Annual Theme 2019/2020: Historicizing today

Can you historicize that? This is a question frequently heard today. We are asked to locate phenomena, concepts, and theories in the context from which they emerged, especially those which were traditionally considered unchangeable and universal, like nature or the present. Such calls to historicize do not, however, make clear how we should actually proceed: What procedures and methods should we use? Which context—and there are always several—shall we emphasize? What result are we aiming for, and what do we ultimately expect to gain from the process? Against the backdrop of climate change, the question of a history of nature has become increasingly urgent. Facing growing social fragmentation, the decisive question is which history of democracy or Europe we want to tell. And in the case of conflict—e.g. between the numerous new nationalisms—it is always controversial who will tell which history about whom?

From the very beginning, the humanities have understood themselves as historical disciplines that study how things came to be the way they are. In the German context, their self-stylization as »Geisteswissenschaften«, beginning around 1900, involved an attempt to contain the »consuming historical fever« that Nietzsche had warned against. Being »Wissenschaft« meant to do more than just accumulate data, sources, and materials, rather to provide a unique mode of knowledge, be it empathy and hermeneutic understanding, or criticism and reflection. The question of how this mode of knowledge compares to that of the natural sciences, and of what its political implications might be, determined the great debates in the humanities in the 20th century.

Since the 1980s, however, the age of history seem to have been replaced by a new »regime of presentism« (François Hartog) or by a »broad present« (Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht), in which the past is permanently kept present through the new media. In academia, memory has become a central paradigm alongside history, because ›remembering‹ involves a different grammar than ›historicizing‹. In Germany, the debate on how to deal with ›historicizing National Socialism‹ has shown that historicization can also have political and moral costs.

In this contemporary context, the familiar practices of historicization have lost their self-evidence, even as the self-understanding of the humanities has been called into question more generally. The memory paradigm is only one among many recent models that have destabilized the disciplinary identity of the humanities. A sequence of turns—linguistic, narrative, iconic, performative, etc.—have challenged and expanded the boundaries of traditional literary-historical, art-historical, and theatre-historical studies to encompass a whole range of objects and phenomena that had not previously been considered »historical«. This expansion has made possible new kinds of histories, but it also revealed that little consensus exists about what counts in the humanities as »historicization«: what does it actually mean, for instance, to historicize performance, or imagery, or ethics?

Today, all the different disciplines and discourses seem to historicize differently: each has its preferred epochs, caesuras and ranges; styles and purposes also differ. Historicization can be used to embed a phenomenon within a larger context or to make certain narratives more complex; it can show continuities or, on the contrary, »blow up the continuum of history« (Walter Benjamin); historicization can be used to relativize phenomena, or to criticize them, or to make them visible in the first place; it can mean to finally put something on record or to be driven by the »desire to speak with the dead« (Stephen Greenblatt).

The question of how these various alternatives relate to the classical modes of historicization—whether they are simply new variants of the traditional approaches or whether these have, in fact, exhausted themselves in the face of a changing form of history, giving way to entirely novel methods and goals—has not yet been settled. The new annual theme of the ZfL Historicizing today is therefore dedicated to a central procedure of the humanities and of cultural studies: one that reflects both their great diversity and potential, and their foundational uncertainty.

Daniel Weidner


Fig. above: D.M. Nagu


See also

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10 Dec 2019 – 12 Dec 2019

“History goes Pop”? On the Popularization of the Past in the Memory Cultures of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine

European University Viadrina Frankfurt O.

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Jahrestagung des ZfL
05 Dec 2019 – 07 Dec 2019


ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage

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07 Nov 2019 – 09 Nov 2019

The Stalingrad Myth from 1943 to the Present in a Russian-German Comparative Perspective

Deutsch-Russisches Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, Zwieseler Str. 4, 10318 Berlin

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9th International Summer academy at the ZfL 2019
23 Sep 2019 – 26 Sep 2019

Historicizing. Forms, Practices, Significance

ZfL, Schützenstr. 18, 10117 Berlin, Aufgang B, 3. Etage

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08 May 2019

Matthias Schwartz: Das Land der Schurken. Historisierung und Aktualisierung von Oktoberrevolution und Bürgerkrieg in russischer Gegenwartskultur

Universität Passau, Innstraße 41, 94032 Passau

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15 Apr 2019 · 5.00 pm

Matthias Schwartz: »History next door«. On the Topicality of the Historical Novel Today

Universität Amsterdam, Spuistraat 134, 1012 VB Amsterdam, PC Hoofthuis, Raum 105

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