The Moment of Rupture demonstrates how Ernst Jünger, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin fused the consciousness of war, crisis, catastrophe, and revolution with literary and philosophical formulations of the concept of the instant, tracing the formation of a distinct mode of experiencing time based on the notion of a discontinuous present.
2019 | 232 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Instant from Goethe to Nietzsche: The Modern Beginnings of a Concept
Chapter 2. The Instant of the Avant-Garde
Chapter 3. Ernst Jünger and the Instant of Crisis
Chapter 4. Ernst Bloch and the Temporality of the Not-Yet
Chapter 5. Walter Benjamin and the Now-Time of History
Conclusion. Instantaneism as a Regime of Historicity
This book explores the rise in significance of instantaneous time—the sudden temporality of the instant (Augenblick)—in several currents of German thought during the first decades of the twentieth century. Between 1914 and 1940, in response to the experiences of abrupt discontinuity and social and political rupture, a new form of historical time consciousness was born in Germany, which articulated itself around the notion of instantaneity. Three German writers in particular—Ernst Jünger, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin—fused the consciousness of war, crisis, catastrophe, and revolution with the literary and philosophical formulation of the instantaneous as a category of thought. Their work employed instantaneity as a conceptual framework for the description and interpretation of the experiences of rupture and discontinuity, both personal and collective. Together, they produced a constellation of concepts and figures of sudden temporality that contributed to the formation of a distinct instantaneist "regime of historicity"—a mode of experiencing time based on the notion of a discontinuous present.
The creation of this new formula for the perception of temporality drew considerably from a modern tradition of reflection on the concept of the instant as a philosophical and aesthetic category, a tradition that spanned the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the historical self-understanding of the French Revolution, the aesthetics of early Romanticism, the philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Baudelaire's theory of modernité, and the artistic and literary practices of the historical avant-gardes. Given the existence of this previous tradition of reflection on instantaneity, what was created in Germany during this period was not a qualitatively new idea of the instant—a philosophical concept that goes back as far as Plato—but, rather, the transformation of suddenness and abrupt discontinuity into the foundations of a new organization of the experience of time. Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin turned to the figure of instantaneity in order to intellectually represent an era marked by shocks in individual perception and other historical and political crises. Through their works, the instant became a defining figure of the era's historical consciousness.
Germany, 1914-1940: Experiences of Historical Discontinuity and Crisis
Between the years 1914 and 1940—that is, between the outbreaks of the First World War and the Second—Germany experienced an almost uninterrupted series of violent ruptures. The feeling of euphoric expectation that preceded the First World War was followed by the traumatic experiences of the troops on the battlefield and the devastation of a calamitous military defeat. At the conclusion of the war in 1918, the proclamation of the new Weimar Republic marked the beginning of a period of extreme social and political turmoil after which would come, in turn, the rapid establishment, in 1933, of a brutal dictatorship and the eruption of a new world war a few years later. Before these political upheavals, German society had already undergone shock-like experiences and perceptions brought about by new technologies and urbanization. Berlin, capital of both the Reich and the Republic, typified the new mass industrial metropolis. The entire European continent shared the experience of historical rupture brought about by war, revolution, accelerated modernization, and crisis, but in Germany the rupture was the most extreme. From 1914 to 1940, the nation endured a turbulent progression of events. War, military defeat, imperial collapse and change of regime, failed revolution, economic breakdown, general strikes, unsuccessful putsches, rule by emergency powers, the increase of political radicalism and violence, and the rise of a totalitarian dictatorship—these were just some of the events that crowded these tumultuous years. Their accumulation generated an intense sensation of discontinuity, both historical and perceptual. The recurrence of the feeling of discontinuity throughout the interwar years contributed to the formation of a sense of perplexity that became the characteristic feature of the experience of time during this unstable era.
Taking into consideration this historical context, The Moment of Rupture asks a question about the relationship between ideas and events in modern European intellectual history: What role did the concept of instantaneous temporality play in German thought between 1914 and 1940? My proposition is that instantaneity represents a crucial concept for the development of the historical and time consciousness of the period. The notion of the instant was understood as the isolated now of abrupt discontinuity. Its importance arises from a certain correspondence between the instant's conceptual features—above all, its connection with suddenness and rupture—and the nature of the interwar years as unstable and marked by recurrent radical change. Given the defining qualities of this period in German history, it is possible to speak of an "elective affinity" between the experiences of crisis and rupture and the instant as a conceptual device. The grounds for this affinity reside in the instant's ability, as a notion, to posit certain questions that would remain obscure under a conventional understanding of temporality as continuous duration. With its close connection to suddenness, the instant cultivates a sensibility attuned to the exceptional and the unexpected. This sensibility became fundamental to historical and time consciousness in Germany during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Oswald Spengler, one of the most representative authors of the era, seems to have made an argument similar to mine in The Decline of the West when he wrote: "In the Classical world years played no role, in the Indian world decades scarcely mattered; but here [in Germany in 1918] the hour, the minute, even the second is of importance. Neither a Greek nor an Indian could have had any idea of the tragic tension of a historic crisis like that of August 1914, when even moments seemed of overwhelming significance." Following this line of interpretation, I analyze historically and conceptually the variations on the theme of instantaneous temporality that were articulated during this period of German history. The history of these variations is significant for understanding fundamental aspects of twentieth-century intellectual history, such as the role of historicism and antihistoricism in modern visions of temporality, and transformations in the notion of individual and collective experience.
