Time Bandits, Historians, and Concepts of Bad Times

in Contributions to the History of Concepts


Within the history of concepts, the conceptualization of time is central. Historical actors rely on their experiences for orientation in the present, and they produce expectations about the future. To imagine their horizons of expectation they need concepts about the future. When the future becomes difficult to conceive of for a variety of reasons, they take refuge in concepts describing unruly and uncertain times such as crisis or chaos. Times when the future is completely out of reach because the present seems unbearable might be termed catastrophic. Also, historians in general make use of temporal concepts to narrate their histories. They are like time bandits that manipulate time. Following last year’s conference organized by the History of Concepts Group on key concepts in times of crisis, this article takes issue with the discussion of concepts describing bad times within conceptual history.

You see, to be quite frank, Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It was a bit of a botched job, you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that's where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes. Well, why repair them? Why not use them to get stinking rich?

—Randall in Time Bandits (1981)

Pour être viable, une recherche tout entière tendue vers les structures commence par s’incliner devant la puissance et l’inanité de l’événement.

—Lévi-Strauss, Du miel au cendres (1966)

Conceptual history is devoted to studying the use of concepts in historical change, which human beings must always manage cognitively. Reinhart Koselleck, the founder of Begriffsgeschichte, made time management the central focus of this approach. Concepts can be examined for the layers of time embedded in them. The different durations contained in concepts create tensions between different times played out in the present. Human life is structured around gaps between what we have already experienced and what we expect will happen. As Koselleck stated “On the one hand, every human being and every human community has a space of experience out of which one acts, in which past things are present or can be remembered, and, on the other, one always acts with reference to specific horizons of expectation.”1 Sometimes we know what we expect. At other times, the future is viewed as very different from what we know already. The latter is primarily a problem for us moderns, who will not rely on what has been given by tradition.

To conceptualize this gap between our space of experience and our horizon of expectation, we refer to temporal concepts. Since change becomes an integral part of modern life, mastering it is a constant challenge. One of the main reasons Koselleck had for conceiving a monumental lexicon of basic concepts in political and social language was that modern life led to a proliferation of temporal concepts and a temporalization of concepts in general. In writing the entries on these basic concepts in the lexicon, he was particularly interested in concepts on time such as progress, revolution, utopia, history, and crisis. Even if many efforts were made to master change—by conceptualizing time and creating ideological master narratives guiding political action—new and unexpected things kept breaking through the horizons of expectation. Koselleck repeatedly stated that semantic changes have a slower rate of change than events. For this reason, we experience situations in which we do not know what to say or think: “At times, there may be no appropriate concept to designate a new situation, or else one has to grope in the dark to discover it.”2 In some situations, we might be able to anticipate what will happen, and our anticipations (Vorgriffe) might then be able to master the event and reduce the novelty of it. In other situations we are left uncertain, or we have to rely on concepts of uncertainty such as event and crisis.

It is quite obvious that we live in times of crisis today. A few days before our 2016 conference on Key Concepts in Times of Crisis began, I stumbled over a front-page article in one of the major Danish newspapers, claiming that “the European community is no longer a given. Given is that we experience a merging of crises that each is taking on historical dimensions.”3 When we speak of Europe, we mostly connect it with crisis—not one, but several: the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, Brexit, the crisis of democracy. Not only is Europe in crisis, but we also speak of a global crisis that goes far beyond economy to include climate, demography, water, food, and terrorism. It is simply difficult today to imagine what will come after crisis. Progress is not selling very well these days.

Here I will limit myself to discussing how historians address change, particularly changes for the worse. I am interested in the signaling of bad times. Historians are professional narrators of changing times. In this sense, they imagine changes. They juggle with time like the little time bandits from the film Time Bandits, from where I borrowed my title. The film was directed by Terry Gilliam and released in 1981. It tells the story of eleven-year-old Kevin and a group of dwarves—the time bandits—escaping the Evil One by jumping through different time periods. They literally stumble into different periods by jumping through the time holes indicated in a map stolen from the Supreme Being, their former employer. The bandits are free to travel from period to period, even though they cannot completely control what is going on. At some point, they end up on the Titanic and fail to get off before the sinking because—as one of them mentions—“How was I to know we were gonna run right into an iceberg? It didn't say, ‘Get off before the iceberg’ on the ticket.” In the end and after a detour into the time of legends, they are taken out of time, where they must face the ultimate creator, the Supreme Being—and the owner of the map—in the shape of a kind, elderly gentleman.

To stick with the analogy, I suggest that historians are the time bandits who jump from one period to the other. But they simultaneously try to become the Supreme Being that possesses, or rather draws, the map of history. And as with the Supreme Being, they as authors have the right to step out of time. They even rely on a narrative genre in which they disguise their authorship in a rendering of what actually happened, as Hayden White pointed out long ago. There is thus nothing new in emphasizing the unavoidable narrativity in dealing with time. Paul Ricreur has forcefully pointed out how we live and form our identities through storytelling. With the works of White, Lawrence Stone, Jörn Rüsen, and others, the narrative turn has established itself in historiography. With his anchoring in hermeneutics and his constant interest in the temporalization of concepts, Koselleck certainly recognizes the narrative performance of historians. In a text from 1973, Darstellung, Ereignis, Struktur, he discussed the intriguing problem of combining a structuralist and a narrative approach to history while acknowledging the “natural chronology” Of experienced time.4 He accepted the presupposition from narratology that the event is the key to any story, but added a contextualist dimension in which events can always be explained by factors beyond or beneath it. He never fully endorsed the return of l'histoire événementielle in the revival of narrative (as Lawrence Stone announced).5 More in line with social history, he argued for the different rhythms or durations in history, or what he termed “diachronic structures.” Later he would propose to study these different rhythms as different time layers embedded in concepts. But he accepted that history needs events, or rather that history writing has to be based on events. As he wrote, “Every event produces more and at the same time less than is contained in its pre-given elements: hence its permanently surprising novelty.”6 Koselleck here clearly states that history changes through events, or at least through the concept of event. Event is thus the primary concept of change for historians. In narrative theory, the event designates a decisive and unpredictable turn in the narrated happening.7 An event differs from a simple change of state. According to the German literary scholar Wolf Schmid, to be eventful a change has to be significant, unpredictable, effective, irreversible, and singular.8 Life and stories are full of small incidents (“things happen”), and among those only some are eventful. Our language is full of features marking the small changes. For historians, all events can be more or less eventful. But for an incident to be named and experienced as an event, it must at least signal a deviation from the normal state of things. Being unpredictable, the event logically contains novelty. Some would even claim with Jacques Derrida that “a major event should be so unforeseeable and irruptive that it disturbs even the horizon of the concept or essence on the basis of which we believe we recognize an event as such.”9 It can also be argued that the event happens in no time or at least signifies an intense contraction.10 It is simply impossible to imagine an event that goes on and on. Events must have a quality of being almost instantaneous and therefore carry their own temporal logic. We should therefore distinguish between those discontinuities, ruptures, or irritations that have sometimes been termed events in system theory, and the dramatic irruptions we talk about here.

History writing is always facing the challenge of reconstructing and narrating what others witnessed. Events are constructed by contemporaries as well as retrospectively by historians. We know too well from our own present that events are mediated. It sometimes seems that only that which is turned into an event is real. But there always exists a gap between the experienced, corporeal event and the mediated, represented, and narrated event, which we could call incorporeal. To put it in other terms, we could say that we must distinguish between a phenomenological and a hermeneutic approach to the event.11 Historians strenuously try to combine the two approaches. They rely on past event making to construct their own events in the historical narrative they produce. To this purpose, they rely on those concepts and those words that the historical actors themselves used to designate events. Sometimes these actors will have to invent concepts and words in order to grasp the event they experience. In such cases we might even speak of linguistic events. But even though historians of events must zoom in on the historical situations, they still have to cope with the paradox of rendering old news. Their events are not identical with those experienced by the historical actors.

Historians use events to build up their narrative plots. But because of the logical constraints of the narrative, they must have markers of change that are even more solid. When historians narrate history, they have to begin and end somewhere. Every narrative has a beginning and an ending. Historians will normally escape mythical ideas of absolute beginnings and relativize endings. For them there is no end to history. Particular narratives might be inserted into a grander history. But we still need arguments for the choice of beginnings and endings. The typical argument for a particular beginning is that something radically new happened. The subject of the narrative—a particular community or region—experienced a radical change. It would be difficult for historians to begin their narrative in the midst of things. New beginnings presuppose endings. When historians argue for a new beginning, they also present endings. If 1945 is a new beginning for Europe, something in Europe also ended. Sometimes the historian’s choice of a beginning mirrors a general experience of dramatic change. This is most certainly the case with 1945. When historians are successful in having their narratives accepted in the public as the history of the community—in which case we speak of master narratives—their choices of beginnings become decisive. It is generally accepted that 1789 and 1945 are major European and perhaps even global events. When writing their narratives, historians use an extensive vocabulary of time in which events are but the raw material. They designate ruptures, discontinuities, transitions, revolutions as well as durations, continuities, layers, stages, and nonsimultaneities. Some of the terms belong to a metalanguage of change; others are shared with the historical actors. The narratives and concepts of change are often inserted into larger philosophies of history—the grand narratives denounced since the 1980s. From the eighteenth century, history itself became conceptualized as a grand movement in time toward progress and civilization, as Koselleck has aptly demonstrated. Whatever larger theory the historians adhere to—whether history is conceived of as a grand movement, a series of events, or a field of different rhythms-—they must consider how to begin and end. Beginnings and endings are dramatic. To conceptualize and narrate this drama is challenging. There is a need for powerful concepts. Most languages contain words for changes of a very dramatic nature such as revolution, crisis, and catastrophe. As mentioned, I am mostly interested in changes for the worse and will concentrate on concepts such as crisis and catastrophe.

Let us take a closer look at the semantics of crisis. Inspired by Reinhart Koselleck’s masterful history of the concept of crisis, we can detect at least four basic meanings of the concept.12 First, crisis is used to designate a chain of events leading to a culminating, decisive point where action is required. This meaning of crisis emphasizes the link to politics defined in a Carl Schmittian way as the force of decision.13 In its modern use, crisis points to the radical increase in measures required to handle the situation. A response to crisis compares to a situation of exemption and emergency. Second, crisis designates a unique and final point after which the quality of history will be changed forever. This entails a classical idea of crisis as a turning point. It is within this meaning that historians can use crisis as a temporal device. A crisis is sounding the end of an existing order but does not contain indications of what is to come. Third, a crisis points to a critical or even pathological situation. In classical Greece, crisis was used to designate the healing powers of the body. In its modern use, it instead designates the impossibility of such healing. A crisis emerges when society is incurably ill. Fourth, crisis is also a moment of truth when light is shed on characters and events. The famous historian Jacob Burckhardt said the following about the historical crisis: “Crisis clears the ground, firstly of a host of institutions from which [we] have long since departed, and which … could not have been swept away in any other fashion.”14 For Burckhardt—and many later revolutionaries—a crisis is a revealing moment that opens the door to new opportunities.

The original linking of crisis and revolution was already made in the latter half of the eighteenth century, not least by Thomas Paine in his pamphlets on the American Crisis. A crisis emerges when an existing order is destabilized and something radical needs to be done. But as stated by Edgar Morin, a crisis is also characterized by indecision and uncertainty: “Today crisis means indecision. It is as a moment where perturbations are followed by mounting un- certainties.”15 Uncertainty is produced by a feeling of loss of control enforced by a lack of adequate information and increased time pressure. Like the event, a crisis thus designates a dramatic contraction of time, but now paired with a growing uncertainty about the outcome. The term can, however, also be used for situations that endure for years. This is the case when we speak of economic crises, which seem to appear at the end of downward cycles. A crisis might still be overcome—as in the case of an economic crisis—but it might also end with a catastrophe. There is no entry on catastrophe in Koselleck’s lexicon. The closest we get are entries on Ausnahmezustand (state of emergency) and Terror/Terrorismus. But catastrophe is certainly a basic concept in history. We find it in religious and mythical discourse as the absolute disaster of the apocalypse. It designated the prime dramatic feature of the Greek tragedy. Since the eighteenth century, historians have tended to view history as movements of rise and fall. Twentieth-century metahistorians like Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee made such movements the basis for their organic philosophies of civilization and world history. Spengler even prophesized the final countdown of Western civilization as a pure catharsis. After the terrible bloodshed in World War I, more people expressed fears about the destructive potential of modern civilization. Walter Benjamin wrote in his notes that “the concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe.”16 Later, the German philosopher Günther Anders expressed his fears of the nuclear age in his book Endzeit und Zeitende (Final times and the end of time). In 1986, Ulrich Beck famously conceptualized the late modern society as a society of risks in which the modern trust in the distribution of resources had been replaced by a new focus on calculation and protection from the risks produced by modern technology. The French thinker Paul Virilio followed suit with his studies on the catastrophic consequences of virtualization and speed. Influenced by the growing anxieties in the 1990s and 2000s, Virilio would shift the focus from risks that might happen to accidents that simply happen.17 Crisis was more in vogue in the late 1970s, when Koselleck was writing his entry. It was the time of the deep economic crisis that began with the so-called oil crisis in 1973. With the 1980s—specifically after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986—risks, accidents, and catastrophes seem to dominate the agenda.

Event, crisis, and catastrophe have overlapping semantics. They all designate the unexpected and what deviates from normal life. But we seem only to speak of catastrophes when we face a situation of complete breakdown caused by the massive destruction of lives and things. It is often remarked that a catastrophe involves a loss of meaning, of orientation, and of values. A catastrophe is a violent rupture of such an extent that the return to normal life becomes inconceivable. It thus characterizes something irreversible, which will mark the times to come. Catastrophes, furthermore, strike blindly and suddenly. As Mary Ann Doane has noted in a famous analysis of the temporal logic of television, the timing of a catastrophe is “that of the instantaneous, the moment, the punctual.”18 She emphasizes that the term mainly has to do with time, or rather with the collapse of time. If catastrophes denote situations that cannot be grasped—those situations that Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century conceptualized as monstrous—they cannot be represented or narrated either. Egon Flaig, a German historian, sees this impossibility, which has often been related with traumatic responses, as the defining feature of the catastrophe.19 The claim that trauma as a collective reaction toward catastrophes blocks any meaningful representation is well known in the debate over the Holocaust (see, for instance, Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster).20 But this is probably only true for those directly involved. There is, on the contrary, an urge to analyze, speculate, and explain. As Doane demonstrates, the confrontation with catastrophe through the media almost becomes an obsession. The live video clips are shown over and over again, as in the case of 9/11. Still, this form of oversaturation can be perceived as a way of coming to terms with the unexplainable. Turning an event into a catastrophe is thus to be understood as a way of living on. There is also the possibility that oversaturation leads to banal catastrophism, where the term is used to describe the ordinary or the foreseen. An example of the latter case is a British expert on Somalia, who criticizes the international community for not having foreseen the hunger catastrophe in Somalia. More than others, historians must come to terms with catastrophes. Scientific discourse, which is the hallmark of the historian, demands that the forces and the factors producing events must be highlighted. Even catastrophes must be explained. This is where the historian’s narrative differs from other discourses on time. Koselleck forcefully showed how the Enlightenment thinkers imaginatively canceled out the crisis through a utopian ideology, which entraps the present in an imagined future. In the same vein, mythical discourse can turn crisis and catastrophe into new beginnings. As Ricreur puts it, myths only exist “when the founding event has no place in history, but is situated in a time before all history.”21 Our movie, Time Bandits, elegantly toys with this imaginative place outside time when our heroes become caught up in the final battle between the Evil One and the Supreme Being in some caves located nowhere. Hayden White has pointed to the role of myth in overcoming a catastrophe: “A mythic representation of a scene of disaster dramatises the scene by emplotting the events that occur thereon as effects, or rather as consequences, of a specifically moral conflict.”22

Historians are not mythmakers or ideologues. They try to explain what happened and to reconstruct past spaces of experience. However, as we know from the writing of national histories in the nineteenth century, historians do also partake in political projects. Eric Hobsbawm once stated that historians are to nationalism what poppy growers are to heroin addicts.23 Even though historians might not be overtly ideologically engaged, they are still influenced by the present they observe and live. When Europeans in 1945 were looking at a chaotic and ruined Europe and perhaps longing for new beginnings, how could this not affect historians? Intellectuals in Germany desperately tried to freeze time in order to repress the past. Stunde Null was the ultimate cata-strophic point from where nothing could be revived from the past. Already during the war, Alfred Weber wrote a book bidding the existing European history farewell. The book opened by acknowledging the catastrophe and the end of Western history: “With the catastrophe that we have lived through and are still living, we clearly are standing at the end of our previous history.”24 The feeling of total catastrophe was widespread all over Europe. So were efforts to construct new beginnings.

The feeling of catastrophe and the hectic search for a new beginning were prevalent among everybody writing about Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Historians could only with difficulty avoid being caught up in mythmaking. They seemed left with only two alternatives: either they tried with the help of the classical narrative pattern of rise and fall to completely write off Europe as a historical subject for the present, or they sounded a new beginning for Europe. In either case, they acknowledged that European history was facing change of a catastrophic magnitude. Much of later European history writing, as well as identity politics, was focused on bringing back the immediate past that seemed canceled out immediately after World War II.

Historians have worn out metaphors and topoi on new beginnings such as rising phoenixes. The current master narrative frames contemporary European history as marked by two major events: the catastrophe of 1945, and the liberating event—sometimes even termed revolution—of 1989. The latter event is often narrated as the healing of a Europe destroyed by World War II, which continued into the Cold War. This is how the British historian Tony Judt narrates European postwar history in his highly influential book from 2005, Postwar: A History of Europe after 1945.25 The imaginative twist he gives to his narrative is that he takes European history down memory lane. For Judt, the healing is about coming to terms with the memory of European history. In his view, new Europe emerges when the catastrophe of 1945 finds a secure place in the collective memory of all Europeans. Adding memory to the story of what happened in Europe brings an interesting new layer to the conceptualization of change. Only a few historians would try to circumvent the catastrophe in writing contemporary European history. One who does it emphatically is the British historian Mark Mazower, who in his book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century from 1998 narrates European history as a series of crises caused by a titanic struggle between the dominant ideologies of liberalism, communism, and fascism.26 In his narrative, 1945 is but one of these moments of crisis.

To conclude, let me return to my time bandits. In their narrative crossing of periods, historians have drawn on a register of temporal concepts that signals incertitude, rupture, and breakdown. They do not, as time bandits, have the imaginative freedom of jumping from one period to another without caring about historical time. The media, on other hand, do not have the same obligations to the past that historians endorse. If we follow the current media discourse, we are constantly living in times of crisis and catastrophe. There are no endings and no beginnings. This breakdown of the narrative—we are always exposed to breaking news—certainly has something to do with the temporal logic of media discourse. But we might also be facing a period of radical uncertainty about the future comparable to the one Koselleck detected for the emergence of European modernity—or at least for Western European modernity—and that he named Sattelzeit (saddle time), using one of his beloved geological metaphors to master temporal change. We do not know yet how future generations of time bandits will play around with our times. What we know is that they will also draw on the conceptual armature of temporal concepts to place us in a time period.

Epigraph: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Du miel au cendres (Paris: Plon, 1966), 408.


Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002): 111.


Reinhart Koselleck, “Introduction and Prefaces to the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe,” trans. Michaela Richter, Contributions to the History of Concepts 6, no. 1 (2011): 1–37, here 21.


“Europa—så er det nu,” Politiken, 11 September 2016, 1. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.


Reinhart Koselleck, “Darstellung, Ereignis, Struktur,” in Vergangene Zukunft : Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1989), 144–158.


Lawrence Stone, “The Revival of Narrative,” Past and Present 85, no. 1 (1979): 3–24.


Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 110.


For an excellent discussion of the role of events within narratives, see Peter Hühn, “Events and Eventfulness,” in The Living Handbook of Narratology, ed. Peter Hühn, Jan Christoph Meister, John Pier, and Wolf Schmid (Hamburg: Hamburg University), revised 13 September 2013, http://www.lhn.uni-hamburg.de/article/event-and-eventfulness.


Wolf Schmid, “Narrativity and Eventfulness,” in What Is Narratology? Questions and Answers Regarding the Status of a Theory, ed. Tom Kindt and Hans Harald Müller (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2003), 17–33.


Giovanni Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 90.


Arlette Farge, “Penser et définir l’événement en historire,” Terrain 38 (2002), http://terrain.revues.org/1929.


For this distinction, see Claude Romano, L’aventure temporelle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2010).


Reinhart Koselleck, “Krise,” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, vol. 3, ed. Otto Brunner, Werner Konze, and Reinhart Koselleck (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2004), 617–651.


In his first book, Kritik und Krise, Koselleck examined how the French Enlightenment thinkers used the concept of crisis to imagine a situation of radical change that could only be mastered by turning a history of philosophy into an ideology. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).


Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History (London: Allen & Unwin, 1943), 158.


Edgar Morin, “Pour une crisologie,” Communication 25, no. 1 (1975): 149–163, here 149.


Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), 473n9a.


Paul Virilio, The Original Accident (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).


Mary Ann Doane, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 222–239, here 223.


Egon Flaig, “Eine Katastrophe definieren: Versuch einer Skizze,” Historical Social Research 32, no. 3 (2007): 35–43.


Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).


Paul Ricoeur, “Myth and History,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 10, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 272–283, here 273.


Hayden White, “Catastrophe, Communal Memory and Mythic Discourse: The Uses of Myth in the Reconstruction of Society,” in Myth and Memory in the Construction of Community: Historical Patterns in Europe and Beyond, ed. Bo Stråth (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2000), 49–74, here 52.


Eric J. Hobsbawm, “Ethnicity and Nationalism in Europe Today,” in Mapping the Nation, ed. Gopal Balakrishnan (London: Verso 1996), 255–266, here 256.


Alfred Weber, Abschied von der bisherigen Geschichte (Hamburg: Claaßen & Goverts, 1946), 11.


Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe after 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005).


Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (London: Penguin, 1998).

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