory and a planning grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the establishment of the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs.