The Big Now

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Unsere breite Gegenwart, edition suhrkamp, 2010

Review with respect to digital humanities (presumably unexpected for H. U. Gumbrecht; see below)

What does it mean for the writing of history, if documents with a simple click pop up on the screen, thus basically are always present? Wolfgang Schmale and Kiran Klaus Patel have asked this. Another, who deals with this question is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. He writes of himself to be a stubborn man, to have pointed out since 40 years now, that things have a “dimension of presence” in the world. “Presence”, that means physical proximity and substance. Gumbrecht developed this idea in his beautiful book “In 1926”, an attempt to convey the feeling of being in the year 1926 by a network of short, interconnected texts referring to everyday phenomena.

Gumbrecht pursues his idea in the tradition of cultural criticism that regrets the “loss of materiality” in the modern transcendental consciousness. Since 50 years a new “configuration of time” is replacing the “historical thinking” established in the 19thcentury, he says, and describes this (outdated) chronotope in the following perspectives: a) In the “historical time” a person moves on a linear timeline, in which time is the “absolute agent of change”; b) On his way through the time horizons, man constantly leaves past behind him. Thus, the future appears as an open horizon of possibilities; c) Between past and future the present is a moment of transition. This short passage was the “epistemological habitat” of modern man: He acted as he chose from the possibilities of the future based on his experience. By the way: Gumbrecht took this concept of time from Reinhart Kosellek (see below).

So, according to Gumbrecht, this chronotope is passé: The future would no longer be an open horizon of possibilities, the past not pass away (anymore) and the presence with its synchronicities grow ever wider: We live in the Big Now (Frédérique Kaplan). Globalization is one of the basic conditions for this development. In it, the exchange of information is disconnected from real physical sites. Thus, the body as a part of the human self-reference would be “eliminated” [sic!].

Remark / Interjection: In return, movements would arise, which attempt to regain the physical dimension. These include the triumph of sport, the trend towards regionalization (in Europe) and the ecology. I do not deal with these counter-mouvements, here.

Google plans to make accessible “any existing document on the planet”, Gumbrecht says. Collecting and preserving records in a library or an archive will be obsolete in the digital age. They will permanently be available on any computer. Historians will have to make a selection from the abundance of materials – such as a curator, a cultural producer who knows how knowledge and objects must be “staged” to get attention from the public.

* * *

Time-forms determine the conditions under which we make our experiences – to this, see my post on Niklas Luhmann and his system analytic concept of time. By 1800, in what is known as Sattelzeit by Reinhart Kosellek , the chronotope “historical time” has been formed. It has been problematized by Jean-François Lyotard in „La condition postmoderne“. Today, so it seems, according to Gumbrecht,  we have left this chronotope behind us. A new concept of time as a basic condition for the formation of experience seems to come up. Gumbrecht does not go much further into that. He only tells us, that we are  flooded with memoirs and things from the past. In the same time we are moving in more and more everyday worlds and networks. And: We are surrounded by a repertoire of symbols and structures that are derived from the communication technology.

This “hyper-communication” erodes the form in which we have given our everyday life a form. The structure and tension that lived by the existential contradiction between the presence and the absence is dissolved. Gumbrecht denies, with Michael Giesecke but against Charles Leadbeater, that electronic debates create new good ideas. The reason: Only the physical presence allows real argumentative resistance that could turn into mutual inspiration. Gumbrecht therefore rejects blogs quite vehemently (in June 2012 he talked about blogging in an interview with Mareike König).

* * *

Is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s critique of the disappearance of the future simply melancholy? No, not all. The diagnosis of the “widening of the presence” seems plausible: Presence is no longer the knife that cuts off a piece of the future and assigns it to the past. Gumbrecht’s lucid essay refers to issues that arise particularly to historical science. The constant availability of information, the annihilation of time and space, change the “historical thinking” and with it the craft of the historians.

Bluntly, in line with Gumbrecht, the anamnesis of writing history is as follows: Information is no longer conveyed through intermediaries, but communicated directly from the producer to the consumers. Journalists quickly contextualize the information for the politically interested audience, curators later stage it for the culturally interested public. For historical work in the old way is not much space left.

But there are counter-examples: One of them comes from Gumbrecht himself and is the already-mentioned text-experiment “In 1926”. Another comes from Andreas Wirsching, Director of the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, who already submits a “standard work on the history of Europe since 1989” [sic!]. Wirsching “doesn’t fear actuality”, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung judges her review and so he won a lot: “A masterpiece of European historiography”, namely. And how did he manage this? Wirsching didn’t wait archival delays to elapse but drew from “seemingly limitless amounts of press archives, public official documents and current scientific analysis”.

So there is hope for the writing of history. But historians will have to adapt their old business model. Insofar the Digital Humanities could be part of the solution of the problem that we have created ourselves.


Guido Koller

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

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