History Culture of Living Experience (Erlebnis): Dangers and Possibilities for Historiography in the Era of 'Experience Society' (Erlebnisgesellschaft)


  • Kari Väyrynen


History culture (broadly, the use of history) always reflects changing culture. We now live in a kind of aftermath of the twentieth century, which Eric Hobsbawm called “the age of extremes”. This characterisation describes very well the state of western culture today as well: rapidly changing information technology, postmodern relativisation of traditional values and optimistic belief in progressive modernisation, new global problems with nature (climate change, species extinction, Covid) are all signs of extreme times. So far as history always reflects the present, this current state of the world brings many new challenges for historians. New trends like environmental history try to answer these challenges from a historical perspective.In this paper, I take only one specific aspect of this state of culture into consideration: how does ‘experience society’, in which people seek strong affective experiences, effect our view of history? I approach this question conceptually, taking the concept of ‘living experience’ (originally in German: Erlebnis) into consideration. Through its analysis, I sketch a kind of present-state anthropology of historical knowledge. Especially the commercial pressures of experience society, competition with other brands of popular culture, effects the use of history in the present culture.The German word Erlebnis is difficult to translate into English. It refers to existentially important experiences and I’ll translate it here as ‘living experience’. This relatively young concept was born at the beginning of the nineteenth century (Fichte) and later in German philosophy of life at the end of the century signified existentially important experiences. I analyse in my article the conceptual history of this concept in German philosophy until Heidegger, who connected it critically to modern, in his mind shallow, culture. ‘Experience society’ was later analysed by German sociologist Gerhard Schulze in his book Erlebnisgesellschaft (1997). Experience society expresses the extensive aestheticization of our life: how we present ourselves in Twitter, Facebook and so on has created new fields of everyday aesthetics. Our identities are shallow and changing. My hypothesis in this paper is that our concept of history is changing accordingly: when not totally forgotten, history must become more affective and interesting, full of curiosities which appeal to our senses. There is also a danger that historical research increasingly picks up such subjects that respond to this shallow culture.



2021-12-21 — Päivitetty 2021-12-21