Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Fran├žoise Meltzer reviews Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s After 1945: Latency as Origin of the Present

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. After 1945: Latency as Origin of the Present. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013. 240 pp.

Reviewed by Françoise Meltzer

This book is willfully “disheveled,” for lack of a better word.  That is, it insists on and performs—successfully, I believe— a purposeful entanglement between autobiography and literature.  It works by cumulative narration; there is no usual scholarly introduction, but rather an autobiographical beginning (“One Car Away from Death”) that describes an instance of “latency” as Gumbrecht understands it. Latency for Gumbrecht is a fascinating term: it describes unacknowledged and unspoken trauma—even unseen, like a stowaway (writes Gumbrecht) whose presence is felt but hidden.  Latency is thus not to be confused with repression, the more usual (and ultimately less interesting) term. Postwar Germany is rife with latency for Gumbrecht: from his parents’ silence, to his doctoral adviser (Hans Robert Jauss) and the latter’s unacknowledged role in the SS, to the job held by Gumbrecht’s grandfather during the war. The post 1945 period in Germany bore a mood (Stimmung) that was grounded in latency and resulted, by the early twenty-first century, in a coagulation of time—coeval with a sense of claustrophobic inertia and a chronotope of immobilization. The latency that followed the War, the silence of those who supported Hitler or simply lived through it, the turning away from the death, destruction, and ruins that the War produced, have yielded, in the postmodern era, a profound change in our relation with time. The future is no longer experienced as an open series of possibilities but rather as a threat. But the past, argues Gumbrecht, cannot be left behind either. His generation in particular is caught between a heavy, inescapable past and a foreboding future (the possible death of the planet, the dwindling of resources, the continuing threat of a nuclear war).

The book sets up several paired notions that are skillfully woven to press the thesis home. After economic expansion and the cold war, after the Nuremberg Trials and their supposedly thorough interrogations—we are left with skepticism regarding the subject and its sovereignty. The new chronotope is only now showing itself; but it has been with us since the closing of the camps and the arguments over the East Berlin of Communism and the West Germany of capitalism.  If communism of the Soviet variety is now dead, argues Gumbrecht, capitalism may now be experiencing its own death throes. How can there be a future in such a world scenario? How can the subject be protected and contained?  The emphasis in much mid-twentieth-century texts on “containers,” writes Gumbrecht, is precisely a sense that the subject is more and more at risk, and less and less able to find its own enclosure.