I am an associate professor at the Department of History at the University of Ghent. In my PhD dissertation (defended May 2009) I have studied the relation between conceptions of historical (in)justice and the ethics of history on the one hand and conceptions historicity and historical time on the other. In order to raise a series of meta-historical questions about the workings and ethical implications of the modern discourse of history I have focused on the concrete contexts of ‘truth commissions’ and ‘transitional justice’ in which history is ‘put into practice’: cases Argentina, South Africa, and Sierra Leone. I argue that modern historiography manifests an ‘ethical deficit’ and potentially gives rise to an abusive ‘politics of time’ because it embraces the notion that time is irreversible, implying that the past should be imagined as something ‘absent’ or ‘distant.’ Victims of historical injustice, in contrast, often claim that the past got ‘stuck’ in the present and that it retains a haunting presence – an experience of time that, citing Vladimir Jankélévitch, I call irrevocable. The overall aim of the PhD thesis is to demonstrate that this claim about the continuing ‘presence’ of the past should be taken seriously (instead of being treated as merely metaphorical), but that a genuine understanding of the irrevocable past demands a radical break with the modern discourses of history and historical time. In order to demonstrate how this break is possible I scrutinize a series of alternative concepts of time and history as formulated by Fernand Braudel, R. G. Collingwood, Erwin Panofsky, Louis Althusser, Ernst Bloch and Jacques Derrida.
As part of my research I develop two parallel interests: First, I am interested in the increasing ‘judicialisation’ of history as it can be discerned in the establishment of a series of government-appointed ‘historical commissions’ in Europe and the US since the end of the Cold War. Opinions on these commissions differ strongly. Some scholars argue that historical commissions can help mediating conflict and bring reconciliation. Others complain that historical research should never be subjected to state institutions, that historical commissions produce ‘compromise narratives’, or even that they function as a coverup or threaten the freedom of research. I address this debate by setting up a comparative analysis of four post-1989 European government-appointed historical commissions (the German ‘Enquete-kommision’, the Swiss ‘Bergier commission’, the Dutch Srebrenica-inquiry, and the Belgian Lumumba-commission) which I study from both an empirical and a meta-historical perspective. Second, I am interested in the genesis of the modern discourse of history and its relation to other (older) approaches to historicity: theological, eschatological, etc. I especially focus on the ambiguous link between modern conceptions of time and historicity and the process of secularizations as it has been described by thinkers such as Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, Odo Marquard, Charles Taylor, etc. I want to contribute to this debate and somewhat correct the deep-seated Eurocentric bias, by analyzing from the perspective of the philosophy of history a number of cases of eschatological or millennaristic movements which took place in the 19th and 20th century and in a colonial setting.