Critical Time in Modern German Literature and Culture

by Dirk Göttsche (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 321 Pages


The fleeting nature of time is a defining feature of modern and postmodern existence. Identified by Reinhart Koselleck as the temporalization («Verzeitlichung») of all areas of human knowledge and experience around 1800, the concept of critical time continues to intrigue researchers across the arts and humanities. This volume combines theoretical and critical approaches to temporality with case studies on the engagement with the modern sense of time in German literature, visual art and culture from the eighteenth century to the present. Contributions explore key areas in the cultural history of time: time in art and aesthetic theory, the intellectual history of time, the relationship between time and space in literature and visual art, the politics of time and memory, and the poetics of time. Essays question the focus on acceleration in recent critical discourse by also revealing the contrapuntal fascination with slowness and ecstatic moments, notions of polyphonous time and simultaneity, the dialectic of time and space, and complex aesthetic temporalities breaking with modern time-regimes.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Dirk Göttsche – Introduction
  • Part I Time in Art and Critical Theory
  • Gabriele Neher and Jonathan Tallant – The Philosophy of Time and the Implications from Renaissance Art
  • Jerome Carroll – Acceleration and Retardation: Temporality, Modernist Poetics and Modernity in the Work of Hans Blumenberg and Viktor Shklovsky
  • Part II The Intellectual History of Time
  • Maike Oergel – “The Grand Poem of our Time”: Carlyle, Zeitgeist and his History of the French Revolution
  • Brian Elliott – Revolution, History and Time in Benjamin and Sloterdijk
  • Part III The Temporality of Literary Genres
  • Dirk Oschmann – Formbewusstsein als Zeitbewusstsein. Die Anfänge moderner Zeitpoetik im 18. Jahrhundert
  • Eva Axer – The “inexorable law of perpetual mutation”: Motherwell and Goethe on the Tradition of the Ballad
  • Part IV Chronotopes: Time and Space
  • Ralf Simon – The Temporality of Hospitality
  • Simon Ward – “Of Time and the City”: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Times of Berlin
  • Part V Time and the Politics of Memory
  • Iulia-Karin Patrut – Eigenlogische und historische Zeit in den transmedialen Collagen Herta Müllers. Memoria nach 1989
  • Ulrich Bach – On Re-describing History in Christoph Ransmayr’s Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis and Lilian Faschinger’s Stadt der Verlierer
  • Part VI The Poetics of Time in Contemporary German Literature
  • Dirk Göttsche – Zeitpoetik in Kleiner Prosa der Gegenwart
  • Sabine Zubarik – The Ethics of Time: Stasis and Dilation in Thomas Lehr’s 42 and Svend Age Madsen’s Days with Diam
  • Sascha Seiler – Das Ende der Zeit. Die Darstellung der Apokalypse in Thomas Glavinics Die Arbeit der Nacht und Cormac McCarthys The Road
  • Notes on the Contributors
  • Index

← viii | ix →


Simon Ward, “‘Of Time and the City’: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Times of Berlin”

Figure 1.Waldemar Titzenthaler, Potsdamer Platz (1933), in the public domain.
Figure 2.Arwed Messmer, Potsdamer Platz anno zero #12 (1995/1996), reproduced with permission of the artist.

Iulia-Karin Patrut, “Eigenlogische und historische Zeit in den transmedialen Collagen Herta Müllers. Memoria nach 1989”

Figure 1.Collage by Herta Müller from Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen (2012), reproduced with permission of the author and the publisher.
Figure 2.Collage by Herta Müller from Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen (2012), reproduced with permission of the author and the publisher.
Figure 3.Collage by Herta Müller from Die blassen Herren mit den Mokkatassen (2005), reproduced with permission of the author and the publisher.

