Thursday, December 4, 2014

Koselleck on Historical Time

While thinking about Communist visions of a 'radiant future', I have become increasingly interested in some meta-historical discussions about the nature of historical time. The key player for me is François Hartog, who has developed an intriguing notion of 'regimes of historicity' in this book (English translation forthcoming next year). Hartog argues that around the end of the eighteenth century, a regime of historicity in which all present experience was referred to the categories of the past was replaced by the 'modern' regime of historicity, where the future comes to dominate the horizon of expectation, and a self-conscious idea of historical progress begins to play an active role in history. He is drawing on Lévi-Strauss's distinction between hot and cold societies, and also on Reinhart Koselleck's book Futures Past, which makes an interesting distinction between the 'space of experience' and the 'horizon of expectation'. A gap or a tension between the two is what characterises modernity (Neuzeit), for Koselleck:
during Neuzeit the difference between experience and expectation has increasingly expanded; more precisely, that Neuzeit is first understood as a neue Zeit [new time] from the time that expectations have distanced themselves evermore from all previous experience.
As he goes on to explain:
The peasant world, which two hundred years ago comprised up to 80 percent of all persons in many parts of Europe, lived within the cycle of nature. Disregarding the structure of social organization, fluctuations in market conditions (especially those in long-distance agricultural trade), and monetary fluctuations, the everyday world was marked by whatever nature brought. Good or bad harvests depended upon sun, wind, and weather, and whatever skills were needed were passed on from generation to generation. Technical innovations, which did exist, took a long time to become established and thus did not bring about any rupture in the pattern of life. It was possible to adapt to them without putting the previous store of experience in disarray. Even wars were treated as events sent by God. Similar things are true of the urban life of the artisan whose guild regulations, however restrictive they might have been individually, made sure that everything would remain the way it was. That they be felt restrictive already presupposes the new horizon of expectation of a freer economy. 
This picture is oversimplified, of course, but it is clear enough for our problem: the expectations cultivated in this peasant-artisan world (and no other expectations could be cultivated) subsisted entirely on the experiences of their predecessors, experiences which in turn became those of their successors. If anything changed, then it changed so slowly and over so long a time that the breach separating previous experience and an expectation to be newly disclosed did not undermine the traditional world. This almost seamless transference of earlier experiences into coming expectations cannot be said to be true of all strata in exactly the same way. The world of politics, with its increasingly mobile instruments of power (two striking examples are the Crusades and later the annexation of distant lands); the intellectual world spawned by the Copernican revolution; and the sequence of technical inventions and discoveries in early modernity: in all these areas one must presuppose a consciousness of difference between traditional experience and coming expectation. “Quot enim fuerint errorum impedimenta in praeterito, tot sunt spei argumenta in futurum,” as Bacon said. Above all there, where an experiential space was broken up within a generation, all expectations were shaken and new ones promoted. Since the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation this vibrant tension affected ever more social strata. 
He later explains:
What was new [in modernity] was that the expectations that reached out for the future became detached from all that previous experience had to offer. Even the new experience gained from the annexation of lands overseas and from the development of science and technology was still insufficient for the derivation of future expectations. From that time on, the space of experience was no longer limited by the horizon of expectations; rather, the limits of the space of experience and of the horizon of expectations diverged.
Interesting, huh?

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