Previous approaches to this topic include Karl Heinz Bohrer's conceptualization of suddenness as a motif in European modernist literature; Anson Rabinbach's examination of the critical reactions of German intellectuals to the experience of catastrophe after the end of the two world wars; and Michael Löwy's study of the relations between Jewish messianism and libertarian socialism in Central European thought. Stephen Kern's panoramic analysis of the "culture of time and space" in Europe at the turn of the century and Modris Eksteins' characterization of Germany's perspective on the First World War as a central moment in the emergence of modern consciousness have also addressed the interaction between representations of time and historical events. The Moment of Rupture intends to contribute to this area of inquiry by constituting an intellectual history of the operation of the motif of instantaneous time in the work of three authors in whose writings instantaneity functions as a crucial notion for the conceptual mediation of the experiences of war, revolution, and crisis.
The Intellectual Representation of Suddenness
The affinity between the concept of the instant and the experiences of historical discontinuity found its most consummate expression in the works of Ernst Jünger, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin, each of whom addressed the question of historical and perceptual discontinuity from the point of view of instantaneous temporality. In the writings of this constellation of authors, the instant presented itself as a formidable instrument for the intellectual representation of a time of crisis. In spite of their cultural and political differences, these authors shared a fundamental dilemma: how to name the novel experiences of rupture in historical consciousness and individual perception as well as the particular social consequences of these forms of rupture. They resorted to the language of instantaneity to capture the unprecedented and sometimes contradictory quality of these new forms of experience, which seemed to break with the conventional expectation of time as a linear progression and to present crisis, catastrophe, and danger as new bases of perception.
The differences in these authors' political persuasions are considerable. Jünger was involved with nationalist and militaristic circles, whereas Bloch and Benjamin distinctively combined revolutionary Marxism and Jewish messianism. But their belonging to opposite political fields does not obviate their commonalities. Rather, it is a telling symptom of the existence of a deeper frame of mind in this period of German history and a general outline for the perception of temporality that cut across the ideological spectrum. Central to this outline was a vision of instantaneity as a unifying category for collective and individual experience under the cultural and political conditions of the early twentieth century.
A series of significant characteristics connected these authors' understanding of the instant. Most fundamentally, they shared an interpretation of instantaneous time as a temporal modality based on suddenness. They also adopted the instant as a notion that was simultaneously political and aesthetic, and they articulated this notion as a category that was, at the same time, a vehicle of historical consciousness and a mode of subjective perception. As a result of these convergences, Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin created an influential collection of images of instantaneity, in which the main features of their era's conception of temporality came together. With instantaneity as the basis of discontinuous interpretations of temporality, these images especially negated—or transfigured—the perception of historical time as progress, and thus expressed a powerful antiteleological tendency. The notion of the instant posits disruptive and singular events as a sort of historical ex nihilo creation—either through violence, decision, or revolution—in opposition to the notion of a historical reason gradually accomplishing itself along the lines of a predetermined goal or telos. This was true even when these authors looked into the past to develop their respective notions of instantaneity, as the return of past elements can itself be a form of sudden interruption. As a consequence, each of these authors disavowed linearity and continuity and postulated a caesura in time as the premise for a new conception of history.
These images of instantaneity also contributed to the fashioning of a new conception of experience. In such formulations as Jünger's "danger," Bloch's "darkness of the lived moment" or Benjamin's "shock," the conventional contrast between "ordinary" and "extraordinary" experience dissolves and sudden perception becomes identified with actual sensations that the the individual subject faces. Each of these conceptions points to a form of exceptional experience that, as a consequence of the cultural and political conditions of twentieth-century modernity, became part of the common structure of temporal consciousness and of a new standard of perception. Furthermore, novel forms of mediation between the subjective and historical dimensions of the experience of time furthered the dissolution of these boundaries. In these authors' writings, notions derived from individual perception helped to articulate the sense of a collective historical experience, and, at the same time, their concepts of historical and political crisis conditioned the subjective experience of temporality. This process is made clear in Jünger's, Bloch's, and Benjamin's engagement with the avant-garde aesthetics of sudden juxtaposition and their distinct temporalities—Jünger's "terror," Bloch's "noncontemporaneity," and Benjamin's "now-time." In each, the formal principle of montage becomes a paradigm of historical consciousness and sensory perception.
