Aleida Assmann in an interview
Cracks in the time regime

Aleida Assmann
Aleida Assmann | Photo (detail): © Jespah Holthof, Universität Konstanz

Is time out of joint? This question, reminiscent of Shakespeare, is raised by Aleida Assmann in her book of the same name, in which she describes the fundamental change undergone by our perception of time over the past decades.

Ms. Assmann, your book deals with the rise and fall of the modernist time regime. What do you mean by this time regime?

I used the term to designate something I would like to call an implicit knowledge, that is to say, a knowledge that is not discussed because it is so self-evidently there. This knowledge involves a normative authority, and there is no alternative to it because we cannot image that it will ever change. That is, until the moment when it goes to pieces. Only then can we give an account of it, after the fact. As I myself have lived in this time regime for many years and experienced how it has gradually developed cracks, it was important for me to examine the actual premises which were not spoken about, yet which everyone would naturally have subscribed to.

And what are those premises?

For example, that the future is always better than the present. That all salvation comes from the future, so that we have to orient ourselves towards it. We call this orientation progress. This presupposes that what is behind us will vanish of itself and that time is something like a constant driver of development for the better. All people have to do is play along. But ultimately it is time that constantly carries them forward.

Time as a disposal unit

Obviously something changed in the 1980s.

So much changed, in fact, that we suddenly realised that this absence of an alternative no longer applied. Earlier symptoms could also be mentioned. For example, the abolition of the statute of limitation for crimes related to National Socialism. All of that was supposed to just fade from view. Time was the great disposal unit. This became even more manifest in the 1980s with the return of the increasingly dominant theme of the Holocaust. Suddenly paradoxical formulations emerged, such as that of the past that does not pass. As we know today, that is precisely the definition of trauma, a concept which was only included in the handbook of American psychiatry in 1980. Prior to that, those concepts did not exist, they were simply inconceivable.

You mention other aspects in your book, for example, the pollution of the environment.

I could list a whole series of symptoms: all the talk about finite natural resources, also the awareness of the fragility of cultural resources, which are just as important. Another aspect are the digital media, which can bring past knowledge back to the present at the click of a mouse, moreover, in a way that can be very problematic, as we now know, given that the data is sorted so as to be searchable and the internet forgets nothing.

Inundated by the past

Authors like Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht or François Hartog take an extremely critical view of this inability of the past to pass, speaking about too much memory.

The interesting thing is that these authors never present us with a concrete case. Which memory, which memorial should we do away with? As far as I am concerned, what we have here is a topos that originated with Nietzsche who claimed that everything existed already, and swoops down on man. Since then, the topos of an inundation by the past has become a constant. Yet Nietzsche was not speaking about memory at all, he was thinking about the growing archives in the 19th century. Let us do a countercheck. On 4 June 2014, the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, thousands of soldiers were mobilised to suppress commemoration. That’s what can happen in a world where only the history of the victors is permitted. Meantime we have fortunately altered our relationship with these histories of the victors, as we slowly perceive the voices of the victims. We are developing a new self-critical memory. This involves also remembering crimes for which we ourselves are responsible and about which we should communicate with the victims in dialogue form. Many states today recognize such events and include them in their own historical image of themselves. As a result, the historical images have become more complex and multifaceted.

If the modernist time regime no longer applies, do we need a new one?

It’s not the case that everything now abruptly stops. There are two realms in our culture where the modernist time regime still functions uninterruptedly: natural science and technology. Technology does not double back, it takes a spirited, forward course. Our western culture is calibrated in that direction. We all want trains that travel faster, cars that are safer and new medication that cures our ills. So we continue to live with the rhetoric of progress and renewal. Obviously we humans cannot do without this. It’s a bit like an addiction. But clearly we now approach the future less as a matter of course and with a greater sense of responsibility. This means that we have to act in such a way that there can be a future. That is what the radical process of rethinking is about.

But does this mean that the modernist capitalist system is at an end?

The French philosopher Bruno Latour once said that modernism should be recalled like a defective industrial product. This is usually done not to dispose of the product, as it no longer functions, but to improve it. It’s about important repair measures and, above all, about a self-perceptive thought process that also involves the time regime of modernism. What I wanted to show in my book is that we are in the middle of a profound process of change as regards our fundamental cultural assumptions.

Aleida Assmann is professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Konstanz. The focal points of her academic work are cultural memory and cultural theory. With her husband, the Egyptologist Jan Assmann, she introduced the term “cultural memory” into German research. In her latest book “Ist die Zeit aus den Fugen?” (Carl Hanser Verlag 2013) Aleida Assmann engages with the fundamental change undergone by our perception of past and future since the 1970s.