Forget it !? Memory and the formation of historical meaning in the “broad presence”

Summary of my Intervention at the Colloquium of the University of Lucerne, Zeit-Geschichte-Unterricht, 7. November 2014

Link to the original german manuscript http://bit.ly/1svdpMg

The intervention wants to make the audience familiar with questions about the current understanding of time and its consequences for history. It examines the assumption of HansUlrich Gumbrecht, according to which we live in a “broad presence”. For that, the intervention presents 4 Tableaux from which it structures the material [1] for three theses.

The first Tableau refers to the decision of the European Court of Justice in May 2014 concerning the “right to be forgotten”. The second is titled “Time Machine” and describes research in the archives, which will no longer be necessary, once digitized sources can be made present on the screen with just a few clicks. The third describes the use of digitized sources exemplified by Philipp Blom’s book Der Taumelnde Kontinent. It is paradigmatic for a “cultural historicization”. The forth Tableau shows that the late modernity generates Non-Lieux, spaces that no longer integrate the old places.

The work on this material leads to three theses:

1. The modern sense of time according to Reinhart Koselleck is replaced by a new consciousness of time, which can be described by a “broadening of the present”. Indicators are the digital turn which leads to a virtualization of the world we live in, and the crisis of the concept of progress.

2. The modern historical understanding was a myth. The “broadening of the present” brings together past, present and future as three different levels of time that is always the same for the individual.

3. Memory integrates these three levels of time. It constructs the past and the future, to get an orientation. Thus, both the past and the future, each have their own place, which allows the subject to shape the present.

With the new digital storage technologies, we experience a new dimension in the fight against forgetting. Meanwhile, it costs less time and money to store data, instead of examine the question of storing or deleting. The power that is associated with the superiority of information is shifting from the individual to organizations. Therefore we need a new culture of forgetting (technically: deleting) and remembering (technically: storing).

What should we do? Besides an “information ecology” (Viktor Mayer-Schönberger) we need a historical contextualization in order to better cope with the peculiarities of digital remembering.

David J. Bodenhamer and Trevor Harris partly showed how this could work. They see space as a “complex social formation” that can reduce the distance between observers and observed, leave the past appear as dynamic and contingent as the present. Time then would be a series of presents, which are grouped around a particular location. Both could be documented with historical objects (documents, videos, audiofiles etc.). The aim is to combine structure and activity digitally in order to meet the “dense contingency” of social life. And the consumers would be the producers.

Are you interested in that issue? Yes? Then see the review to new book of Aleida Assmann on HSozKult to that (in German).


[1] This intermediate step about the terms “memory”, “history” and the “formation of historical meaning” is not summarized here.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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