Sabine Zubarik, “The Ethics of Time: Stasis and Dilation in Thomas Lehr’s 42 and Svend Age Madsen’s Days with Diam

← x | 1 →



In Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto for Richard Strauss’s comic opera Der Rosenkavalier [The Knight of the Rose / The Rose-Bearer] one of the protagonists, the Princess Werdenberg, ponders the mystery of time as follows:

Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbares Ding.
Wenn man so hinlebt, ist sie rein gar nichts.
Aber dann auf einmal,
da spürt man nichts als sie:
sie ist um uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen.
In den Gesichtern rieselt sie, im Spiegel da rieselt sie,
in meinen Schläfen fließt sie.
Und zwischen mir und dir da fließt sie wieder.
Lautlos, wie eine Sanduhr.1

[Time, it is a peculiar thing.
When you just go about your life, it isn’t anything at all.
But then, suddenly,
all you feel is time:
time is around us, it is also within ourselves.
It trickles in our faces, it trickles in the mirror,
it runs through my temples.
And it also runs between you and me.
Silently like an hourglass.]

This is of course a reference on Hofmannsthal’s part to Saint Augustine’s famous bewilderment about the enigma of time in book XI of his Confessions, ← 1 | 2 → albeit tinged by the experience of ageing. Nevertheless Hofmannsthal makes a significant general point here: time becomes an issue when something is wrong in our lives. Time turns critical when fundamental questions of our being-in-the-world are raised, and this does not need to be linked specifically to the theme of modernization as acceleration, which has made time and temporality such a prominent feature in modern literature and critical discourse. The Heraclitian metaphor of the river of time that Hofmannsthal also draws on, along with the Biblical and Gothic image of the hour glass, indicates the defining role of temporality for the relationship between ourselves and the world around us, for our identity, and crucially the way we interact with the other individuals around us. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas therefore places the relationship of “Time and the Other” at the heart of human temporality.2 Similarly, in his Essay on Time the sociologist Norbert Elias defines time as a “social symbol” that interprets the relationship between the individual, the social world around him and the natural universe.3 Time is a relational category that interlinks the different layers of our existence, becoming critical when we are at odds with our natural or social surroundings or indeed with ourselves. Perceptions of filled, empty or critical time indicate where we stand with regard to the psychological, social and historical parameters of our existence.

In Hofmannsthal’s play on the Augustinian enigma of time, the temporality of human life becomes an issue in critical moments which question our relationship to the world along with our self-understanding. The Princess Werdenberg’s comments in Der Rosenkavalier address the interface between natural time (human mortality) and the anthropology and psychology of time. At the same time, the theme of time and temporality clearly acquired new prominence and a radically new shape with the onset of European modernity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ← 2 | 3 → modern discourse of temporality conceives of time as “critical”; it is based on the sense of living in a period of crisis that questions our anthropological, epistemological, ethical and political frames of reference. This modern notion of critical time is the result of specific historical and cultural developments in a radical epistemological shift marked by the progressive temporalization – “Verzeitlichung”, as the German historian Reinhart Koselleck calls it – of all areas of knowledge and experience: subjectivity, history, nature, culture and even the universe all become subject to historicity and open-ended change.4 As Peter Osborne shows, this modern conception of time is a very “distinctive way of temporalizing ‘history’ – through which the three dimensions of phenomenological or lived time (past, present and future) are linked together within the dynamic and eccentric unity of a single historical view”; it amounts to a “historical totalization”5 of time that has triggered as much fascination as controversy, making the modern sense of time critical in a second, discursive sense. The period around 1800 sees the rise of a new critical discourse of time – in philosophy (the historicist philosophy of history), cultural criticism and literature – establishing a tradition of critical engagement with temporality that continues right through to the twenty-first century today, when the digital revolution and global mobility and interaction again transform the temporal parameters of our lives.

The emergence of this modern sense of critical time has long been seen as a defining feature of modernity and modernism. In German literature it opened up new opportunities and imaginaries – from the poetics of time in Jean Paul’s work or the dynamic conception of historicity in early German Romanticism to the emphatic poetics of time in literary Modernism around 1900 – but was also concerned from very early on with the social impact and the challenges produced by the emerging modern time ← 3 | 4 → regime of accelerated lives and regulated and increasingly rationalized time: late eighteenth-century Sentimentalism (Empfindsamkeit) reflected upon the ethics of time, i.e. the ethical implications of our use of time in a world of finite resources and socio-political pressures; Goethe ponders the power structures produced by rationalized time in the American province of his novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre; and the historical and socio-political novels of the long nineteenth century explore, amongst other things, the relationship between different historical periods and parallel or conflicting temporalities.6 From c. 1800 and into the 1830s German literary and critical discourse (in particular in the context of political liberalism and the Young German movement) went so far as to generate a poignant metaphoric of time that created neologisms such as Zeitgeist, Zeitgeschichte, Zeitbild, and Zeitangst to express the newly discovered historicity and temporality of all knowledge and experience.7 However, the impact of “Verzeitlichung” on literature and society extends well beyond such explicit references. The contributions to this volume investigate a whole range of explicit and implicit forms of embracing the modern conception of time as critical and responding to various aspects of modern temporal experience.

It is one of the intriguing features of modern cultural history – not just in the German language area – that this pervasive dynamic of temporalization in culture and thought predates the experience of physical acceleration – through railway travel, increasingly global infrastructure, telegram and telephone – that began to transform everyday life during the mid- to late ← 4 | 5 → nineteenth century. This raises interesting questions about the relationship between epistemology, material history and culture. Nevertheless there are obvious links between technological progress – right through to the ongoing digital revolution since the 1990s today – and critical engagement with time and temporality in literature, art and critical discourse. For example, postmodern debate of the 1980s and 1990s about the supposed “end of history” (Fukuyama)8 – at the very time when speed seemed to emerge as the ultimate value of modernity, threatening established cultural frames of reference (Virilio)9 – has been followed more recently by cultural criticism of globalized late modernity in the digital age that diagnoses a renewed wave of acceleration (Rosa),10 turning the modern “culture of speed” into a regime of unprecedented “immediacy” (Tomlinson).11 Intriguingly this comes at a time when the equally striking prominence of cultural memory of ever more extensive sections of the past is seen by some critics as an indication of a “broadening” of the present at the expense of the future that is supposed to bring the “modern” understanding of historical time to an end (Gumbrecht).12 Hartmut Rosa summarizes this now well-established debate in cultural criticism by suggesting that the early twenty-first century is experiencing a crisis of temporal and historical awareness (Zeitkrise) that is indicative of a renewed time of crisis (Krisenzeit).13

There are good reasons to be sceptical about exaggerated claims of crisis and an excessive focus on acceleration and speed; the modern sense of ← 5 | 6 → critical time makes the highlighting of particular periods as crises very much a matter of interpretation, and the contributions to this volume map out a much richer tapestry of modern temporal experience and awareness than suggested by the focus on acceleration and crisis in much cultural criticism. Nevertheless there is also ample evidence in our daily lives and in recent literary and cultural production that the theme of time has acquired new urgency: echoing the emergence of the modern sense of time around 1800, time is once again seen as critical, and discourse about time and temporality again acts as a stage to central and contested cultural concerns of the period. As the philosopher Peter Osborne points out, modern discourse “temporalizes” history in ways which combine a “particular historical epistemology (defining the temporal forms and limits of knowledge)” with “particular orientations towards practice, particular politics of time”.14 The implications of discourse about time go well beyond academic debate, literary poetics or indeed media events. Also, the politics of time often come with a rhetoric of time that has its own history and should therefore be subject to critical analysis rather than being taken at face value.