The constellation formed by Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin takes central stage in this book because of these convergences in their treatment of instantaneity. But in this period of German intellectual history, there were other important authors who also developed reflections on diverse facets of instantaneous temporality: Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt, among others. I did not include them centrally in my inquiry because fundamental aspects of the instantaneity chronotope (a term I discuss below) were not present in their works—such as the correlation between the historical and subjective dimensions of time, or the integration of the principles of avant-garde aesthetics into a vision of temporality. But, even though these writers are not my main object of study, I do analyze their ideas when they touch upon the development of my central argument.
The Origins of the Instant: A Brief History
The concept of the instant, and its ramifications in the intellectual history of Germany during the years of the Great War, the Weimar Republic, and the rise of National Socialism, are central to The Moment of Rupture, but what, exactly, is an "instant"? An instant is the shortest span in which time can be divided and experienced. The instant is, then, a moment without time, that infinitely short moment in which there is no interval or duration, no before or after, but only an atemporal present. Because of its timelessness, the instant is associated with eternity, and therefore alludes to the paradoxical experience of the eternal in the ephemera . The instant is that interruption that happens in the "blink of an eye": it evokes fractures in permanence and negates the idea of time as an "empty continuum" in which the now is merely an abstract boundary between the past and the future. The vision of the now that derives from the instant is, rather, reminiscent of kairos, the ancient Greek word that denotes the "timely" occurrence of an event, as opposed to the uniform, quantitative time of chronos. Kairos designates the happening of the unrepeatable and exceptional, as well as the unique time for auspicious action, especially in a moment of crisis.
The concept of the instant is, in this sense, analogous to the notion of the event: that unexpected disruption of the flow of time that seems to emerge out of nowhere—an episode of singularity that opens up the horizon of thinking and action by introducing a previously inconceivable possibility. Because it distills experience into a fleeting, transitory moment, the instant has been prominently associated with suddenness, a concept that poses two fundamental themes: the discontinuity of time and the occurrence of the radically new. In the realm of human subjectivity, the instant has been considered the privileged space for the expression of the spirit's inner life, the form and limits of sensory perception, and the mental and moral ground of freedom and resolution. As Rüdiger Safranski has pointed out, the instant "means a different experience of time and the experience of a different time. It promises sudden turns and transformations, perhaps even arrival and redemption, but at any rate it enforces decision."
In the Western tradition, the concept of the instant originated in Plato's speculations about change as a sudden, unexplainable alteration in the qualities of being, and, later, in Saint Paul's doctrine of parousia—the second coming of Christ at the end of time—as an abrupt and radical transformation of the cosmos. In the Parmenides, Plato defines the instant as the moment when the change from one quality to another—for example, from stillness to movement—takes place. Since an object cannot exist simultaneously in two different states, Plato conjectures that there must be a moment outside of time during which the transformed object is in neither state and when the transition actually occurs. This moment, which Plato calls an atopos—a non-place but also a non-time—is the instant. In his Physics, Aristotle departs from Plato's discontinuous vision of temporality and posits instead an account of time as an uninterrupted flow. His alternative to Plato's instant is the now, whose function is analogous to that of a point on a line: to connect and, likewise, to signal the end of a duration or "length" in temporality. By virtue of being, just like the point, simultaneously a link and a limit, the now establishes both the continuity of time and its division into past and future. Nevertheless, insofar as it was indivisible, as the point in space, Aristotle's now is a purely conceptual reality that did not correspond directly with anything perceptible. In the end, Aristotle's continuous account of time, and not Plato's emphasis on interruption, became the more influential in the history of philosophy, and, as a consequence, it became the foundation for most of the later treatments of temporality. This situation remained unaltered until the arrival of the modern thinkers of the instant, such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Saint Paul's vision of final redemption is the other significant source of the concept of the instant. In the Epistles, Paul outlines his eschatological thinking, a central tenet of which is the belief that the end of the world will happen suddenly, in the propitious moment, or "favorable time," of an instant. In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, he famously describes the moment of the parousia as an instantaneous event: "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed." In the early Christian worldview shaped by Paul's eschatology, Christ's return was expected to happen in the "twinkling of an eye." As a result of this expectation, any instant could in effect become the ultimate one, the potential scenario for the consummation of time. This ever-present latency of the end did nothing but intensify the awareness of the present moment. Paul's identification of the instant with the "twinkling of an eye" would become a fundamental concept in modern philosophical thought. Following Luther's translation of Paul, Kierkegaard and Heidegger referred to the instant with terms that recalled the original Pauline image—the Danish øjeblik and the German Augenblick (both of which mean "in the blink of an eye").
