Meaning or Presence? Time in Contemporary Culture

One of the deeper shifts in contemporary culture relates to our sense of time, and what it is for us.  Along with the digital civilization comes a collapse of space and time: we live simultaneously in many worlds, and even small events are globally known almost instantaneously. What emerges is a broader sense of presence in contemporary culture and human experience: We develop a heightened awareness of simultaneity and the coexistence of multiple temporal planes within the present moment.  

An author who explored this deep shift is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in his book: “Our Broad Present: Time and Contemporary Culture” (2014).  He argues that the “historicist chronotope” that emerged in the early 19th century, characterized by a narrow present and a focus on the future, has been replaced by a new chronotope of an ever-expanding present. The term “chronotope” is used in literary theory and philosophy of language to describe how time and space are represented in language and discourse. It was coined by Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975.)

According to Gumbrecht, this new chronotope is influenced by factors such as globalization, electronic communication technologies, and a changed relationship with the past and the future. 

He examines globalization from an existentialist perspective, focusing on how it transforms structures of individual life. He argues that globalization, as an extension of modernity, leads to a detachment of information from commodified objects and physical space, and to a convergence with the Cartesian motif of eliminating the body from human self-reference. In our reactions to these trends, basic human needs and desires become more present to us again: We are trying to recuperate the body, claim specific places and the Earth as home, reclaim local cultures and coherent historical environments, and engage in self-reflexive and grounding exercises like meditation, mindfulness, or purposeful self-care: Exercises aiming to broaden a sense of presence, a grounding in the “Here-and-Now.” An expanding present becomes our refuge from a threatening and uncertain future, and from a past that floods the present with trauma and stagnation.  

A cornerstone of modernity, the Cartesian subject, is falling apart, and the new mode of existence in a broad present leads to a focus on inscribing human existence into the material world through rituals and an emphasis on “connecting” and event culture.  We are getting lost in focused intensity, as exemplified by the global streaming of real-time events, spectator sports,  and other strategies of re-enchantment in a cold, functionalist and transactional world. 

Communication has become electronic “hyper-communication.” Teenagers live in video worlds, learning becomes subjected to gamification, and people’s existence is highly influenced by their social media presence and the feedback they receive.  While these technologies increase our opportunities to communicate, they also lead to a flattening of existential contours, a detachment of consciousness from the body, and a state of infinite availability. A widening gap opens between younger and older generations, between those who grow up in digital worlds, and those who remember earlier times, when computers were still office machines.  

The change that transforms our existence and characterizes life in the broad present produces contradictions that manifest in four main oscillations:

  1. Between a desire for proximity to the Earth and a skepticism about the accessibility of reality.
  2. Between surrendering the body to the care of institutions and claiming it as a site of individual experimentation.
  3. Between the elimination of violence from public life and the rise of self-directed violence.
  4. Between the acceleration of thought and the potential for thought to resist this acceleration. 

What is striking today is the coexistence of pessimism and optimism; times are extremely challenging, but the emergent possibilities also create wild hope for the future. 

I conclude this fragmentary analysis of our contemporary condition with an extended quote from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s book Our Broad Present, Time and Contemporary Culture (2014): 

“My departure from metaphysics in this very sense takes into account and insists on the experience that our relationship to things (and to cultural artifacts in particular) is, inevitably, never only a relationship of meaning attribution.

As long as I use the word things to refer to what the Cartesian tradition calls res extensae, we also and always live in and are aware of a spatial relationship to these things. Things can be “present” or “absent” to us, and, if they are present, they are either closer to or further away from our bodies. By calling them present, then, in the very original sense of Latin prae-esse, we are saying that things are “in front” of ourselves and thereby tangible. There are no further implications that I propose to associate with this concept.

Based on the historical observation, however, that certain cultures, like our own “modern” culture, for example (whatever we exactly may mean by modern), have a greater tendency than other cultures to bracket the dimension of presence and its implications, I have come to propose a typology (in the traditional Weberian sense) between “meaning cultures” and “presence cultures.”

Here are a few of the (inevitably, and without any bad conscience, “binary”) distinctions that I propose to make.

In a meaning culture, firstly, the dominant form of human self-reference will always correspond to the basic outline of what Western culture calls subject and subjectivity, i.e., it will refer to a body-less observer who, from a position of eccentricity vis-à-vis the world of things, will attribute meanings to those things. A presence culture, in contrast, will integrate both spiritual and physical existence into its human self-reference (think, as an illustration, of the motif of the “spiritual and bodily resurrection from the dead” in medieval Christianity).

It follows from this initial distinction that, secondly, in a presence culture humans consider themselves to be part of the world of objects instead of being ontologically separated from it (this may have been the view that Heidegger wanted to recover with “being-in-the-world” as one of his key concepts in Being and Time).

Thirdly, and on a higher level of complexity, human existence, in a meaning culture, unfolds and realizes itself in constant and ongoing attempts at transforming the world (“actions”) that are based on the interpretation of things and on the projection of human desires into the future. This drive toward change and transformation is absent from presence cultures where humans just want to inscribe their behavior into what they consider to be structures and rules of a given cosmology (what we call rituals are frames for such attempts to correspond to cosmological frames).

I will abandon this typology here, for I trust that it has fulfilled the function that I have assigned to it within the larger context of my argument: I wanted to illustrate that, on the one hand, language in meaning cultures does cover all those functions that modern philosophy of European descent is presupposing and talking about. On the other hand, it is much less obvious what roles language can play in presence cultures (or in a world seen from a presence culture perspective). The six types of “amalgamations” between language and presence that I want to refer to in the second section of my text are intended to present a multifaceted answer to this same question.”





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *