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.

History and emotions

A few weeks ago I’ve attended a fascinating conference on emotions and architecture at the The Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Almost all the presentations were really, really good, very informative, well conveyed, nothing really to complain about. I particularly enjoyed Uno Grashoff‘s talk on squatting in the DDR, as he pointed out not only to the uncanny parallels (and contrasts) to the situation in the West, but also, possibly even more importantly, to the margins of freedom in the authoritarian state. It also reminded me of an observation I had some time ago (not being a scholar of the communist regimes) that the late socialist states, in fact, competed against the capitalist ones for their legitimacy in terms of who can provide more/better consumer goods, which seems a bit of a paradox if one thinks about the ideology. Carla Hoetink and Harm Kaal and equally inspiring talk on the architecture of the Dutch parliament and the values behind its design.

Having said that, I could not resist a question, why the organizers decided to label the conference as dealing with emotions and architecture. Admittedly, I did not attend all of the presentations, but these papers which I did listen to, would work just as well if we dropped the “emotion” part. As I said, I think the presentations were well prepared, there was a lot of insight in them, and I genuinely think architecture deserve much more attention from historians and humanities in general. My point is not to bash The Max Plank Institute, the organizers nor scholars presenting, but rather point of to the uncomfortable question: what do those fancy labels actually give us? Apart from funding, of course.

Neither would I discard the importance and relevance of emotions as a historical subject. Not at all, Lucien Febvre‘s works shows very clearly that there is a lot to gain from inquiring into the matter. My concern is rather, that there seem to be a temptation to insert whatever is “hip” at the given moment to all the possible subjects, also those which would do very well without such a package. This critique is not that different from that I wrote about the Digital Humanities. And indeed, to my mind it is the very same phenomenon, namely the urge to “reinvent” history as a discipline, the constant urge to keep it up-to-date. The problem is not new, in the past historians raised questions if, for instance, terms such as the “enlighten absolutism” were not just old wine in new bottles. And some of those discussions have been very fruitful, they have helped scholars to reflect on the validity of the concepts used. After all, history rests on the foundations of words. But there is, am afraid, a very unhelpful and indeed misleading pursuit of modernizing history at any price, with or without making any sense. It seems, that to a large degree it is due to the structural construction of the discipline and the way in which it is funded. However, it is more than just that. Arguably, it has also a lot to do with the contemporary fascination with a constant input, ever-changing content. The criticism of sensationalism in the mass media, the urge to report all the time has been too many to list, but I would assume that the mechanism is not that different (for the philosophical underpinning check Bauman). The very concept that history as a disciple does not change, only the interpretations do, seems to be so much at odds with the current society and its values, that there is a need to rebrand the scholarly enquiries every now and then, even if that has only limited sense. To rephrase Voltaire: if there was no emotional turn, one would have to invent it.