Our Broad Present
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Our Broad Present

Time and Contemporary Culture

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

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eBook - ePub

Our Broad Present

Time and Contemporary Culture

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

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Considering a range of present-day phenomena, from the immediacy effects of literature to the impact of hypercommunication, globalization, and sports, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht notes an important shift in our relationship to history and the passage of time. Although we continue to use concepts inherited from a "historicist" viewpoint, a notion of time articulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the actual construction of time in which we live in today, which shapes our perceptions, experiences, and actions, is no longer historicist. Without fully realizing it, we now inhabit a new, unnamed space in which the "closed future" and "ever-available past" (a past we have not managed to leave behind) converge to produce an "ever-broadening present of simultaneities."

This profound change to a key dimension of our existence has complex consequences for the way in which we think about ourselves and our relation to the material world. At the same time, the ubiquity of digital media has eliminated our tactile sense of physical space, altering our perception of our world. Gumbrecht draws on his mastery of the philosophy of language to enrich his everyday observations, traveling to Disneyland, a small town in Louisiana, and the center of Vienna to produce striking sketches of our broad presence in the world.

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I. PRESENCE IN LANGUAGE OR PRESENCE ACHIEVED AGAINST LANGUAGE?
“From Language to Logic—and Back,” the title of Ruediger Bubner’s opening lecture for the Hegel Congress 2005, had a structural similarity to the movement that I propose (and have been invited to) to pursue here. I will start out from language and try to reach something that is not language; then I want to return to language from that something which is not language. Instead of “language,” however, that which is not language, in my essay, will be what I have come to call presence.
I will divide the presentation of this simple back-and-forth movement into three parts. The first part contains four premises that will lead us from language to presence:1 they are the briefest possible explanation of what I resent and criticize within the hermeneutic tradition (a), which critique will make transparent my conceptions of “metaphysics” and of a “critique of metaphysics” (b). These notions will justify my use of the word presence (c) and the typological distinction that I propose to make between “presence culture” and “meaning culture” (d). The second part of my brief reflection will trace a way back (or a variety of ways back) from presence to language by describing six modes through which presence can exist in language or, in other words, six modes through which presence and language can become amalgamated (the metaphor of amalgamation points to a principally difficult, rather than natural, relationship between presence and language). These modes are language as presence, presence in philological work, language that can trigger aesthetic experience, the language of mystic experience, the openness of language toward the world, and literature as epiphany. In the third, retrospective part I will ask whether these six types of amalgamation between presence and language have led us to a horizon of questions and problems similar to the one that Martin Heidegger tried to address when, in the later stages of his philosophy, he was using, with ever growing insistence, the metaphorical evocation of language as “the house of Being.”
1
When my colleagues, the literary critics and literary theorists, speak of “language,” they normally think of something that requires “interpretation,” something that invites us to attribute well-circumscribed meanings to words. Like some other literary critics and, I believe, even more philosophers of my generation (among whom Jean-Luc Nancy may be the most outspoken),2 I have grown weary of this intellectual one-way traffic as it has been based on and upheld by a certain, narrow, and yet totalizing understanding of hermeneutics. I also have long experienced the absolutism of all postlinguistic-turn varieties of philosophy as intellectually limiting and I have not found much consolation in what I like to characterize as the “linguistic existentialism” of deconstruction, i.e., the sustained complaint and melancholia (in its endless variations) about the alleged incapacity of language to refer to the things of the world. Should it really be the core function of literature, in all its different forms and tones, to draw its readers’ attention, over and again, to the all too familiar view that language cannot refer, as Paul de Man seemed to claim whenever he wrote about the “allegory of reading”?
These are, in hopefully convenient condensation, the main feelings and reasons that made me become part of yet another movement within the humanities that has a (perhaps even well-deserved) reputation of being “worn out.” I am referring to the “critique of Western metaphysics.” At least I can claim that the way in which I use the word metaphysics is more elementary than and therefore different from its dominant meanings in contemporary philosophy. When I say metaphysics, I want to activate the word’s literal meaning of something “beyond the merely physical.” I want to point to an intellectual style (prevailing in the humanities today) that only allows for one gesture, and one type of operation, and that is the operation of “going beyond” what is regarded to be a “merely physical surface” and of thus finding, “beyond or below the merely physical surface,” that which is supposed to really matter, i.e., a meaning (which, in order to underline its distance from the surface, is often called profound).
My departure from metaphysics in this very sense takes into account and insists on the experience that our relationship to things (and to cultural artifacts in specific) is, inevitably, never only a relationship of meaning attribution. As long as I use the word things to refer to what the Cartesian tradition calls res extensae, we also and always live in and are aware of a spatial relationship to these things. Things can be “present” or “absent” to us, and, if they are present, they are either closer to or further away from our bodies. By calling them present, then, in the very original sense of Latin prae-esse, we are saying that things are “in front” of ourselves and thereby tangible. There are no further implications that I propose to associate with this concept.
Based on the historical observation, however, that certain cultures, like our own “modern” culture, for example (whatever we exactly may mean by modern), have a greater tendency than other cultures to bracket the dimension of presence and its implications, I have come to propose a typology (in the traditional Weberian sense) between “meaning cultures” and “presence cultures.” Here are a few of the (inevitably, and without any bad conscience, “binary”) distinctions that I propose to make.3 In a meaning culture, firstly, the dominant form of human self-reference will always correspond to the basic outline of what Western culture calls subject and subjectivity, i.e., it will refer to a body-less observer who, from a position of eccentricity vis-à-vis the world of things, will attribute meanings to those things. A presence culture, in contrast, will integrate both spiritual and physical existence into its human self-reference (think, as an illustration, of the motif of the “spiritual and bodily resurrection from the dead” in medieval Christianity). It follows from this initial distinction that, secondly, in a presence culture humans consider themselves to be part of the world of objects instead of being ontologically separated from it (this may have been the view that Heidegger wanted to recover with “being-in-the-world” as one of his key concepts in Being and Time). Thirdly, and on a higher level of complexity, human existence, in a meaning culture, unfolds and realizes itself in constant and ongoing attempts at transforming the world (“actions”) that are based on the interpretation of things and on the projection of human desires into the future. This drive toward change and transformation is absent from presence cultures where humans just want to inscribe their behavior into what they consider to be structures and rules of a given cosmology (what we call rituals are frames for such attempts to correspond to cosmological frames).
I will abandon this typology here, for I trust that it has fulfilled the function that I have assigned to it within the larger context of my argument: I wanted to illustrate that, on the one hand, language in meaning cultures does cover all those functions that modern philosophy of European descent is presupposing and talking about. On the other hand, it is much less obvious what roles language can play in presence cultures (or in a world seen from a presence culture perspective). The six types of “amalgamations” between language and presence that I want to refer to in the second section of my text are intended to present a multifaceted answer to this same question.
2
The first paradigm is language, above all spoken language, as a physical reality, and it highlights the aspect in relation to which Hans-Georg Gadamer spoke of the “volume” of language, in distinction to its propositional or apophantic content.4 “As a physical reality, spoken language not only touches and affects our acoustic sense, but our bodies in their entirety.” We thus perceive language, in the least invasive way, i.e., quite literally, as the light touch of sound on our skin, even if we cannot understand what its words are supposed to mean. Such perceptions can well be pleasant and even desirable—and in this sense we all know how one can grasp certain qualities of poetry in a reading without knowing the language that is being used. As soon as the physical reality of language has a form, a form that needs to be achieved against its status of being a time object in the sense proper (“ein Zeitobjekt im eigentlichen Sinn,” according to Husserl’s terminology), we will say that it has a “rhythm”—a rhythm that we can feel and identify independently of the meaning language “carries.”5 Language as a physical reality that has form, i.e., rhythmic language, will fulfill a number of specific functions. It can coordinate the movements of individual bodies; it can support the performance of our memory (think of those rhymes through which we used to learn some basic rules of Latin grammar); and, by supposedly lowering the level of our alertness, it can have (as Nietzsche said) an “intoxicating” effect. Certain presence cultures even attribute an incantatory function to rhythmic language, i.e., the capacity of making absent things present and present things absent (this indeed was the expectation associated with medieval charms).6
A second, very different type of amalgamation between presence and language lies in the basic practices of philology (in their original function as text curatorship). In a short recent book, I have argued that—much counter to his traditional image—the philologist’s activities are preconsciously driven by very primary desires that we can describe as desires for (full) presence (and I understand that a desire for “full presence” is a desire without the possibility of fulfillment—which precisely makes it a desire from a Lacanian point of view).7 Collecting textual fragments, in this sense, would presuppose a deeply repressed wish of quite literally eating what remains of ancient papyri or medieval manuscripts. A wish to incorporate the texts in question (to play them like an actor) might underlie the passion for producing historical editions (in all of their various philological styles)—think of an act as basic as “sounding out” a Goethe poem and discovering that it will only rhyme if you pronounce it with a (more than slight) Frankfurt accent. As they “fill up” the margins of handwritten and printed pages, erudite commentaries, finally, may relate to a physical wish for plenitude and exuberance. It would probably be very difficult (if not impossible) to disentangle, in all detail, such cases of intertwinedness between presence drives and scholarly ambitions. But what matters to me, in this context, is the intuition that they do converge, much more than we normally imagine, in many forms of philological work.
If you follow, as I tend to do, at least regarding present-day Western culture, Niklas Luhmann’s suggestion for a characterization of aesthetic experience (Luhmann, within the parameters of his philosophy, tried to describe what was specific about “communication” within the “art system” as a social system), then any kind of language that is capable of triggering aesthetic experience will appear as a third case of the amalgamation between presence and language. Communication in the art system, for Luhmann, is the one form of communication within which (purely sensual) perception is not only a presupposition but a content carried, together with meaning, by language. This description corresponds to an experience of poems (or of literary prose rhythms) as drawing our attention to those physical aspects of language (and their possible forms) that we tend to bracket otherwise. Contrary to a long prevailing (and still dominating) opinion in literary studies, however, I do not believe that the different dimensions of poetic form (i.e. rhythm, rhyme, stanzas, etc.) function in ways that subordinate them to the dimension of meaning (for example, as the so-called theory of poetic overdetermination suggests, by giving stronger contours to complex semantic configurations). Rather, I see poetic forms engaging in an oscillation with meaning, in the sense that a reader/listener of poetry can never pay full attention to both sides. This, I think, is the reason why a cultural prescription in Argentina excludes the dancing of a tango whenever the tango has lyrics. For the choreography of tango as a dance, with its asymmetry between male and female steps, against which harmony needs to be achieved at every moment, is so demanding that it requires full attention for the music—which state would inevitably be reduced by the interference of a text that would divert part of this attention.
Mystical experience and the language of mysticism is my fourth paradigm. By constantly referring to its own incapacity of rendering the intense presence of the divine, mystical language produces the paradoxical effect of stimulating imaginations that seem to make this very presence palpable. In the description of her visions, Saint Teresa de Avila, for example, uses highly erotic images under the permanent condition of an “as if.” The encounter with Jesus, for her, is “as if being penetrated by a sword,” and at the same time she feels “as if an angel was emerging from her body.” Rather than taking these forms of expression literally, however, as the description of something, i.e., of a mystical experience that truly exceeds the limits of language, a both secular and analytic view will understand mystical experience itself as an effect of language and of its inherent powers of self-persuasion.
Yet another mode of amalgamation can be described as language being open toward the world of things. It includes texts that switch from the semiotic paradigm of representation to a deictic attitude where words are experienced as pointing to things rather than standing “for them.” Nouns then turn into names because they seem to skip the always totalizing dimension of concepts and become individually attached, temporarily at least, with individual objects. Francis Ponge’s thing-poems use and cultivate this potential of language. I recently had a similar impression when I was reading an autobiographical sketch by the great physicist Erwin Schroedinger,8 whose obsession with descriptive preciseness seems to have rejected the effect of abstraction that is inherent to all concepts. Nouns therefore seem attached to individual objects in Schroedinger’s text and thus begin to function like names, producing a textual impression that is strangely reminiscent of medieval charms. In a different way, certain passages in Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novels seem to be specifically open to the world of objects. There the rhythm of the prose copies the rhythm of movements or of events to be evoked and thus establishes an analogic relationship to these movements and events that also bypasses the digital principle of representation. If texts like Ponge’s poems or Schroedinger’s autobiographical sketch seem to reach toward things in space, Céline’s texts appear open to be affected by and resonate with things.
Finally, whoever is familiar with the twentieth-century tradition of high modernism knows the claim, central, above all, for the work of James Joyce, that literature can be the place of epiphany (a more skeptical description would once again rather speak of the capacity of literature to produce “effects of epiphany”). In its theological usage the concept of epiphany refers to the appearance of a thing, of a thing that requires space, a thing that is either absent or present. For a conception of language that concentrates exclusively on the dimension of meaning, epiphanies, in this very literal sense, and texts must be separated by a relation of heteronomy. But if we take into account, as I have suggested throughout this series of examples, the phenomenology of language as a physical reality and, with it, the incantatory potential of language, then a convergence between literature and epiphany seems to be much less outlandish. To concede that such moments of epiphany do occur, but do so under the specific temporal conditions that Karl Heinz Bohrer has characterized as those of “suddenness” and “irreversible departure,”9 may be a contemporary way of mediating between our desire for epiphanies and a modern skepticism that this desire cannot completely outdo.
3
Passing through six modes of amalgamation between language and presence, we have covered the distance between two extremes that the title of my essay tries to pinpoint. We started out by drawing attention to the always given but, within modern culture, systematically overlooked or even bracketed physical presence of language and we have arrived at the claim that language can produce epiphanies, which claim evokes an exceptional situation and achievement that has to be wrested, so to speak, from and even against the grain of the normal functioning of language. Certainly, in the growing complexity of our different paradigms, the different relations between language and presence do not obey the structural model of the “metaphysical” two-leveledness that distinguishes between “material surface” and “semantic depth,” between “negligible foreground” and “meaningful background.” But what could then be an alternative model that allows us to think through the rather tense harmonious oscillations between language and presence in their variety?
Given that I believe in a convergence between Heidegger’s concept of Being and the notion of presence that I have been using here,10 I do indeed see a promise in his description of “language as the house of Being,” a promise, however, whose redemption ma...

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