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  • Identity, Paradox, Difference Conceptions of Time in the Literature of Modernity
  • Harro Müller (bio)
    Translated by Jan Mieszkowski


As a theory of evolution, Luhmann’s systems theory is a theory of modernity. Modern society is functionally differentiated society. 1 Substantial semantic transcriptions are introduced with the conversion from stratification to functional differentiation. They affect conceptions of time: the way that time is observed, and how observations of those observations will in turn be made. 2 It is the thesis of this article that in the modern system of art, after the first heroic and effusive phase, conceptions of time develop that start by assuming paradox or difference. In the art system, observations of time, observations capable of considerably irritating the other subsystems, are rehearsed. To be sure, this presupposes not only that in the art system the communicative aspect of information becomes information, but also that the construction and destruction of concepts within the framework of the relation between medium and form belongs to the formation-capacities of the system. The texts discussed in this article will accordingly be read so as to bring out their conceptions of time. We will examine neither the interrelations of these concepts with, for example, anthropological assumptions, nor their subversion through textually produced undecidabilities. We are, in this regard, dealing with starkly reductive readings, readings that can in any case help in understanding the capabilities of the modern art system with its preadaptive advances. [End Page 523]


I would like to begin with a short reading of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History, analyzing it as an historical novel. Hegel’s historical novel is meta-historical, opening with a meta-narrative reflection on the writing of historical novels. The novel itself describes world history as a process of the coming-to-itself of the world-spirit, and “Geschichte ist der Fortschritt im Bewußtsein der Freiheit.” 3 World history is world-spirit history. It articulates achronic, synchronic, and diachronic elements. The world-spirit is timeless, and yet at the same time it develops in time, according to a conception of levels or stages. World history is teleological history. As processual history, it is at once linear, dialectical, and cyclical. It is linear because the spirit is constantly spirit. It is dialectical because the dialectic makes progress possible. It is cyclical because the spirit which comes to itself at the end of history simultaneously turns back to the origin. The dialectic, with its three-fold determination of negare, constare, elevare, is particularly capable of presenting history as a dynamic processual history in which the protagonists of the world-spirit—the spirits of the peoples, and world-historical individuals (Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon)—act as heroes who serve general progress in their passionate pursuit of particular goals. Hegel thus starts from a metaphysically and substantialistically invested assumption of identity. From within world history as the play of identity and difference, this assumption leads, at completed levels, to synthesis as identity. History may be a slaughter, and the pages of happiness within the book of history may be blank sheets, but all events, actions, and processes lead to the being in and for itself of the world-spirit, and are to that extent necessary, meaningful, and progressive. World history is theodicy. Hegel can therefore let his conjunction of narrative and meta-narrative discourse finish with:

Daß die Weltgeschichte dieser Entwicklungsgang und das wirkliche Werden des Geistes ist, unter dem wechselnden Schauspiel ihrer Geschichten—dies [End Page 524] ist die wahrhafte Theodizee, die Rechtfertigung Gottes in der Geschichte. Nur die Einsicht kann den Geist mit der Weltgeschichte und der Wirklichkeit versöhnen, daß das, was geschehen ist, und alle Tage geschieht, nicht nur nicht ohne Gott, sondern wesentlich das Werk seiner selbst ist. 4

Which conception of time is determining for this historical novel of progress? Time is processual time, with a beginning and end, with arché and telos; and epochs and events/actions are to be situated within the process. For this conception, it is therefore central that in such a history—which is a history of the spirit—calendar time and historical time are sublated in a grand overarching metaphysical premise. This...

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