We Have Never Been Presentist: On Regimes of Historicity

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

It is great news that François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time has finally come out in English. The original French edition dates back to 2003, and my encounter with the book took place a few years later in the form of its Hungarian edition. What I wish to indicate by mentioning this small fact is that Anglo-American academia is catching up with ideas that already made their career. But to be more precise, it is perhaps better to talk about a single idea, because at the core of Hartog’s book there is one strong thesis, namely, that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union we live in a presentist “regime of historicity.”

The thesis makes sense only within a long-term historical trajectory, in relation to previous “regimes of historicity” other than the presentist one. Furthermore, it makes sense only if one comes to grips beforehand with Hartog’s analytical categories, which is not the easiest task. As Peter Seixas notes in a review, despite Hartog’s effort to articulate what he means by a “regime of historicity,” the term remains elusive. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that it denotes an organizational structure which Western culture imposes on experiences of time, and that changes in “regimes of historicity” entail changes in the way Western culture configures the relationship between past, present, and future.

As to the historical trajectory that Hartog sketches, it goes as follows: around the French Revolution, a future-oriented modern regime of historicity superseded a pre-modern one in which the past served as a point of orientation, illuminating the present and the future. So far this accords with Reinhart Koselleck’s investigations concerning the birth of our modern notion of history. Conceptualizing the course of events as history between 1750 and 1850—the period Koselleck called Sattelzeit—opened up the possibility and the expectation of change in the shape of a historical process supposedly leading to a better future. Where Hartog departs from Koselleck is the claim that even this modern regime that came about with the birth of our modern notion of history has now been replaced by one that establishes its sole point of orientation in the present.

I believe that Hartog’s main thesis about our current presentist “regime of historicity” can be fundamentally challenged. I am with Hartog, Koselleck, and many others (such as Aleida Assmann) in exploring the characteristics of the “modern regime of historicity.” What I doubt is not even Hartog’s further claim that Western culture left behind this modern regime, but that it happened sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that the modern regime is followed by a presentist one in which we live. In other words, what I doubt is the feasibility of the story that Hartog tells about how we became presentist.

Let me tell you another story—the story of how we have never been presentist. It does not begin with the fall of the Berlin Wall and it does not begin when the Cold War ends. Instead, it begins in the early stage of the postwar period, when Western culture finally killed off the three major (and heavily interrelated) future-oriented endeavors it launched since the late Enlightenment: classical philosophy of history, ideology, and political utopianism.

By the 1960s, skepticism towards the idea of a historical process supposed to lead to a “better” future already discredited philosophies of history. The complementary endeavors of ideology and political utopianism shared this fate, given that the achievement of their purpose depended on the discredited idea of a historical process within which it was supposed to take place. In other words, dropping the idea of a historical process necessarily entailed putting a ban on all future-oriented endeavors that were rendered possible by postulating such a process. These are, I believe, fairly well known phenomena. Since Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947 [1944]), or at least since Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957), Judith Shklar’s After Utopia (1957) or Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology (1960), the bankruptcy of the three major future-oriented endeavors of Western culture have become a fairly recurrent theme in intellectual discussion.

This is not to say that traces of these endeavors did not remain present as implicit assumptions in cultural practices, however. It took a post-1960s “theory boom” and decades of postcolonial and gender critique even to attempt to deconstruct the prevailing assumptions of Western universalism and essentialism. But the point I would like to make is not whether this did or did not prove a successful intellectual operation; rather, I would like to emphasize that regardless of the question of overall success, Western culture self-imposed some sort of a presentism already in the 1960s by putting a ban on its own future-oriented endeavors.

Yet this self-imposed presentism remains only one side of the coin as concerns the ideological-utopian project. The other side is the proliferation of technological imagination and the future visions simultaneously launched when Western ideological-political imagination had been declared bankrupt. You can think of the space programs of the same period or of the sci-fi enthusiasm of the 1950s and 1960s, both in cinema and literature, which was inspired by actual technological visions reflected in the foundation of artificial intelligence research as a scientific field, splitting out of cybernetics in 1956. Today, this technological vision is more omnipresent than ever before. You cannot escape it as soon as you go to the movies or online. Just like every second blockbuster or like DeLillo’s latest novel, magazine stories and public debates now habitually address issues of transhumanism, bioengineering, nanotechnology, cryonics, human enhancement, artificial intelligence, technological singularity, plans to colonize Mars, and so on.

Hartog shows himself to be well aware of this technological vision, just as he remains aware of how the notion of history brought about by classical philosophies of history was abandoned in the postwar years, entailing the collapse of ideology and political utopianism. I can think of only one reason why he still fails to consider this as the abandonment of the modern regime of historicity. It seems to me that Hartog mistakes matters of political history like the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) for matters of intellectual history like the skepticism toward grand ideological-political designs of the common future that had already taken root in the 1950s-1960s. This must be the fundamental ground upon which Hartog places “the collapse of the communist ideal” alongside the fall of the Wall, as if the intellectual “ideal” could simply collapse together with the material collapse of the Wall or the political collapse of the communist bloc. This elision prevents Hartog and other critics from seeing that, first, the loss of Western ideological-utopian future-orientation was self-imposed and, second, that it did not result in overall presentism but in exchanging an ideological future-orientation for a technological-scientific one that emerged simultaneously with the abandonment of the former.

Of course the emerging technological-scientific vision (again, vision, and not necessarily the actual technological advancement, which one can debate) can be considered ideological as well, but that is beside the point. More importantly, the obvious omnipresence of the technological-scientific vision hardly enables us to talk about “a world so enslaved to the present that no other viewpoint is considered admissible” as Hartog does. Not to mention that the temporal structure of the technological vision may be completely other than the developmental structure that underlay late Enlightenment and nineteenth-century future-oriented endeavors. If these past endeavors were deliberately dropped for good reasons, whatever future endeavor Western culture ventures into, it simply cannot be a return to an abandoned temporality. If the future itself has changed, it necessarily entails a change in the mode by which we configure the relation of this future to the present and the past.

I think—and Hartog might agree if he reconsidered future-orientation—that the principal task of historians and philosophers of history today remains coming to terms with our current future vision. It is the principal task because insofar as we have a future vision, we imply a historical process; and if the technological-scientific vision is characteristically other than the abandoned ideological-utopian one, then the historical process it implies must be different too. What this means is that – using Hartog’s vocabulary – we may already have a new regime of historicity which we have yet to explore and understand.

Yet even if we do not fully grasp what regime of historicity we live in, one thing is certain: it is anything but presentist. In fact, we have never been presentist.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at Bielefeld University. Lately he devotes articles to the question of how our future prospects and visions inform our notion of history, not only as related to the technological vision, but also with respect to our ecological concerns and within the framework of a quasi-substantive philosophy of history. You can also find Zoltán on Twitter and Academia.edu.

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