Friday, December 5, 2014

Hartog on Presentism




Following on from my previous post, I've been getting to grips with François Hartog's response to Koselleck's theorisation of the 'space of experience' and the 'horizon of expectation'. For Koselleck, modernity (starting basically with Renaissance) could be defined as the period in which a gap opens up between experience and expectation - so that the future can no longer be understood in terms of past experience, and indeed the expectation that that future will be at some fundamental level different (and better) becomes widespread. In Régimes d'historicité, Hartog labels this the modern regime of historicity, in which historical time is understood as progress towards a future. He recently and concisely explained it in ‘The Modern Régime of Historicity in the Face of the Two World Wars’:

What, then, is the fundamental characteristic of the modern régime of historicity? It is, I believe, the predominance of the category of the future; an expanding distance (to adopt the categories of Reinhardt Koselleck) between the field of experience and the horizon of expectation. The future is the telos. It is the source of the light illuminating the past. Time is no longer a simple classificatory principle, but rather an agent, the operator of a historical process—the other name, or rather the true name, for progress. This history, which human beings make, is perceived as accelerating. There is thus a belief in history—a belief that is diffuse or reflected, but nonetheless shared.
Hartog's key question is: does this temporal regime still prevail? He notes that 'En 1975 encore, Koselleck s'interrogeait sur ce pourrait être une "fin" ou une sortie des temps modernes.' [Already in 1975, Koselleck was asking what might constitute an end of or an exit from modern time].

Hartog's hypothesis is that this end or exit has arrived, and the dominance of the modern, future-orientated regime of historicity is over. He describes
[une distance devunue maximale entre le champ d’experience et l’horizon d’attente, à la limits de la rupture. De sort que l’engendrement du temps historique semble comme suspendu. D’où peut-être cette expérience contemporaine d’un présent perpétuel, insaisissable et quasiment immobile, cherchant malgré tout à produire pour lui-même son proper temps historique. Tout se passe comme s’il n’y avait plus que du présent.]
[a distance that has become maximal between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation, to the the point of rupture, so that the generation of historical time seems to be suspended. Perhaps this is the origin of the contemporary experience of a perpetual present, ungraspable and almost immobile,  seeking despite all to produce for itself its own historical time. Everything happens as if there was nothing more than the present.]
(Please excuse my hasty translation).

As Hartog argues in ‘The Modern Régime of Historicity in the Face of the Two World Wars’, presentism starts to emerge in the intellectual climate of the post-1945 generation,  above all with Lévi-Strauss and the rise of structuralism. Presentism only gains purchase in the wider culture later: 'when the Revolution vanishes from the horizon in the 1970s, futurism recedes and the present (in the space that has been left free) gradually imposes itself as the dominant category.’

This seems to me a powerful model--even if, as one colleague put it, it is powerful in the sense that a 4x4 is powerful, implicitly lacking in fine-grained sensitivity. Nevertheless I am currently unconvinced by the chronological ordering that Hartog imposes on the successive regimes of historicity. There are plenty of examples of different temporal regimes co-existing at the same time--a phenomenon Erich Auerbach explores in Mimesis, where (above all in Chapter 2, 'Fortunata') he traces the emergence of what looks like Hartog's futurist regime of historicity in the New Testamant, in contrast to the static categories of classical history which prevail in Tacitus.

Hartog concedes in places that different regimes of historicity co-exist and compete at any one time, but my current feeling is that he is too committed to the idea of the dominance of a single regime of historicity in a given period. I think Abdelmajid Hannoum's objection (here) seems right: there is a sort of slippage in Hartog's work between the anthropology of time and the intellectual history of time.

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