How do we get rid of History?

Niklas Luhmann, „Weltzeit und Systemgeschichte, Über Beziehungen zwischen Zeithorizonten und Strukturen gesellschaftlicher Systeme“, in: Soziologische Aufklärung 2. Aufsätze zur Theorie der Gesellschaft, Opladen 1975

Review and Update for the Digital Humanities

In a global world of information the presence expands at the expense of the past, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht write in his book Unsere breite Gegenwart. And what about the future? What is the impact of technological change and the constant availability of information on shaping of the future? The question of present future horizons is particularly important for the Humanities. The authors of a book from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) predict the breakup of the Humanities in a rapidly growing area approaching the quantitative social sciences and a rapidly diminishing area that defends the traditional heuristic and interpretive appeal vehemently. The time in form of change presses against the historiography once again – and this time not too soft!

How time emerges in history? What role does it play in the conditions for the production of history? There is probably no better author to answer these questions, as Niklaus Luhmann. According to him social history is concerned with the knowledge of past social structures and processes. It is based on sociology, which also asks about the social conditions for the constitution of time and history. In proportion as it involves the problem of meaning, temporality is a fundamental dimension of its investigation. The awareness of time depends on the social structure in social systems. This makes time and time horizons meaningfully available.

Talcott Parsons has shown that temporality arises from the distinction between a system and its environment. It cannot all happen at once. We detect temporal arrangements that are based on the identity of a system in the succession of different states. The sense of history is the difference between the possible and the real. Historical events are relevant not as pure facts, but in the option of their selection. History is created as a selection of possible horizons. And memory is the reproduction of the selectivity of events. The system creates its own history and thus, as a difference, the history of its environment.

A system history experienced together is a prerequisite for communication in groups and organizations. If the memories differ too much, experience cannot be mediated. This causes blockages, so that past selections cannot be continued, but must be repeated or thwarted. History in complex societies is contingent, remembering and forgetting is possible side by side. A time series coordinates between the system and the events in its environment. This linear timeline allows the complete separation of past and future as independent time horizons. The linking of the past with the future is becoming contingent. The scientific study of history deals with the past present times and so dissociates the system of its own history. The historicization of time provides access to a distinct sequence of possible horizons.

How do we get rid of history? How can we relieve the presence of what it created?

In heavily documented societies there are mechanisms in order to distance oneself from history. One such mechanism is technology: it makes symbols that are free of contexts and allow thus that selective processes can take place in a complex social system, without subjectivity and historicity must be carried out with. This can be shown by the example of organizations: They are based on abstract positions for roles where assignments can be changed independently of specific biographies, people or tasks.

Technological transformation is currently changing the framework of historiography massively. Wolfgang Schmale and Kiran Klaus Patel have discussed this, for instance. What does it mean for the writing of history when documents are available at all times and are handled more and more by computers? When selective processes occur without that subjectivity and historicity must be carried out with? When information on events is communicated anytime, anywhere, in real time? When this communication is done directly from the producer to the user, without passing an intermediary? When it is available virtually at any time, regardless of time and place – is history still needed at all, then?

Yes, many scientists believe. The Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAHS) has recently published a Position Paper for a renewal of the Humanities. The situation is presenting itself contradictory, the SAHS writes. The Humanities teach skills for coping with the problems of a culturally heterogeneous society in a globalized world. And the social interest for orientation knowledge that helps to form identities involves a core competence of the Humanities. But these are not capable to meet the demand (enough). Especially the politics put in question the value of the Humanities, when it comes to the distribution of (scarce) resources. High time then to examine how the Humanities are to respond to the criticism and the new situation. The SAHS fearlessly makes recommendations for the design of teaching, academic structure and to improve quality and performance measurement.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a little more skeptical. It fears a division of the Humanities due to digitization and the pace of technological change: The ability of computers to work with large data sets will lead to a “bifurcation within the Digital Humanities”. Beyond the traditional humanistic interpretation, the protagonists of data analysis will undertake tasks that come close with the quantitative social sciences. They will examine questions that are rejected by humanists who consider such quantitative methods naive and their results as trivial. What is at stake is the Humanities’ “unique commitment to wrestle with uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity, to attend to nonstandard phenomena”, the authors of the interesting MIT book Digital_Humanities say.

But it is far from certain that it has to come like this: With the ever wider access to cultural data sets, the separation may well grow, but with more and more platforms that combine qualitative and quantitative methods, there could also be generated a synthesis of both. We just do not know yet. Perhaps the growing demand for orientation saves the Humanities as a socially relevant scientific discipline. Time will show.

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Do We still need History? And if so: Why? Please check my  post to Reinhart Koselleck to get an answer.


Guido Koller

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

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