After Plato and Saint Paul, the next defining chapter in the history of the instant would arrive in the fourth century with the writings of Saint Augustine, who introduced—most notably in his Confessions—an enduring association between instantaneity and subjectivity. Like Aristotle, Augustine regards the moment of the immediate present as indivisible, but, in contrast to the abstractions of Aristotelian thought, the theologian rejects the perception of the now as an impersonal limit and instead centers his understanding on the concrete, subjective experience of temporality. Augustine thus became the first thinker to focus his analysis on the personal aspect of time. He defined time as a "distension" of the soul, which measures the effects that fleeting things have on it. Because of its immediate nature, Augustine considers the instant the only genuine reality of time, in opposition to the past (that has already been) and the future (that has not yet been), as well as to other measures of temporality, such as the year, the month, the day or even the hour, all of which, if studied carefully, are revealed to be illusory. Nevertheless, he also realizes that the instant, since it has no duration, does not, strictly speaking, exist either. Augustine draws out the paradox of instantaneous temporality: the only point of contact with time is the present but the present moment is not in time. His proposed resolution to the paradox is to relocate it in the realm of subjective experience. It does not matter, he argues, if time's only reality, the instant, lacks a true outward expanse, because the measuring of time is not an external reality but an activity that takes place in an altogether different dimension—that is, in the soul.
The reflections on the instant in Plato, Paul, and Augustine established the foundations of the notion of instantaneity in the Western tradition. Some of the basic tenets of this conception would reappear in medieval philosophy and theology—as in the scholastic idea of nunc stans (or "eternal present") as an attribute of God, or in the ecstatic visions of Meister Eckhart and other Christian mystics. Other isolated aspects of the doctrines can be found in early modern thinkers, such as the implied decisionism of Blaise Pascal's famous "wager" or René Descartes' principle of the re-creation of the world at every instant. But what ultimately predominated in Western thought, at least until Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was rather a continuous and Aristotelian idea of time as uninterrupted flow. As Chapters 1 and 2 will show, toward the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, a series of influential discourses on the instant broke with the dominance of temporal Aristotelianism and reintroduced instantaneity as a key concept in philosophy, aesthetics, and politics. The aesthetic ideas of Goethe and the early German Romantics, the French revolutionary spirit, and the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche brought instantaneity to the center of European intellectual history. In the early twentieth century, European thinkers took up this tradition of reflection on the instant in order to explore the "essential discontinuity of Time" in the cultural and political context of their era. The triad of Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin embodied a powerful incarnation of this tradition's revival by transforming some of the features of the concept into the premises of a general vision of time consciousness.
The Rhetoric of Instantaneity
Given the philosophical history of the concept, and following Karl Heinz Bohrer's analysis of suddenness as an aesthetic category, I here use instantaneity to refer to an abrupt discontinuity that resists integration into a regular and coherent flow. Instantaneity is a form of temporality dissociated from stability, permanence, or accumulation. I treat instantaneity as a trope, which means that the term implies a certain fixed identity denoted in its conceptual structure. A trope is a rhetorical expression that introduces a change in ordinary meaning—from the Greek for a movement or turn—by establishing a new relationship between two words or terms. The relationship that the trope of instantaneity has typically established is the unforeseen juxtaposition between two contrasting or unconnected elements, which triggers the aesthetic effect of suddenness. As the foundational examples of Plato, Paul, and Augustine, or the more modern incarnations in Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, attest, instantaneity has traditionally alluded to the abrupt association of two apparently contradictory components: the ideas of time and eternity.
Although treating instantaneity as a trope permits its identification through time, it does not exclude its examination as a properly historical object of study. The figure of instantaneity can also be comprehended, in this sense, as a motif, that is, as a pattern of thought that continually recurs and is reappropriated in diverse historical contexts. The history of the instant resides, above all, in the tracing of these uses and "strategic deployments" in specific intellectual traditions, historical conjunctures, conceptual universes, and political moments. This history also entails, then, the tracking of the concept's "ramifications" and "historical inscriptions" in concrete social and political settings, which mediate between the events and their intellectual representation. Since the first formulations of the instant in antiquity up to the years of the Weimar Republic, for example, there have been essential changes in the intellectual, cultural, and political implications of its use. The diverse intersections between the idea and concrete historical processes have resulted in the coinage of novel connotations in response to new circumstances. As a consequence, in each iteration of the instantaneity motif, both the conceptual pattern of sudden juxtaposition and the images of the temporal and the eternal have been variously interpreted, reinvented, adapted, or extrapolated.
The treatment of instantaneity as a motif can account for the seeming paradox of using a notion belonging to such an old tradition to describe a modern historical era. The paradox dissipates if one takes into account the distinction between the different dimensions in the usages of instantaneity. Although there is certainly a continuity in the structure of the idea, there is also a manifest discontinuity in the theoretical reach of each dimension. These deployments have ranged from the utilization of the instant as a concept in certain philosophical and theological doctrines—as in the writings of Plato and Saint Paul—to its role as a defining notion in more systematic aesthetic and political discourses, such as the French revolutionary consciousness and German Romanticism. One must distinguish, in turn—and this is the main thesis of The Moment of Rupture—between those more circumscribed or local uses of instantaneity as a discourse or concept and what took place in Germany during the interwar years: the formation of a distinct regime of historicity that adopted the figure of the instant as a wide-ranging formula for the configuration of that epoch's forms of temporal experience. The modern discourses predicated on instantaneity anticipated this new regime of historicity, while never attaining the chronotope's quality of a full-fledged, systematic representation of an entire historical period. The birth of such representation would happen only in the 1914-1940 period in Germany. Then, in the writings of a handful of emblematic authors, the motif of instantaneity presented itself as the most appropriate conceptual and rhetorical device for capturing a historical consciousness and subjective perception of a time defined by intense discontinuity and the ensuing experience of an immediate and fragmentary present seemingly dislocated from anything in the past. Accordingly, even though the rhetoric of instantaneity has appeared in different historical periods, it was only in the early decades of the twentieth century in Germany that the "historical inscription" of the instant became a crucial element of the "common intellectual horizon" of an entire era.
The Instantaneist Chronotope
This book analyzes the deployment of the instantaneity motif in the cultural and political context of early twentieth-century Germany. I demonstrate that in these years—the years of the First World War and its aftermath, of the Russian Revolution and its reverberations, and of extreme economic and political crises throughout Europe—instantaneous temporality became the fundamental idea of a new and distinctive chronotope and regime of historicity. I use the term chronotope in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht's adapted sense, meaning a general conception of the experience of temporality. I argue that instantaneity constitutes a distinct regime of historicity, the French historian François Hartog's phrase meant to designate "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." For Hartog, a regime of historicity is a tool for "highlighting modes of relation to time" and "exploring forms of temporal experience." Although the notions of regime of historicity and chronotope originated in different intellectual genealogies, throughout this book I will use them interchangeably in their more general sense as a conceptual framework for the organization and interpretation of the experience of temporality.
To historical agents, a regime of historicity represents their relationship to historical temporality—that is, their way of being in time. To the historian, it represents an instrument for the comparison of historical consciousness at different historical moments. For Hartog, the regime of historicity concept is, primarily, an "artificial construct" created by the historian, the chief value of which is its "heuristic potential." Following Hartog, I use the concept both as a paradigm of historiographical interpretation and as a general category for the perception of temporality as historical subjects themselves represent it. In my application of the concept to the interwar years in Germany, I will emphasize it as a "mode of experience" that comprehends figures of collective historical consciousness as it also encompasses the subjective and individual dimension of time perception—and the correspondences, ramifications, and different forms of articulation between the two.
The formation of the instantaneist regime of historicity, or instantaneism, was the result of a theoretical and historical juncture that took place in Germany during the first decades of the twentieth century, when the forms of historical consciousness that had been shaped by the experiences of war, crisis, and revolution fused with a modern tradition of reflection on instantaneity as a category of perception. As a result of this merging of philosophical and aesthetic evolutions with intellectual and historical occurrences, a corpus of thinking formed, which provided a substantial series of concrete embodiments of the instant as a category for the experience of the historical and the political. The writings of Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin constitute the most influential expression of this instantaneist body of work. Their writings offer a set of categories, images, and figures of sudden temporality that expressed the particular experience of time that characterized the interwar years in Germany. By means of this new language, they attempted to give "order" to the new forms of temporal experience (sweeping interruptions, sudden breaks, radical turmoil and crises) as well as to the sensations, feelings, and moods derived from those experiences (surprise, alarm, astonishment, perplexity, disorientation). The result was the thematization of instantaneity as a trope or figure of thought, and the associated formation of instantaneism as a novel formula of historical and time consciousness.
With instantaneism, the rhetoric of the instant was adapted to a historical setting characterized by the multiplication of episodes of political and perceptual discontinuity. In this new form, the nature of both historical consciousness and everyday subjective experience was conveyed by the figure of fragmentation. Under the influence of the avant-garde's aesthetics of juxtaposition and its manifestation in the practice of visual and literary montage, the instantaneist works of Jünger, Block, and Benjamin emphasized the affinities between fragmentation and crisis. In moments of critical rupture, gaps in the continuity of consciousness are created, resulting in the production of fragments of historical experience or subjective perception. Jünger, Block, and Benjamin also emphasized, in turn, the affinities between fragmentation and suddenness. Given its rhetorical structure, the concept of the instant has always presupposed the encounter—the simultaneous presence—between the two contrasting realities of the temporal and the eternal and the subsequent aesthetic effect of suddenness. But in the twentieth-century version of instantaneity, the aesthetic effect of this simultaneity was usually attributed to the encounter of two incoherent or disconnected fragments. In the instantaneist regime of historicity, the relationship between the temporal and the eternal was reinterpreted in terms of the juxtaposition of fragments of experience.
