Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Zeitgeist: An inquiry into the media of time-specific cultural patterns

Date: September 19 - 21, 2013

Convenors: Susanne Hakenbeck (Cambridge, GBR) und Monika Krause (London, GBR)

The way the term zeitgeist has travelled from its native German to everyday uses in other languages is evidence both of its specific place in the history of ideas and the way in which it resonates intuitively with understandings of a specific dimension of cultural processes across different contexts. Our two-day workshop at the ZiF brought together archaeologists, sociologists, historians and media scholars to explore the way the concept might be used as an analytical tool in the social sciences.
The introduction by Monika Krause (Goldsmiths College, London) defined zeitgeist as a temporally specific pattern in meaning-making practices, and asked: How does zeitgeist travel between people and across space? How can we explore the symbolic and the material dimensions of this process? Susanne Hakenbeck (University of Cambridge) followed, calling for a return to examining large-scale processes and discussing the ways in which ideas are communicated through the manufacture, design and use of metalwork in the early medieval period.
A series of case studies then addressed the questions of the conference in a variety of ways: Arthur Lizie (Bridgewater University) examined contemporary notions of 'good' food; Catherine Cornet (Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) discussed ideas of the need for renaissance in the Arab world coupled with a sense of an enduring malaise. David Robinson (University of Central Lancashire) asked what happens when a zeitgeist outlives its time, as in the case of grunge.
The case of nation-branding, examined by Melissa Aaronczyk (Rutgers University), raised the question of the role of transnational elites for the diffusion of zeitgeist. Based on her research on terrorism expertise, Lisa Stampnitzky (Harvard University) enquired into the rise, more generally, of forms of knowledge that proclaim that we cannot and should not rationally understand its object. Ben Merriman (University of Chicago), writing on duels in the 19th century novel, and Torben Ibs (University of Leipzig), analysing the role of Frank Castorf and his team at the Volksbühne, examined the relationship between the arts and zeitgeist.
Papers by Fran Osrecki (University of Vienna), on the role of temporal diagnosis in the discipline of sociology, and Theo Jung (University of Freiburg), on the way the term was used in 19th century political debates, examined the politics of labelling specific zeitgeist.
A keynote lecture by Fred Turner (University of Stanford) dealt with the communication of zeitgeist via the 'democratic surround'-attempts by artists and educator to foster democracy in the period of the Cold War which predated the counterculture of the 1960s. Undertaking a close textual analysis, John Hutnyk's (Goldsmiths College, London) lecture focused on the hitherto underexplored role of India in Marx's Capital. It drew an arc between the role of the East India Company in India in the eighteenth century and its long-term effects visible in developments of modern-day London.
The workshop was intended to explore questions, rather than generate answers and the strength of this emerged in discussions. They focused on whether single events-a concert, an exhibition, the death of a famous person-might provide a touch paper for the emergence of zeitgeist and what might happen to the remains of zeitgeist after it has passed. Can a zeitgeist be meaningful for only a small group of people? Is zeitgeist effected through hegemonic power or does it truly emerge across all social strata?


Melissa Aronczyk (Brooklyn, USA), Catherine Cornet (Rom, ITA), Sascha Förster (Köln, GER), John Hutnyk (London, GBR), Torben Ibs (Leipzig, GER), Theo Jung (Freiburg i.Br., GER), Arthur Lizie (Bridgewater, USA), Ben Merriman (Chicago, USA), Fran Osrecki (Wien, AUT), David Robinson (Preston, GBR), Lisa Stampnitzky (Cambridge, USA), Fred Turner (Stanford, USA)

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