zeitgeist and the grand scheme of things

I think it’s not an exaggeration if I say that I took a fair number of courses in history. And yet, I don’t recall a single time a concept of the zeitgeist being discussed. It simply does not seem to fit into categories of the academic [“real”] history. What exactly is zeitgeist and how one would measure and assess such a feeling? These are just a few of many good reasons why one does not confronts students of history with such a fluffy concept and rather stick to more tangible phenomena.

Having said that, I can’t help thinking that we might be missing something very important by not dealing with this vague idea. It recently struck me how much in the so-called West the vast majority of people seem to be avert to any change. It is truly remarkable how often words like “stays”, “remains” and so forth have been used during the ongoing elections in Berlin. Many of the analysis of the Brexit vote point out to the dissatisfaction with the influences of the EU and foreigners on Britain. Trump’s campaigned has been fuelled – to a large degree – by the rejection of changes symbolized by the Obama administration and also by longing for return to a mythical past. These are just a few examples that stand out strongest, but it seems that they all fit into a bigger picture of fear and frustration. It looks as if large sections of the societies in “the West” are motivated by those two feelings, as if we lived in the time (decade?) of angst. This impression is ever stronger if one recalls the 90s when all was about change, about building new world, about overcoming the legacy of the Cold War. The reasons for those shifts are, of course, complex and in each case (probably) different, but nonetheless this seems to be the spirit of the moment, which is of course not shared by everyone.

I honestly doubt, if historians writing in the distant future (providing the mankind will not succeed in wiping out life on Earth) would perceive the second decade of the 21st century through the leans of fear and clinging to the past. If I learned something from history, it is that one only rarely sees the storm of history when one is in the middle of it. And yet, it is precisely that storm that historians watching from the distance of time focus their attention on. In the grand scheme of things out collective paranoia might seem trivial (“a ripple on the surface of time”) and meaningless, but I am convinced that to understand the events in our time, also those which make the difference for the future, it is vital to bear in mind the social climate. And for the same reason, I think it might be worth reflecting on what was the situation in other periods, no matter how insignificant it might seem at first glance. I don’t want to suggest it could change our understanding of history, but rather than without such a background we might be missing a few important puzzle pieces.

Freud and Historians

All in all, despite the rhetoric in the last years, most historians, just like most scholars in the humanities, are rather wary of genuinely interdisciplinary work. And there are some very good reasons for that, after all Leibniz was the last person to know everything. Franco Moretti put it brutally honest: such a project is often “chancy and random. You have to be lucky as hell because you move blindly.”  Having said that, there seem to be a remarkable exception to aversion to use works from outside of the humanities, namely works of Sigmund Freud. When one takes works on collective memory(ies), social identity and such topics, 8 out of 10 works will have reference to concepts of the Austrian psychoanalyst within the first few pages. This applies to many other scholars from the humanities, not just historians.

Of course there is nothing wrong with using Freud’s work, on the contrary, I totally suppor drawing from various fields and enriching our understanding by including multiple points of view. Where I do have a problem with use of Freud is the selectivity of how it is done. I am confident that, if one would write about nationalism without using literature written after Deutsch, then it would not be deemed as academically sound work. Or if you want to write history of the Wilhelmian period, you can’t just ignore the debate on the Sonderweg. If that is the case, why on Earth do we accept that one can simply ignore everything written in psychology on memory after 1939?!

Yes, getting into psychological research on memory is not easy. One needs guidance, not least to know how psychological article are constructed or what the terminology mean. In practice it means that you need help from a psychologist or a PhD student in psychology. And yes it takes time, a lot of time, but if we expect others to acknowledge research in our field, why should we not be doing the same thing?

It is however more than “just” a matter of professional standards or an ethical question, scholars in humanities would genuinely benefit a lot if they dared to venture into the realm of psychology. Reading Wang, Pennebaker and PáezBarber et al. and others one would for instance know that memory don’t exist “out there”, things don’t remember or do stuff, nor is memory a thing. Being aware of those issues would help so much memory studies, which unfortunately too often are way too fuzzy and lack solid foundations (Hirst and Mannier). That does not mean that one have to or even should discard Freud’s conclusions, rather that one should know at least what is the state of the arts and where the possible weaknesses of one’s approach are. And last but not least, how can one be a social scholar if one discards the knowledge about an individual who makes the said collective?