As a regime of historicity, instantaneism represents a unique form of time consciousness. In order to understand its singularity, let me point out how it differs from other regimes, most notably historicism, the archetypally modern chronotope. Historicism is based on the notions of historical continuity and progress, and it prevailed in Europe from the Enlightenment to the end of the twentieth century. The main feature of the historicist regime is its belief in the future as a primordial dimension of time capable of illuminating both the present and the past. Historicism turns the future into the supreme source of meaning by means of the enunciation of a telos—such as the idea of progress—that situates historical events within a gradual and comprehensive logic of development. In this regime, the past loses any value as a point of reference, and the present is reduced to an ephemeral moment of transition, justified only by the role it may play in a process of expansion into an indefinitely open future.
Instantaneity need also be distinguished from the time consciousness of presentism, the predominant chronotope after the crisis of historicism in the last decades of the twentieth century. In presentism, Hartog and Gumbrecht argue, the present replaces the future as a point of reference and the focus of historical attention. The present moment is no longer a space of transition or anticipation: it now occupies the whole space of temporal experience. In the presentist regime, the present can manifest itself as the time of flows, mobility, and acceleration; but precisely because these movements lack any direction, it also presents itself as the temporality of inactivity, paralysis, and stagnation. The future fades away because it has been stripped of any promises or certainties. The future no longer represents an open horizon of possibilities, but becomes instead a place of confluence for menaces to come, such as the demographic explosion or global warming. Moreover, the past is no longer "past" because it has flooded the present with the augmented capacities for the digital storage of information and the new "culture of memory." As a result, the new present of presentism is not actually ephemeral, as if it were a swift point of transition, but rather "slow" and "broad."
In contrast to presentism and historicism, the present in instantaneism entails neither a mere moment in the path toward progress nor a sense of expanded stagnation; it represents, rather, the irruption of an "event breaking into history, an event that transcends and is heterogeneous to it." The present understood as irruption has distinct implications for the experience of temporality. For example, while in historicism the meaning of crises is always integrated within a larger rationality and every rupture is construed as a step within a process toward a goal, in instantaneism the experiences of discontinuity and break constitute forms of an atemporal historical consciousness, which are significant in themselves. In contrast to the historicist understanding of crisis as a moment in which the meaning and purpose of the unalterable teleology behind all events is exposed, instantaneism see crises as authentic instants—that is, interruptions or suspensions of the teleological. Moreover, while presentism presents passivity and rest as the opposite of historicism's typical forward movement, instantaneism offers a different opposition: the instant, which is distinct from both the prospective, goal-oriented activism of historicism and the stasis of presentism. Despite its transient quality, the instant is not like other passing moments (e.g., the moments of progress, repetition, or acceleration) but utterly singular. The time of instantaneism is neither the pure ephemerality of transition nor the immobility of a "broad present," but rather the actuality of the now, the time when history is completed, not in a process, but in its very interruption. While in the historicist regime an all-encompassing historical sense devours the possible significance of individual moments, and while in the presentist chronotope this sense has vanished altogether, in instantaneism forms of historical meaning are still attainable, but only abruptly, accomplished in the instant itself.
The Narrative of This Work
The first part of this book describes the formation of the modern tradition of thinking about instantaneity by tracing two of its most important trajectories. The first is the reflection on instantaneous temporality that begins with the poetry of Goethe and the French Revolution's historical self-understanding as an absolute historical beginning. The early German Romantics, in turn, continued this reflection in their deployment of suddenness and nearness as literary and intellectual tropes. Later, instantaneism would be philosophically consolidated in the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The second trajectory is the lineage of aesthetic reflection that began with Baudelaire's use of the concept of modernity (modernité) as a formula to appraise the new field of perception that mass urban city life had brought about and continued with the historical avant-gardes of the early twentieth century. Each of these trajectories created constellations of ideas that contributed to the formulation of a fundamental vocabulary for talking about instantaneous experiences in modernity. Chapters 1 and 2 sketch the antecedents of the instantaneist chronotope by tracing the history of the rhetorical deployments of the instantaneity motif in modern intellectual history. These deployments extend from the appearance of suddenness as a category of aesthetic perception (with Romanticism), to the appearance of suddenness as a category of political change (with the French Revolution's self-interpretation), and, in Chapter 2, to the formation of an "aesthetics of juxtaposition" in the avant-garde practice of montage.
The lineages identified in each of these two chapters—from Goethe to Nietzsche in Chapter 1, and from Baudelaire to Breton in Chapter 2—respond to different but equally crucial problems that instantaneity raises in various contexts. Chapter 1, with its discussion of Goethe, the German Romantics, and the French revolutionary consciousness, introduces the distinction between subjective and the collective perceptions of temporality, and discusses the interaction between the two. Additionally, in analyzing the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, it presents the possibility of an ahistorical form of time consciousness. Chapter 2, with its attention to the avant-garde and the poetry of Baudelaire, introduces the aesthetic perceptions of ephemerality and discontinuity in the setting of urban modernity, as well as the subsequent blurring of the distinction between "everyday" and "limit" experience and the search for new forms of experience adapted to this setting.
Chapter 1 thus explores a series of landmarks in the intellectual history of instantaneous temporality. It argues that the two sources for the modern conceptualization of the instant are the literary work of Goethe and the French Revolution's historical self-understanding. Goethe's Faust contains one of the most influential articulations of the instant: Faust's wager, which is sealed by the familiar verse: "If I ever say to the moment 'Linger on, you are so beautiful' . . . Then I will gladly perish." Voicing an everlasting frustration with the present, Goethe's influential formulation helped to define the instant as a category of subjective experience in modernity. Similarly, by devising a new calendar and organization of revolutionary festivals, the French Revolution articulated a form of historical consciousness that helped establish the concept's historical and political dimension. The French revolutionaries interpreted their own political action as the enactment of a radical new beginning in history—the event of an instantaneous, ex nihilo foundation of a new era with no links with the past. Chapter 1 also examines the varied contributions of early German Romantic authors, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schlegel, and Friedrich Hölderlin, to a treatment of instantaneity that emphasizes one fundamental theme: the discovery of suddenness as a temporal modality. Finally, the chapter examines the consolidation of the instant as a philosophical category in the works of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the two authors who framed the terms of the debate on instantaneous temporality for the twentieth century. Kierkegaard understood instantaneity as one part of a new kind of radical freedom, in which existential decisions that, even though they take place in time, determine the individual's eternal fate in damnation or redemption. The instant, that point of encounter between time and eternity, represents the moment when these decisions are made. For his part, Nietzsche argued for the value of instantaneous ahistoricity (the condition of existing only in the present) against the perils of historical sickness (the impossibility of forgetting the past). Nietzsche also grounded the instant's existential decisiveness in the eternal return such that the instant is the name for the affirmation of everlasting being—everything that is, has been, or will be—in the cycles of recurrence: a "saying yes" to all of existence.
Chapter 2 studies how the avant-garde artistic and literary movements of the early twentieth century articulated the notion of sudden temporal rupture and the role this articulation played in the transformation of the modern perception of time in aesthetics and beyond. Both in their historical self-understanding and in their aesthetic practice, the avant-gardes—futurism, Dadaism, and, above all, surrealism—represent a significant elaboration and redeployment of the perceptual categories of instantaneity. The avant-gardes conceived of themselves as ground-breaking movements into "newness," and this self-understanding manifested itself in an artistic sensibility and a set of creative techniques that were prominently based on the figure of suddenness. Photomontage, collage, simultaneist poetry, and automatic writing were some of the techniques of their "aesthetics of juxtaposition," one of whose most significant consequences was the affirmation of a new understanding of the instantaneous present as the site of a sudden, shock-like apparitions. As a result, the avant-garde practice of montage presented itself as the privileged form of aesthetic mediation for the intensified and fragmented nature of human perception in the setting of urban modernity. Chapter 2 identifies the poetry of Baudelaire as the original source of some of the central themes and formal features of the avant-garde stance, as well as of the awareness of "modernity" as the experience of historical time in the ephemeral character of instantaneity. Surrealism later supplied some of the most innovative thematizations of the new character of experience in urban city life. In works such as André Breton's Nadja or Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant, the occurrence of chance encounters and sudden associations introduce a vision of beauty based on discontinuity and interruption, present a form of perception in which the distinction between "everyday" and "limit" experiences is obscured, and embrace ephemerality as a "divinity" within a new "mythology of the modern."
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 present detailed analyses of the formation of the instantaneist chronotope in the intellectual production of Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin, respectively. These authors turned to the conceptual features of instantaneity to elaborate a discourse on time consciousness, both collective and individual, historical and subjective. They sought to make sense of contemporary historical events marked by the sudden rupture of long-established expectations, practices, and institutions. They outlined a form of time consciousness in which the conceptual features of instantaneity were expanded into a general framework for making sense of the experiences of historical and individual temporality in their historical period.
