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ABSTRACT

For more than thirty years now, thinking about the way we, humans, account for our past has taken place under the aegis of representationalism. In its first two decades, representationalism, inaugurated by Hayden White's Metahistory of 1973, has been remarkably successful, but by now it has lost much of its vigor and it lacks explanatory power when faced with recent phenomena such as memory, lieux de mémoire, remembrance, and trauma. It might be argued that many of the shortcomings of representationalism spring from the fact that it is exclusively geared to “transfer of meaning.” This essay posits that what may be called “presence” (“the unrepresented way the past is present in the present”) is at least as important as “meaning.”“Presence” can be dealt with by employing a “topical” view of history (in the manner of, for example, Vico) in which the whole of history is stored in “places” (that is, “institutions”) that can be “visited” on the plane of the present. Presence can be said to be stored in metonymy. Whereas metaphor is instrumental in the “transfer of meaning,” metonymy brings about a “transfer of presence.” A metonymy is a “presence in absence” not just in the sense that it presents something that isn't there, but also in the sense that in the absence (or at least the radical inconspicuousness) that is there, the thing that isn't there is still present. The presence of the past thus does not reside primarily in the intended story or the manifest metaphorical content of the text, but in what story and text contain in spite of the intentions of the historian. One might say that historical reality travels with historiography not as a paying passenger but as a stowaway. As a stowaway, as what is absently and unintentionally present on the plane of time, metonymy is a metaphor for discontinuity, or, rather, for the entwinement of continuity and discontinuity.