Gumbrecht: “We have to rethink political organization”


MICHAŁ SUTOWSKI: In the early 1990s, the West seemed to be undergoing an intellectual crisis. Thinkers were claiming that history had come to an end. Tim Snyder brilliantly called such an approach “cocktail party Hegelianism”. Soon, a few years later, Francis Fukuyama’s diagnosis was commonly declared as nonsense. On September 11th 2001 we realized that there is no such thing as the end of history. Fukuyama himself agreed that he was wrong. As far as I know, you have a completely different view on that, Professor. What is your response to the question on the end of history?

HANS ULRICH GUMBRECHT: I have a different understanding of the end of history than my Stanford colleague, Fukuyama. Certainly, there is no such thing as a literal end of history: there will always be transformations, there will always be new events, unexpected events – in that sense, history continues. What differs is the regime d’histoire, the chronotope. History – in the Hegelian sense – was the chronotope of the 19th c. and most of the 20th c. It can be characterized by three features. First, you progressively leave the past behind, and the further behind you leave it, the less its orientational power matters. Second, the future is an open horizon of possibilities from which you can choose. Third, between the past and the future the present has shrunk to an imperceptibly short moment. Such a construction of time comes from the 18th c. and was so heavily institutionalized throughout the 19th and 20th century that people thought: “this is time in and by itself”.

What do you mean by “institutionalized”?

It was what people were taught at school, and later thought about time. It lacked an alternative perception. It was a necessary condition for the emergence of capitalism, socialism. But today, it is no longer the only chronotope in which we live. I try historicize History, admitting that it is still around, but no longer as the dominant way under which we think about time and make our experience with regards to time.

Do we have several different parallel ways of perceiving history?

When I teach, I try to avoid the word “history” when I talk about the new regime of time, because I want to reserve “history” for the old mode of perception. In our own everyday life – and this goes for intellectuals, but also average cultivated people – we imagine the future to be occupied by threats that come towards us. Think of ecological threats: global warming, the exhaustion of natural resources, demographic disasters… We can slow down those threats by correct ecological behavior, but we still believe that they are coming towards us, and that the future is not open to choices.

So it is predetermined, in a way?

I do not know whether it is true or not, I am just trying to describe how most people think about time. We also do not leave the past behind anymore but – partly due to electronic storage, but not only that – there is so much past available that it is invading the present. At any given moment of the present, you can choose from possibilities of the past. Finally, between the new, “blocked” future and the invading past, our present is no longer an imperceptibly short moment of transition. Instead, we believe that we experience the constantly broadening present of simultaneity. For example, you mentioned 9/11 – if you ask anyone to structure the time that has elapsed since 2001, the task is going to be extremely difficult. We feel that we are living in a post-2001 moment, but that moment has no internal structure. It accumulates possibilities. If we ask: what is the present of 2014, what is the style of 2014 – it is terribly difficult to say. As we were walking through Warsaw, you were telling me: “this building is from the 1920s, this one from the 1980s”, but it is nearly impossible to say whether something was built in the 1990s or in the first decade of the 21st century. I am not claiming a new objective order, I am just describing the new construction of time. In this new type of time, nothing gets eliminated. The past is preserved and available. The old construction of time is preserved as well. You can still think in a historicist way. For instance, this is a condition for getting a PhD in the history department at a university or giving political speeches. If you do not think in the historicist way, you lose the open future, necessary to make political promises. The logic of the new construction of time allows for the presence of the old one, if only in certain niches. Nevertheless, the quantitatively sociologically predominant notion of time is what I call the temporality of the broad present.

What is the difference between the fear of the future and the feeling of demise or decline of civilization that was quite widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, present in for instance in Der Untergang des Abendlandes? Those feelings were also apocalyptic, rather than optimistic about an open future.

As long as you have an apocalyptic view of history, you are still within the historicist chronotope. This point of view entails the likelihood of something bad happening, but – think here of Spengler – you can try and work against it. For example, such was the historicist worldview propagated by the Nazis. “Historicist” does not necessarily mean “Marxist” or “Hegelian” – a conviction about improvement or progress. You can also make negative choices, with which the future gets worse, but you still believe in shaping the future through your present. You can make wrong choices and go decadent. Here, there is no difference between decadence and progress. The topology of decadence belongs as much to the historicist chronotope as progress. Now the idea would be precisely that whatever happens, it does not really depend so much on what we do in the present. For example: global warming will happen, it is too late to change that – we may only slow it down.

When did such a chronotope emerge? Can you pinpoint a breakthrough moment?

