yet more simultaneity

I’m not sure how interesting this will be to those just visiting the blog, but I thought I’d make a few more connections between my last post on simultaneity and the thoughts I’ve been having about literary historiography since coming back from Scotland.

Gumbrecht originally subtitled his book In 1926, “an essay in historical simultaneity” (xiv), and his decision to immerse his readers in a single year demanded in turn that he disavow some of the most familiar and comforting elements of conventional history-writing:  these included narrative, cause and effect, and the idea of “learning from history.”  As he admits early on in the book,

. . . this book makes a plea against any claims for subjective or collective agency.  And how could a book concerned with historical simultaneity not arrive at this very conclusion?  After all, there are no conceptions of action and agency that do not require sequentiality as their frame of reference.  Yet this is exactly the one form of thinking history with which the idea of historical simultaneity is incompatible (xii).

There is of course a “politics” to denying the political efficacy of historical understanding, and Gumbrecht makes a number of statements in this book (written in 1998) about the end of “learning from history” that I’d like to hear him revisit  in 2009, under our present circumstances, though of course neither he nor I could have known when the book came out just how strange his predictions would sound within a decade of their publication, no matter how much I admired the book.

In  Gumbrecht’s 1998-era telling, the mounting economic complexities of that (now-vanished) present moment rendered earlier forms and assumptions of history-writing obsolete, largely because our ability to predict the future on the basis of the past had become so discredited (in G’s historical  shorthand, because of the fall of the Berlin wall and the consequent collapse of Marxism’s scientistic claims to predict the direction of History).  And yet for all our interest in works like  Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan and for all our new, hard-earned skepticism toward the post-historical models of history offered by neo-liberalism, untethered finance, and globalization, it still seems important to talk about our latest economic crisis in terms taken from the last, great global crisis of capitalism, and to remind economists of that history.  In other words, to force our political elites to learn from history.  So economics and the economic establishment does not go away, even if Taleb and many others think they should hang their heads in shame for their complicity in the last 10 years’ joy ride, but somehow the historical critique, which is inevitably part of a historical narrative, needs to be incorporated better into what they do.  (“remember what happened the last time we allowed derivatives to go out of control?“)

At the same time, Gumbrecht’s 1998 book, I think, has fastened onto something crucial and distinctive in the “present moment” that has gotten only stronger since it was published, which is the extent to which knowledge of both the present and the past have been taken out of the realm of narrative, and in the words of one commentator,  shifted into the realm of the “database.”  (18th century specialists might recognize the problem, if they think about how differently their most cherished works emerge from literary histories as opposed to search engines mining ECCO).  The knowledge that might have once been mediated by human beings, even within recognizable institutions and organizations–journalists, biographers, etc. etc.–is now made freely available at all times to everyone in an utterly flat and impersonal way, simply by “Googling” them.  It’s all there, collected by no one, for everyone to read.  Knowedge, when denuded of contexts and the macronarratives that organize them, exists in Gumbrecht’s “in-between” state of simultaneity, in the form of information.

The real question then becomes whether such a tension between narrative and the database really is between two fundamental and opposed impulses, one humanistic and the other impersonal, or between two not-so-distinct modes of storytelling, which contain the forms of information appropriate to each?  And where would literature and literary history fit in with these conceptions of history-writing in our own  “in-between” moment?


3 responses to “yet more simultaneity

  1. I haven’t read Gumbrecht’s book, but I really enjoyed this post. I’m in the midst of trying to imagine a dissertation proposal, and I’m quite taken with exactly this tension between narrative and database, the relation of each of these cultural forms to dominant media, and the intersections of narrative and database throughout the c18. I don’t quite know what I’m doing (of course!) but it’s somewhat reassuring to see narrative/database popping up in the work and interests of other people. Thanks also for linking to Veel’s conference paper on narrative and database — I’m really looking forward to reading it.

  2. Dave Mazella

    I go back and forth on Gumbrecht, whose work is brilliant, I think, but there’s a strain of skepticism/determinism in his rejection of “learning from history” post-Berlin wall that I find really troubling.

    From what I’ve seen in interviews, he still has some ambivalence about the Marxism he was trained in, and I suspect that his reactions against that tradition account for his embrace of an anti-humanist, post-Marxist, Luhmann/Foucault approach.

    On the other hand, his embrace of a non-narrative structure for his account of 1926 seems really prescient right now, when you think about the role of the database as an impersonal cultural form (cf. Cassirer via Veel) organizing information for us on a grander and more thoroughgoing scale every year.

    And of course the eighteenth-century had its own versions of The Database and the anti-narrative organizing impulse: the Dictionary and the Encyclopedia, to name just two, not to mention the internal organization and indexing of newspapers and periodicals.

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