Chapter 3 examines Ernst Jünger's recourse to instantaneous temporality as a conceptual method for the description and interpretation of the experience of historical and cultural crisis entailed by the First World War and the unstable years of the Weimar Republic. An officer in the German Army during the war and a renowned chronicler of life on the battlefront, Jünger was also a prolific author of a wide variety of works, from personal diaries to social criticism. In Jünger's writings from the Weimar era, instantaneity provides the intellectual framework for the analysis of the sudden ruptures in both historical consciousness and subjective perception that characterized that turbulent time. For Jünger, the war had implied a profound civilizational change: the establishing, as a universal principle of organization, of "total mobilization"—that is, the all-encompassing and incessant utilization of the sum of a society's resources for war purposes. Total mobilization was a directive that also invaded the space of civilian life, erasing the distinctions between war and peace, and creating the conditions for a world of permanent crisis. In contradiction to the bourgeois version of progress, the result of this process of modernization was not a situation of more but less security: a world where danger prevailed as the constant possibility of abrupt shock or death in accident, war, or revolution. The everyday pervasiveness of perils and threats effectuated a deep transformation of the human psyche, which had to assimilate suddenness as a mode of subjective perception. To Jünger, the technology of photography offered both a faithful reflection of this transformation and a device that dealt with the omnipresence of danger in modern society. Under the influence of the avant-garde, and particularly, the surrealist aesthetics of suddenness, Jünger also developed in his more literary pieces the category of "terror." For Jünger, terror was an aesthetic modality for capturing the intensified risk that sociopolitical instability and industrial technology brought about. Because they present the personal experience of crisis as the subjective counterpart to the period's historical ruptures, Jünger's writings from the period exemplify the affinity between instantaneous temporality and crisis in a particularly compelling fashion.
Chapter 4 explores the different manifestations of the instantaneity concept in German philosopher Ernst Bloch's thought. Developed in midst of the First World War, Bloch's early philosophy was an explosive mixture of catastrophist anarchism, Marxist materialist premises, and mystical figures of thought. Through an original presentation of the idea of utopia as a temporal concept, Bloch absorbed and recreated the prevalent mood of apocalyptic destruction and renewal. For Bloch, reality is inherently unfinished, a world not yet realized in the fullness of its possibility, and therefore it contains the promise of its utopian completion in the future. The anticipatory consciousness of utopia manifests itself in the subjective experience of instantaneity, which Bloch calls the "darkness of the lived moment." The instant is obscure because it is the most immediate experience, too close to be distinctly perceived. This "darkness" involves an inner connection with utopia. The temporality of the instant is a constant experience of the new and unexpected, an intimation of the "not-yet" dimension of reality. In the Weimar era, the exposure to mass culture and avant-garde art would lead Bloch on the search for "traces" of utopia in the ephemeral and transitory aspects of everyday experience and urban reality, as well as to an embrace of montage as a technique charged with a potential for disruption and anticipation. Nazism's political ascent and final access to power impelled Bloch to formulate another concept related to the temporality of the present: the notion of noncontemporaneity. Complicating the model of linear, one-dimensional historical time, Bloch was trying to make sense of the fact that large portions of an ostensibly "modern" population had adopted an ideology that championed the most primitive elements of German identity. He concludes that modernization does not necessarily produce a homogeneous social totality, but rather generates a heterogeneous society characterized by the presence of groups that are merely juxtaposed in space, but that exist, both subjectively and objectively, in different historical times. An association between historical temporality and the avant-garde aesthetics of montage is discernible in Bloch's notion of noncontemporaneity. The aesthetics of montage was, in fact, the subject of the Expressionism Debate, Bloch's 1937-1938 dispute with Georg Lukács about the relation between representation and reality from a socialist perspective. Against Lukács' celebration of the uniform time of continuity in a coherent social whole, Bloch passionately defended the avant-garde's temporality of sudden rupture as the privileged repository of aesthetic value and historical content.
Chapter 5 investigates the different conceptualizations of instantaneous temporality in the work of German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin. The chapter first presents Benjamin's preoccupation with the fate of experience in the modern world, which led him to explore of the figure of shock as the new standard for everyday experience. In his analysis of the effects of the new forms of the "mechanical reproducibility" of art, such as photography and cinema, and in his studies of the cultural manifestations of commodity capitalism in the France of the Second Empire (and, especially, in the poetry of Baudelaire), Benjamin dissects the features of instantaneous shock in the midst of the urban crowd as the "sensation of modernity" par excellence. The chapter then analyzes Benjamin's antihistoricist vision of historiography as the search for "dialectical images": sudden juxtapositions of analogous historical epochs or events. In Benjamin's historical materialist method, past times are not closed entities, accessible only in their own terms, but rather contain a "historical index" that can only be properly deciphered in a future moment: its "now of legibility." The past is, as it were, incomplete, and waiting for the attention of a future present in order to accomplish its full potential. The task of the historian is to interpret authentically historical time as a series of abrupt leaps out of the chronology of linear time—that is, to find those images of the past that have reached their moment of recognizability in the present. Benjamin's radical vision of historiography entailed a conception of history as a discontinuous process punctuated by moments of sudden interruption. His name for these moments outside the progressive continuity of history was now-time. For Benjamin, the flashing instant when the past finds its fulfillment in the present is also the moment of radical political action—a now of legibility that coincides with the now of history and politics.