Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht: The analog virtual Humanist

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time, Harvard University Press, 1997

Review with respect to digital humanities (avant la lettre)

A key feature of Digital History are hypertexts (to that, see the post on Wolfgang Schmale about Digital History). The possibility to link informational objects (text, image, video, sound) in a text distinguishes a hypertext from a conventional text. For historians it is actually a long-cherished dream that comes true: they can now combine their text, the result of their research, with the sources, the raw material of their scientific work.

Hypertexts have, however, another important feature: the cross-linking. Schmale has pointed to that also. Nowadays, a text is a starting point of a linkage with other texts. Its author first sees it in the middle of a textual structure. Its reader, however, might have already been referred to it by another text. There is a decentration that Jacques Derrida has described insistently. I discuss the importance of this feature of Postmodernism for the Digital Humanities in a separate post.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Professor for Literature at Standford University, has acted out the play with references consequently as one of the first. “In 1926” he draws a picture of synchronous everyday phenomena – here is a selection: automobile, boxing, roof garden, conveyor, grammophone, jazz, ocean liner, reporter, sixdays, dance.

It is thus not major historical events that are the focus, but small stories from the living world. Gumbrecht filtered them out of various newspapers. In his inventory of the year 1926 he describes the codes of modern culture on concrete material. At the beginning is an instruction for the reader. The first question is: Where to start? Not at the beginning, Gumbrecht answers, because this book has none. You can read any entry that is of interest. Of each entry you are carried to others that are related to the first. The reader carves its own path through the textual structure. The effect hoped-for: “the feeling of being in the year 1926”.

The success of the experiment is based on the claim, that its contents are “completely referential”. Gumbrecht is interested in the question, what we can do with our knowledge of history – not in a didactic way, Gumbrecht gave up hope to learn from the past. No, he is interested to know what history actually is, in the desire, to learn about past worlds.

For Gumbrecht – one might ad: not only for him – historiography is going through one of its “weak moments”. This is due to the “end of metaphysics” that we still cannot leave behind. Gumbrecht tries therefore to write a text about “historical simultaneity”. And this seems to go off quite well, measured by the success of his book. In any case, his views of “material surfaces” refers to a tendency that came into fashion in the historical sciences in recent times. Gumbrecht is a pioneer in the Digital Humanities avant la lettre.

Guido Koller

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

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