It is hard to say. The first symptoms of a crisis can be seen in the mid-20th century. In my book After 1945, I try to describe the feeling of the fifties that was articulated by people like Albert Camus: that history did not flow anymore. That something was congested. He talks about that at the end of L’Homme révolté. Normally, though, the change was associated with WWII. We supposedly had not worked through it yet. And as soon as we came to terms with WWII, Nazism, the Holocaust etc., history would regain its flow. Led by this belief, in 1968 the members of my generation confronted their parents to finally know the truth, believing that history will flow again, as we were hoping, in the way of socialism. But the congestion was already a symptom of a major crisis. The first book that diagnosed this symptom was Lyotard’s La Condition postmoderne with its critique of Grand Narratives, les grands récits. A Grand Narrative is precisely the Marxist or Hegelian narration of History as theological development. Lyotard says: there is probably a multiplicity of histories to be told. I would say that the earliest signs of crisis appeared in the mid-20th century, with the hope that it could be turned around. The diagnosis of it being irreversible came with Lyotard’s book – not even his best one. He has not elaborated on the crisis much, but he had the intuition. Interestingly, a few years earlier, Hayden White published Metahistory, a reaction on the side of historiography, so to speak. You can write multiple histories about each event, there is no one single history. But I think that this postmodern moment really was only a symptom of something happening. I am not subscribing to the conclusions that were drawn.

I remember Hayden White saying that we need to talk about history in such a way that we can live with it, as a community, as a society. It means that perhaps there are multiple stories to be told, but they are not of equal value. Thus, we choose one history.

Hayden White used to be my friend, my colleague. I did not subscribe to his point of view, because of which our relationship deteriorated. This was his 1973 reaction and he has never changed it. But I believe that in the 1980s, and especially in the recent 20 years, historical constructivism – “let’s tell the history that we can live with” – is not something with which we intellectuals are satisfied. We live in the paradoxical situation in which we desire an epistemological realism, we want to be able to tell the correct story, the true story, in full awareness of its impossibility. When I write my books, like In 1926 or After 1945, I assume a different strategy. Part of After 1945 is autobiographical not in Hayden White’s sense. I present myself as a time witness. In the first chapter, I describe impressions from my childhood in post-WWII Germany. This is not an interpretation, this is just a memory of what a destroyed town looked like to a young child. I think it does have the value of a document. I do not claim that you can easily get back to a ranking style of history. I know that this is impossible. But still, I believe that consensus history is no longer what we want – what I want.

If I am told that in this day and age we have no agency over what happens in the future. People also come up with an easy progressivist explanation: some uncontrollable mechanisms, some big trends are happening above their heads. The state has lost control over many processes. The political elite is alienated. There are no big social movements… That we practically have little or no influence over what is happening. But when the crisis was starting in the 1960s or the 1970s, the political democratic state was perceived as quite a strong force. Despite the Cold War, one could still feel that people or societies were able to influence future events. Why did the feeling of a lack of agency appeared since then?

It is difficult to explain. When I speculate about the reasons, I get in a trans-Hegelian mood: I start building hypotheses so general that they have no value. I am also not claiming that you really have no agency. But people believe that they have none. The low attendance at general elections proves the prevalence of this belief. Also, I am not saying that there is an easy way back to agency as we imagined it in the 1970s – it is even dangerous to claim that. We have to accept that we are much more pessimistic and skeptical about shaping the future.

Therefore, we have to rethink political organization, so that we can maximize our possibility of agency. Certainly, as long as you are human, you can never give up agency.The easy way back: “let’s be socialist, then we’ll have agency” does not really work. One reason for the loss of this illusion would be globalization.

For example, any economic measure that a nation-state takes today is very determined by the global complexity of the economy. I had a former student at Stanford: Martin Bruncko, who used to be the minister of economy and finance of the Slovak Republic, and quit five years ago. He said that the liberty that you have as a minister of economy of the Slovak Republic, within the EU, and the EU within world economy, makes you feel like an EU administrator. He would be politically, philosophically and mentally pretty close to you, but he felt that it was not worth it. Again, I am not saying that there is no agency, but it is dangerous to act as if we could go back to that type of agency that Marx based on Hegel, and the certain type of leftism that was cultivated. I do not think that there is a way back to that.

Certainly there is no way back to historical determinism, which was at the core of similar beliefs in the quasi-natural laws governing history. With the exception of the official Stalinist ideology, free-thinking Marxists since the beginning of the 20th century agreed that there were no iron laws of that sort. Now, let us go back to what you said earlier: what do you mean when you say that the past invades the present?

