This introduction to the roundtable on Joan Wallace Scott’s On the Judgment of History first appeared in Political Theology volume 23, issue 5, available here.
Conflicts over history and memory have always been at the center of politics. If there is something novel about the contemporary political moment, however, it might be the increasingly widespread recognition of this fact within mainstream society. More and more people find it difficult to believe in liberalism’s myth of politics as an ahistorical science of sanitized proceduralism. In the United States in particular, battles over history permeate contemporary politics, from campaigns to remove statues and monuments celebrating white supremacy, to ongoing attempts to constrict the ways that race and racism are taught in public schools, to the refounding of the Poor People’s Campaign in an attempt to continue Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfinished work. Yet as history has moved to the forefront of public consciousness, people have not always liked what it has revealed about themselves and their society. “This is not who we are!” has become a common refrain, sung less and less confidently in the face of a growing body of countervailing evidence. Joan Wallach Scott’s On the Judgment of History (Columbia University Press, 2020) explores the conceptual roots of these contemporary issues by interrogating the uses of the concept of history that create and sustain today’s dominant political order.
While not written as a work of political theology itself, the central concerns of On the Judgment of History will resonate deeply with those interested in the connections between religious and political ideas and practices. Indeed, these connections are apparent throughout Scott’s book. At different points in the book, Scott explores the politics of forgiveness in South Africa, as well as the invocation of debt and sin in reparations movements. According to Scott, the judgment of history represents a secularized version of the biblical depiction of the day of judgment, and Christianity itself is part of the moral and quasi-religious architecture of the modern nation-state that marks it as an avatar of progress. Scott examines the fraught ground where discourses of politics, history, and religion conspire to generate the hegemonic state formations that organize modern political life.
Scott’s account begins in the wake of Charlottesville in 2017, when it was common to encounter expressions of disbelief that overt ideologies of white supremacy such as had been on display could be more than artifacts of a previous historical era. At the root of these reactions, Scott suggests, is a powerful fantasy: the judgment of history. Long after the twentieth century collapse of progressive master narratives, belief in a concept of history as an impersonal and immanent moral force that drives slowly but surely towards perfection still proves tempting—even, as Scott notes, for professional historians. Through a careful investigation of three case studies—the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and movements seeking reparations for slavery in the United States—On the Judgment of History offers a thorough examination of this progressive, teleological view of history, uncovering at its center the racialized nation-state, which emerges as both the agent of historical progress and the telos towards which history marches.
The book presses the reader towards new ways of imagining political agency in history. If history—acting through its agent, the sovereign nation-state—cannot be trusted to deliver us into a utopian future of peace and justice, then how should human subjects conceptualize their temporal existence, particularly when it comes to struggling against injustice? Scott transplants the concept of history from the realm of the messianic to the melancholic, drawing out the discontinuities, multiple temporalities, irresolvable tensions, and dissenting agencies that make it possible to imagine justice in time apart from the illusion of progress.
On the Judgment of History serves as an invitation to uncover a multiplicity of traditions, perspectives, and forms of agency that embrace discontinuity and tension, while resisting closure, and the essays in this symposium function as an active experiment in precisely this type of endeavor. Indeed, the field of political theology has, at its best, sought to create a space for such explorations through a persistent commitment to interdisciplinarity. To imagine such interdisciplinarity as simply a matter of bridging the divide between religion and politics is to miss the groundbreaking potential inherent in the work of political theology. It is not simply a matter of placing two distinct fields of study in conversation with one another, but of learning to reside within a whole matrix of intersecting disciplines, methodologies, traditions, perspectives, and conversation partners in a way that will almost certainly generate genuine tension, critique, and contestation.
The following essays seek to tap this radical potential of political theology, extending and stretching Scott’s conclusions to see how far they will go, and even asking what might lie beyond them. From a variety of vantage points, the contributing authors press into Scott’s account of the judgment of history, interrogating the implicit subject for whom the judgment of history holds such appeal. Whose judgment is the judgment of history? Which other histories are collapsed and erased by the hegemonic concept of history? What can we learn from changing the subject of the judgment of history and attending to those alternative histories? The answers to these questions lie along the path of a deep interdisciplinarity that can tolerate tension and conflict, even as it seeks to explore the possibilities for common life shared among its participants. The deep interdisciplinarity modeled by the authors of this symposium offers an example of a distinctive kind of gift that those engaged in the work of political theology might offer to an academy that increasingly finds itself rethinking traditional disciplinary boundaries.
 Scott, On the Judgment of History.
 For an account of the melancholic that troubles modern commitments to progress, see Winters, Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress.