Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time

François Hartog
Columbia University Press
Translated by: 
Saskia Brown

Paris. Nov. 13. ISIS agents conduct mass shootings in multiple sites. Commemoration begins as the events unfold. The world watches on screens large and small. Distance collapses. The future looms ominously, but there is no plausible path forward in time or space. Bombing ISIS/not bombing ISIS: neither will solve the problem. Paris. Nov. 30. The UN Conference on Climate Change. Graphs show how, even if all nations meet their promised carbon emissions, there will still be catastrophic global warming. Today is a “crisis of the present,” a “regime of the contemporary event,” beyond anything Francois Hartog could summon for the French publication a mere twelve years ago, but precisely what he tried to capture in his brilliant but flawed book—now translated into English as Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time.

Hartog’s work concerns how people understand themselves as beings in time, and how these understandings have changed over time. A contemporary “crisis of the present” provides the frame. His innovative term, “regime of historicity,” is itself an important contribution. Compared to Reinhard Koselleck’s constellation of “space of experience,” “horizon of expectation,” and “Neuzeit,” it is far more accessible for discussion and critique in English. Yet Koselleck’s ideas provide the foundation upon which “regimes of historicity” rest. The phrase exemplifies both the insights and the flaws in the book. Hartog devotes many pages to defining it, and yet it remains somewhat elusive. Perhaps if it were clearer, so many pages would not be necessary.

At its most general, “regime of historicity” is a conceptual tool for “exploring forms of temporal experience...ways of being in time” (p.9); a way of “expressing and organizing experiences of time—that is, ways of articulating the past, the present, and the future—and investing them with sense (p. 106). It is a “formal category” or “a Weberian ideal type” (p. xvi). Its greatest utility comes “in moments of crisis of time” (p. 16), when events outstrip the modes of understanding that had given people their temporal orientations, and they are forced to re-shape the relationships between past, present and future. Though it is derived from the European experience and European literature (and more specifically, France and French literature), it can be applied equally, Hartog claims, to non-European cultures and peoples.

Three regimes of historicity emerge clearly. A pre-modern understanding was governed by historia magistra vitae. That is, the past seemed similar enough to the present and future that history’s primary use was as a storehouse of great deeds and wisdom that might be summoned as models for present-day action and thought. This regime of historicity came crashing to an end with the French Revolution, after which history was defined “around the uniqueness of the event” (pp. 73, 105) and the distance between past and present. This modern regime of historicity, focused on the promise of the future, to be achieved through the progress of the nation. Hartog is ambivalent about defining boundaries to the regimes, but finds too tempting the neat two centuries between 1789 and 1989 as the definition of modernity. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, we have abandoned the regime of progressive, future-oriented modernity, and find ourselves stumbling through a regime of presentism, where “the distance between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation [has] been stretched to its limit, to breaking point...with the result that the production of historical time seems to be suspended” (p.17).

But despite the clarity of this linear European march of three regimes of historicity, whose differences are neatly captured by the dominance, respectively, of past, future and present, Hartog does not want to be so confined. “I do not intend to enumerate all the regimes of historicity that have appeared in the long history of human society.” Rather, he has made an admittedly idiosyncratic and largely France-centred selection of historical episodes and texts in order to “privilege limits and thresholds, moments of modulation and reversal, and phenomena of dissonance” (p. 18).

The ambivalence around precision vs. flexibility may test the limits for some readers. On the one hand, 1789 and 1989 “at least provisionally...mark the entrance and the exit of [the modern] regime of historicity” (p. 104.) Moreover, once the transition occurred, it was total. In Toqueville’s France, “The previous regime of historicity, in which the past precisely illuminated the future, was over for good” (p. 95). This dramatic clarity is muted elsewhere: “How many regimes are there? I do not know...the inventory is incomplete...”; a regime of historicity “establishes itself slowly and lasts a long time” (p.106); “...the passage from one regime to another involves periods of overlap” (p.107).

The structure of the first half of the book flows from these various claims. After an extended introductory section that foreshadows much of what is to follow, a series of studies examines crises in temporal orientation (Orders of Time-1). The first chapter examines Captain Cook and Hawaiians through the eyes of Claude Levi- Strauss and Marshall Sahlins. The “detour” enables Hartog “to confirm the purchase of the notion of regime of historicity beyond the frontiers of Europe...” (p. 40).

