Memory and the future of Europe – Q&A with Peter J. Verovšek
How would you like someone who has read your book to sum it up in one sentence?
By investigating the crucial role that collective memories of total war played in the origins and development of the European Union (EU), Memory and the future of Europe encourages reflection on the potential openings towards a common future from within the crises of the present.
What book in your field has inspired you the most?
In terms of its combination of backward-looking historical analysis and forward-looking theoretical reflection, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism serves as something of a model for my book. I was also repeatedly inspired by Walter Benjamin’s haunting reflections on memory and the relationship between the past, present, and future in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (“Über den Begriff der Geschichte”). Finally, Jürgen Habermas’s political writings, such as Europe: The Faltering Project and The Crisis of the European Union: A Response, also helped me to think about how to connect the EU’s past to its future.
Did your research take you to any unexpected places?
Yes, it did. When I first started working on this project in 2009 I was planning to write a book examining the role of collective memory in political life using the origins and development of the EU since 1945 as an illustrative case study. However, by the time I had started to really work on the project in the spring of 2010, Greece’s difficulties financing its sovereign debt had already set off the crisis of the eurozone, which would ultimately threaten the future of the EU as a whole. As a result, a project that was originally supposed to be reflective, backwards-looking, and optimistic about the potential of collective memory to help individuals and communities learn the lessons the past, became much more politically relevant, forward-looking, and pessimistic. Thinking and writing in the shadow of a series of existential threats to the EU – from the problems of sovereign debt in Greece in 2010 to Brexit in 2016 and the striking electoral success of far-right populists across the member-states as well as in the EU parliamentary elections of 2019 – I found that I had to seriously contemplate what the loss of this transnationally shared remembrance means for European politics at a time when the generations of experience are passing away.
Which writing process do you use (computer, longhand, dictate, other)?
I take notes longhand, but write almost exclusively on my computer, so that I can move things around, insert text and edit my thoughts.
Why did you choose to publish with MUP?
MUP publishes a lot of amazing multi- and inter-disciplinary research reflecting on the pathologies of the present in the tradition of the Frankfurt School. Much of this work is collected in the Critical Theory and Contemporary Society series. That, as well as the Critical Powers dialogues with leading social and political theorists, initially drew my attention to the Press. Given the interdisciplinary nature of my book, MUP felt like a good fit.
What are you working on now?
Although I am still thinking and writing about collective memory and the future of the EU, I have become very interested in the role that engaged intellectuals play within democratic discourse and how this has changed as the public sphere has ‘gone global’ and moved online. This is a huge topic, so I decided to use Habermas as a lens. Although the literature in English focuses on his social and political theory, in Germany Habermas is perhaps more famous as the leading public intellectual of the Federal Republic and of the postwar era more generally. By writing an intellectual biography focussing on Habermas’s public interventions in political debates, I hope to not only bring this dimension of his work into the English-language scholarship, but also to get at the bigger questions about the changing role of public intellectuals in the transnational digital public sphere.
If you could go back and give yourself once piece of advice when starting out on this project, what would it be?
There’s so much that I know now that I wish I had known when I started this project. To start off, I would emphasize the need for patience. More specifically, I also would have told myself to write a less interdisciplinary more easily classifiable book. While everyone talks about the need for interdisciplinarity, I think that it’s tough for young scholars to do this kind of work because they first need to prove their ‘chops’ within their own field, so to speak. Don’t get me wrong, I am really happy with what I wrote. But I think my life might have been easier if my book had fallen more clearly into political theory, instead of sitting at the nexus of contemporary critical theory, collective memory, European studies, and history.
If you could have been the author of any book, what would it be and why?
Wow, this is a tough question; there are so many books that I wish that I had written. Since this is my first book, I will highlight two other first books: Jürgen Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, 1962) and Critique, Norm and Utopia (1986), by my doctoral supervisor Seyla Benhabib. Both are masterpieces. Having gone through the process of writing and publishing my first book gives me an even greater appreciation for what both of these works achieved for these two first-time authors.
What other genres do you enjoy reading?
I really enjoy science fiction and fantasy. Writing engaged political theory that reflects on the pathologies of the present is stressful and exhausting – you spend most of your time thinking about what is wrong with the world. It is nice to be able to move to a different universe by opening a book before bed. This is not to say that the worlds created by authors like Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Iain M. Banks, Robert Jordan, and Frank Herbert don’t have problems of their own. But it is still nice to get away. Sometimes being immersed in a fictional world even helps me to better understand this one.
Which authors (academic and not) would you invite to a dinner party?
I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Jürgen Habermas when I was a graduate student at Yale University after one of his Castle Lectures on religion in 2008. That was a dream come true. However, there are so many other thinkers who are no longer with us that I wish I had been able to meet. It would be fascinating to discuss the state of the world with thinkers like Hannah Arendt, Judith Shklar, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Friedrich Pollock.
Memory and the future of Europe: Rupture and integration in the wake of total war by Peter J. Verovšek is available to buy now.
Peter J. Verovsek is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield
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