Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Cultures of Time - General Outline

Time as an Object of Cultural Production

To examine the cultural construction of time means to turn away from a conception of time as continuously and uniformly moving forwards. Individuals and groups usually experience human history not as a chain of events in tact with a chronometric order fixed for eternity. Rather, they are surrounded by a heterogeneous universe of time including transitions and shifts, repetitions and leaps. Social order and the cultural generation of meaning rely on strategies of persistence and discontinuation. Temporal orders are continuously reconfigured amid the interaction of techniques and symbols, institutions and media, and forms of knowledge and practice.

The perception of time is subject to historical change. While traditional societies see change in time primarily as deviation from a past that is kept present in cultural memory, modern ones shift their collective reference point to the future. Continuous reorientation towards the future implies continuous re-adaptation of social or systemic pasts. The ways that projections of the future and past reciprocally influence each other in the present is a central object of study for “Cultures of Time.” Beyond that, this Ph.D. program examines the operative conditions involved in processes of generation of meaning, regarding how meaning is generated and which principles of duration, change and disappearance it involves.

Time in the Historical Sciences

Time is the fundamental condition of all disciplines that are historically oriented. As a precondition of historical knowledge, however, time is only seldom the object of genuine scholarly reflection. For example, Reinhart Koselleck’s suggestion to pay attention to “structures of repetition” has rarely resulted in empirical studies. In addition, the history of historiography could be expanded in the same direction. Specific concepts of time that are rarely made explicit are not only the basis of narrative historiography, but can also be found in models of “catching up” common in economic history. The problem of historical periodization also needs to be examined more closely, particularly in view of global history: what do or did contemporaries and historians understand by breaks, epochal thresholds and turning points? Here a particular significance should be ascribed to concepts of “contemporary history.”

Temporal Aprioris

In each epoch and cultural sphere there are certain preconditions of experiencing time which are rarely and at most obliquely made the subject of contemporaries’ reflections and which thus represent a historical a priori in Michel Foucault’s sense. Among these are social, cultural, technical and medial predispositions.

For example, the degree of the social differentiation forms a condition of cultures of time to the extent that it directly affects both the organization of time and the dissemination of statements about time. With respect to culture, it is to be assumed that experiences of crisis, acceleration or even slowing down appear to the individual consciousness as a challenge which objectively exists.

The technical a priori of cultures of time includes all apparatuses, technologies and media which fundamentally determine the perception and management of time. This involves the available media of communication as much as the relevant possibilities of overcoming space and the equipment of measuring and ordering time in a strict sense. These time apparatuses – clocks are the most traditional – have their own history, which can be also a history of understanding and measuring time across the boundaries between civilizations.

Discursive Orders of Time

Discourses have their own temporal regimes. Theology, rhetoric, art, science and law contain orders of time for the arrangement of their objects as well as their idiosyncratic modes of forming insights and linking statements. In principle, each order of knowledge implies certain arrangements of the space-time coordinates (topos, analogy, tablet, epigenesis, and evolution, among others).
As far as the temporal dimension is concerned, there are three questions of special importance. How does the relationship between temporality and eternity get modeled? What is the relationship between older and most recent manifestations of the same discourse? How does the temporal regime of discourses arrange data in both synchronic and diachronic time coordinates? The latter involves operations which reassign an unmanageable quantity of contingent data, against all probability, into a sensible order.


The basic operation of narration is to sequentialize complex conditions, i.e. to transfer them into a temporal order. In the cultural organization of time, then, narratives have a key role to play. They link collective memory – located as it is in the conflict between determination by the past and determination of the past – with the fashioning of future-oriented utopias or apocalypses. They are further responsible for the cultural construction of eternity or serve as vehicles for aesthetics of acceleration. Narratives organize origin, on the one hand, by administering genealogies and successions; they also, on the other hand, permit pasts to fall victim to collective forgetting amidst the noise of “invented traditions.” Even where suddenness and eventfulness cannot be assimilated into the temporal order, narratives provide operations that allow to nonetheless culturally represent unrepresentability of traumatic experience.

Idiosyncratic and Parallel Times of Social Fields and Systems

Temporality is subject not only to historical changes in a society, it also differs between institutional fields of a social configuration. Social systems produce their own temporality through the sequence and tact of events produced by their institutional order. While classical approaches to social order and integration generally treat place as a relevant variable, now temporal sequencing as a precondition for integration is receiving increasing attention. In this respect, conflicts will be studied which result from differing “cultures of time” and symbolic dynamics in traditional bureaucracies on the one hand and “fluid institutions” on the other. An example of the latter would be the global financial markets, which do not primarily produce integration through rules and conventions but instead by way of communicative successions of the processing stream as well as the variable boundaries generated by it.