The following chapter is an exploration and comparison of Odysseus and Augustine. Like that on the Hawaiians, this exercise is mainly to show that “regime of historicity” can be applied to widely varying, even random, moments and texts in world history. In this case, it allows us to look back at our own understandings, from a standpoint very distant from us, outside of a “Christian order of time” (p. 56).

With the third chapter we come back into familiar French history on the cusp of modernity, with an extended analysis of Chateaubriand. “...On the losing side in the French Revolution,” he “nevertheless had a deeper understanding...of the emergent temporal order of modernity than many of his contemporaries” (p. 65).
In the modern regime of history, the future would be dominant. Time was envisioned as a process of improvement and progress.

The second half of the book (Orders of Time-2) concerns the regime of historicity in which we now find ourselves. In this section we leap to 1989, where a new crisis of temporality unfolds. Two “contemporary watchwords” (p. 98) come to the fore. Both appear to point to the past, but, Hartog argues, they are emblems of the contemporary “presentist” regime: “memory” is the presence of the past, while “heritage” invokes an obligation to preserve the at least a façade of the past in the present. These provide the foci for the next two chapters.

Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de Mémoire, published in France between 1984 and 1992 stands here as a milestone in the transition from one regime of historicity to the next as it tries “to understand the unfurling wave of memorial anticipation of its size and force” (p. 141). Once again, there is a sharp cut-off date (1989), but the transition is extended, with first signs coming early in the 20th century. Traces appear through French historiography leading up to Les Lieux. For a half century prior to 1980, the Annales school had stripped the nation (the vehicle for progress in the modern era) from its central role. Then, the exhaustion of Annales historiography opened the door to the “historiographic age,” in Nora’s terms. The ubiquity of commemoration, the acceleration of time (“any self- respecting person owes it to him- or herself to have no time for anything,” p. 114), widespread unemployment, ethnic nationalisms and pessimism about the global future are all tied together as aspects of, and contributions to, “presentism.”

The “proliferation and universalization of heritage” are similarly part of our “crisis of time,” Hartog argues.

...[C]onjuring up the past in the present in an emotionally engrossing way is preferred to the values of distance and mediation; the current primacy of the local goes hand in hand with the quest for a ‘history all one’s own’; and lastly, heritage is itself affected by acceleration, through the imperative to act quickly, before it is too late, before evening falls and the light fades to a darkness that may be total (pp. 190-191).

Today, the future is a threat, not a promise.

Hartog (and his translator, Saskia Brown) have certainly created a series of evocative pictures, with flashes of brilliant light, interspersed with a few unreadable sections: in describing Les Lieux de Mémoire, “memory becomes, not so much in its content as in its form, a mode of historical inquiry and of history writing” (p. 145). What should we make of this? There are other whole sections of the book (e.g., pp. 107-113) where I wanted to say, “enough cherry-picking—with this method, you can say whatever you want about time!”

Most problematic is the question of representation and generalization. For much of the book, Hartog relies on historiography and literature for his analysis: Chateaubriand’s writing is thus a representation of, and evidence for, a transition in regimes. Yet, in discussing contemporary culture, Hartog writes of “patterns of behavior” that “are widely shared,” in order to characterize the current regime of historicity (p. 114). Is it legitimate to equate the analysis of a French aristocrat’s essays with broad beliefs and orientations of entire populations? This problem takes us back to the definition of a “regime of historicity.” It is one thing if it is a description of how history is conceptualized and written at different periods of time. It is quite another if it is a description of how most people orient their lives. Hartog clearly wants to make claims about the latter, but he uses the former as his evidence, without any argument as to why that is adequate. Indeed, he stretches even further: “regimes” are not just a description; they constitute an explanation of why people acted the way they did. Thus, the “savage” killing of contemporary ethnic nationalism “can be attributed in part to a crisis of time” (p. 148). These are strong claims to make on the basis of a “Weberian ideal type.”

Hartog stimulates us to think about the different ways that cultures organize the boundaries and relationships among past, present and future. If Nora’s “historiographic age,” historicized history, Hartog goes a step further, historicizing time itself. In this view, we find ourselves today facing not only crises of catastrophic climate change and global geopolitics, but something even more fundamental: a crisis of presentism. Hard as it may be to ameliorate the former, what action could we possibly take in relation to the latter?

Peter Seixas, University of British Columbia, Canada