Normally intellectuals complain that young people do not know much about history. This may be so that the culture of the younger generations of intellectuals is less historically oriented than in the previous generations. But the mere availability of the past has increased very significantly. Let me give you an example. On the website of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung during the commemorative year of WWI, every day you could open a film documentation of the corresponding day in 1914, and you could live through that historical year. Very soon, as a result of the Google-Stanford agreement, every document on this planet will be available in every laptop. If you write a dissertation about history today, the problem is not that you lack material – you have too much material. This is partly the reason for the difficulty of defining the moment of 2014 that I mentioned: at each given moment, there are so many pasts present. We took a beautiful walk through the reconstructed historical center of Warsaw. For two hours or so we had the illusion of being in Warsaw of a certain past. Today, I was able to spend some time “200 years ago”. And that became part of my everyday experience. The typical high modernist 1920 concentration on the moment is now weakened. That is what I call “living in the broadening present of simultaneities”. Is that naturally bad? I do not think so for any reason. For example, here in this café, it matters to the owners that there one section of cakes is composed in the same way as in 1946. You would not see this twenty years ago: perhaps in a museum of food, but not in an average nice café. We are constantly inundated by materials of the past, so sometimes we are struggling to see the present.

Some progressive Marxist theorists, such as Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, on whose work Timothy Snyder wrote a dissertation, had an idea called “revolutionary retrospection” as a response to the problem of how capitalist conditions can create socialist consciousness. His answer was that people have the ability to look into the past at some pre-capitalist model of community, which can be transformed into the idea of modern socialism. Do you think that the omnipresence of the past can be a source of progressive thinking about the future?

I do. You could supplement what you are saying about the Polish author with the very late Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, who says the same thing about the negative moment. I am not a Benjamin fan, but I find that passage very beautiful. He writes that there is a timepiece, a clock of the past, that stopped at a certain moment – a negative moment. If you make this moment present, you can develop some motivational power. I think that these flashbacks into history can unfold a motivational power, not if you present them in a Hegelian or Marxist way within the philosophy of history, but rather if you “presentify” the past through them. If you make past moment epiphanically present in the present, it can be motivational. But if you start questioning its possibility, it will not happen. At the Marché aux Puces in Paris I bought a huge collection of about 800 photographs from the Soviet Union. It interested me so much, because of the many family photographs from the 1950s. I was very impressed by the really happy faces in the photographs from the fifties. It felt like this was a moment when people believed in progress and in their society, their state. Ten years later, the photographs had completely changed.

What I am saying is: we need to develop a new art of presentifying the past – I am deliberately not saying “making present” – so that you can unfold the strength of an individual memory from the past rather than commenting on it too much. If you start interpreting such an image or such a moment too much, then you dilute the motivational force that it may have.

At the beginning of our conversation, you said that we need to develop some new forms of the political organization of agency. Do you see any beginnings to this process?

A fitting example would be Euromaidan. Its strength lay in the presence of people there, in that square, during a certain time. However, the post-Maidan history shows that they did not have one collective will. Today, representative democracy does not work anymore. There is seemingly a great unarticulated desire for the immediate type of democracy, very much in the spirit of Rousseau. In one canton of Switzerland, Lucerne, on important occasions, citizens assemble on a field and vote in physical presence. I am not saying that this is a recipe for the future, but I do believe that a strong decentralization of politics, a strong delegation of the democratic process to relatively local communities could be something for the future. The independence movement in Scotland seems interesting to me – I was not sympathetic to it, but that is beside the point – as is the independence movement in Catalonia. If the Spanish government had allowed it to happen, the Catalan would no doubt be independent now. What I find interesting is the desire to localize politics more than before.

Is spatial proximity an important factor here?

It is. I would say that today there prevails a desire much stronger than twenty or thirty years ago, for people to become part of a collective body. I like to call it with a name borrowed from Catholic theology: “a mystical body”. Although everything is broadcast, stadiums are much fuller today than they used to be. In Germany, the Katholikentage or the Protestantentage are attended by at least a million people each time. However, it is demographically confirmed that practically only a half of them know what is going on religiously. Others just like to be in a crowd. To me, it is a symptom of the political move towards a more local, non-representative type of democracy. In Switzerland, a big vote about immigration took place recently. In Swiss communities, in villages, people will vote whether to allow or forbid an individual foreigner to settle. However controversial this may be, the feeling of participation in the decision who can become your neighbor seems strong today. Particularly in Europe it has to do with the level of abstraction of the EU that risen far too fast. The inclusion of new members, like Poland and many others, is a positive process. At the same time, for most people within Europe, the EU is too abstract as a unit. Real life limits are imposed from too big of a distance.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht



Born in Germany American philosopher, cultural historian, and literary theoretician, Professor at Stanford University. Famous for his books In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time(1997), The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey(2004), and numerous texts on western philosophical tradition and history of humanities. In addition, he studies media and mass culture, aesthetics and epistemology of every-day life, histories of European literatures.


Michał Sutowski
Political scientist, columnist, editor. Coordinator of the Institute for Advanced Studies. Translator from English and German. Editor of the political writings of Jacek Kuroń and Stanisław Brzozowski. In 2012, he studied at the Yale University as part of the Political Critique scholarship.