The recent critical debate about the changing shape of time and temporality in late modernity is a good reason to turn back, as we do in the arts and humanities, to map out and reconceptualize the relationship between modernity and temporality through longitudinal historical analysis and case studies which shed new light on the cultural history of time, enriching, complicating and at times revising received understanding. It is in this context that the volume in hand reconsiders the history of the modern sense of time as critical, i.e., as linked to the experience of crisis that produces critical and literary discourses about temporal experience and historical agency. Despite the radical transformation of life, society, technology and politics during the intervening 250 years, and although the historicist philosophy of history that first expressed but also contained the dynamic of temporalization was already dismissed by Nietzsche, there are striking continuities in the cultural and literary discourse about time from the later eighteenth century right through to the present. ← 6 | 7 →

These continuities in modern cultural engagement with time go beyond the theme of acceleration and are better understood if we consider the relational quality of time, as suggested by Levinas and Elias, and its implications for the literary and aesthetic modelling of temporality: there is, to give just a few examples, the contrapuntal fascination with deceleration and ecstatic moments (Augen-Blick, or epiphany); the dialectic of speed and deliberate slowness recalibrating our perception and attention; there are poetic conceptions of polyphonous time, simultaneity and non-contemporaneity (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen); the distention of time in the human mind between the past, the present and the future (as Paul Ricoeur rephrases Saint Augustine)15 that structures the anthropology of time (memory, presence and anticipation); the intrinsic link between temporalization, acceleration and a revalidation of memory (the experience of radical change gives new significance to the past); the chronotopological cross-mapping of time and space (conceptions of time and space always go hand in hand, as we know since Kant); or the idea that complex aesthetic temporalities (ästhetische Eigenzeiten) break with modern time-regimes, enabling readers to understand and rethink their experience and awareness of time. The latter idea is now a prominent research focus in Germany, in which some of the contributors of this volume are involved.16 It draws attention to the role of literature and the arts in the production, reflection and critique of modern time regimes, and it raises questions about the very conceptualization of time and temporality. At the same time recent Anglo-German research has initiated a broader international research trajectory that seeks to better understand the full profile of temporal experience, critique the social and cultural impact of modern time regimes, and map out cultural engagement with temporality from around 1900 to the present. ← 7 | 8 → 17

This volume goes back further. It addresses the cultural history of time and temporality since the onset of modernity during the eighteenth century through a dual approach focused on longitudinal analysis and case studies rather than encyclopaedic coverage or detailed historical narrative. The book introduced here makes no claim to comprehensive coverage, but it investigates different forms and traditions of modelling modern temporal experience in literature and art and reassesses critical discourse about time throughout more than two-hundred years. On the one hand the different sections of the book move through systematic aspects of the field: thought about time in art and critical theory, the intellectual history of time, the temporality of literary genres, the cross-mapping of time and space, the politics of time and memory, and the poetics of time in contemporary German literature. On the other hand, the individual case studies follow a broadly historical trajectory from a retrospective look at the engagement with temporality in Renaissance art, well before the onset of modern temporalization, through chapters focused on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the period when the modern sense of time as critical emerged, to the contemporary twenty-first century focus in the final two sections. This dual structure, and the choice of nodal points, enables the volume to map out and explore key aspects of critical time in modern German literature and culture while also considering the balance of continuities and shifts in this long history of cultural engagement with temporality. While the dynamic of “Verzeitlichung” continues to inform the experience of temporality and the cultural discourse about time today, more than 200 years after its emergence, the current debate about renewed acceleration in the digital age is just one indicator of how material and social change interact with the cultural history of time. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the modern history of time is the continuity of discursive tropes in the cultural engagement with time despite the radical changes in ← 8 | 9 → the temporal patterns of our daily lives and the shifting technological and social organization of time in late modernity.

Biographical notes

Dirk Göttsche (Volume editor)

Dirk Göttsche is Professor of German at the University of Nottingham, Member of the Academia Europaea, and Honorary President of the International Raabe Society. He completed his Dr phil. (1986) and his Habilitation (1999) at the University of Münster. His recent publications include Kleine Prosa in Moderne und Gegenwart (2006) and Remembering Africa: The Rediscovery of Colonialism in Contemporary German Literature (2013).


Title: Critical Time in Modern German Literature and Culture