Writing(s) on Time in Modernity

Production of historical time and temporal self-location in the Polish-speaking press, 1880-1914

By Clara Frysztacka

Zeit-Schriften der Moderne” is a study of the construction of historical time in “classical” modernity at the end of the long 19th century. The pioneering work of Reinhard Koselleck on historical semantics as well as postcolonial historiography invite us to think about modernity in the age of European imperialism as a regime of temporality based on historical time. In this regime, on the one hand, historical time emerged through the modern experience of present time and future time as different from (and better than) past time, which gave time the form of a line or an arrow. On the other hand, time created a (Western) European-monopolized, hierarchical differentiation of space between what was seen as progressive and modern and what was seen as backward or primitive. Western Europe pretended to having covered the longest segment of the timeline of history and arrogated to itself the most advanced temporal position and the role of representing the future of the rest of the world. Thus, modernity can be defined as a universalistic temporal order, in which the production, appropriation, and accumulation of historical times become an absolute imperative and all different cultures, human groups, and spaces are constantly compared with the Western European historical trajectory on the basis of time. The adjectives “European” and “colonial”, which always accompany the word “modernity” in the book, express the (Western) European hegemony in this order and its deeply asymmetrical character.

Clara Frystacka, Zeit-Schriften der Moderne. Zeitkonstruktion und temporale Selbstverortung in der polnischen Presse (1880-1914), SpatioTemporality / RaumZeitlichkeit, 7, De Gruyter Oldenbourg 2020

Against the background of this understanding of modernity, the book explores the visions and narratives of historical time that circulated in the first Polish-speaking popular magazines, printed between the 1880s and the outbreak of World War One. This study thereby foregrounds a type of source and a spatial focus largely ignored by research on historical time, which, in the tradition of Koselleck, concentrates on the historiographical and philosophical writings of Western European (male) intellectuals. This atypical perspective makes it possible to integrate the medial dimension of historical time and, above all, the question of its positionality.

The commercial (mass) press, often illustrated and addressing a broad and not only intellectual public, appeared everywhere in Europe with different modalities and speeds during the 19th century. Due to its wide distribution, (mass) press not only massively influenced the ways collectives imagined historical time; its material circulation also contributed to creating the feeling of a new, modern time. Moreover, weekly magazines and daily newspapers are media with their own highly marked temporality, determined by their periodical publishing rhythm or by their link with calendar time by the date of their release. Thus, focusing on commercial magazines, this study proposes an understanding and conception of historical time as a cultural product intrinsically dependent on and conditioned by the specific media involved in its production; it draws attention to the interaction between medial and historical temporality.      

The three Polish partitions, resulting at the end of the 18th century from the dismemberment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, are a fascinating case study for analyzing the possibilities, tools, and limits with which different societies in European-colonial modernity were (and partly still are) confronted in their forms of (re-)production of and self-location in historical time. Being politically dependent territorial units of three imperial states – the Habsburg, the German, and the Russian – at the end of 19th century, the former regions of the Commonwealth occupied not only geographical peripheries of these empires, but were also drawn at the margins of the mental map of European modernity. However, their position within or towards the European-colonial modern regime of temporality cannot be unambiguously characterized as peripheral. On the contrary, at the turn of the 20th century, the so-called Polish Kingdom, with its former capital Warsaw, was one of the most industrialized regions of the Russian Empire, exporting industrial products to the imperial political center and being associated by this center culturally more with Western than with Eastern Europe. In the Grand Duchy of Posen, the Polish-speaking population may have been discriminated against by several laws, which, especially since the 1880s, greatly limited its property rights and its right to education in the Polish language, but, through its “organic work”, created very successful forms of cultural and economic self-organization, which effectively threatened the German domination of that territory. Finally, starting from the 1870s, Galicia – one of the economically poorest parts of Austria-Hungary – was a flourishing center of Polish culture, with broad political autonomy, two very longstanding universities teaching in the Polish Language – Cracow and Lviv – and Polish artistic vanguards.

To indicate this ambivalent positionality, the book lends the world system theory the term semiperipherality. However, here semiperipheriality is neither a diagnosis of the economical, social, political, or cultural condition of the Polish partitions at the end of the 19th century, nor an a priori determination of how the Polish-speaking societies perceived themselves or were perceived by the imperial centers or by Western Europe. Rather, it is a research perspective on historical time, which enables us to approach the question of positionality on two levels: first as an epistemic position for the construction of historical time and second as a way of self-locating in historical time. In this study, therefore, semiperipheriality plays the role of a flexible analytic lens: through it, the asymmetrical power relationships of European-colonial modernity are made visible and problematized.

Titelseite der ersten Ausgabe der in Krakau publizierten Zeitschrift “Nowości Illustrowane” vom 1. Oktober 1904. Photo: private

The analysis of the sources is structured in three main chapters, highlighting the three main configurations of historical time in the Polish-speaking magazines. The first chapter, “Time and the nation”, focuses on the enormous number of articles devoted to Polish national history and explores the peculiar temporal depth and evolution attributed to Poland by the magazines’ authors. Here, historical time is presented as the specific temporality of the nation, which however, through time, was permanently de/synchronized from the hegemonic historical temporality of Europe. The chapter examines the different periodizations and temporal directions, rhythms, and relationships with Europe that the articles about Polish history proposed. Particular attention is given to the narratives of the mythical temporality of the Slavs, the outbreak of the modern era with the battle of Grunwald (1410), the evolutionary regress during the period of the elective monarchy (the mid-16th to late 17th centuries) and the prospect of future rebirth opened by the first Polish (and European) constitution (the Constitution of May 3, 1791). These narratives shaped Poland as a historical subject with an ambivalent temporal position combining delay, synchronicity, anachronicity, and role as vanguard, as well as its own temporal trajectory detached from that of the other European nations, but with a potentially pioneer role toward a universalized better future.

The title of the second chapter, “Time and the other”, pays homage to the groundbreaking book by Johannes Fabian about the “denial of coevalness” between the subject and the object of the anthropologic gaze. The chapter analyzes the temporal relations between Poland and two central “Others” of Polish history, the Germans and the Lithuanians, interconnected in many historical narratives, starting with the ones about the wars against the Teutonic Order and the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian State. In the articles about the Polish-German-Lithuanian relationships, the popular magazines located Poland in a temporal position characterized by its in-betweenness. Thus, the temporal relations of the Poles with Germans and Lithuanians described by the press can be imagined as a dynamic triangle, in which the Poles, depending on the various historical constellations, took on changing and partly conflicting roles: the one of the indigenous people inhabiting the region before the Germans; the one of the backward culture, delayed in comparison with the Holy Roman Empire; the one of the progressive force teaching freedom to both Germans and Lithuanians; the one of the new emerging nation allying with the equally emerging Lithuanian nation against the medieval domination of the Teutonic Order; the one of the imperial state civilizing the nomadic and pagan Lithuanians; and the one of the ancient Greeks fighting against ancient Persian (read: present-day German) imperialism for a democratic future. The specific temporality of Poland is outlined in between such different temporal relations with the two temporal Others.

“Modern Times”, the title of the last chapter, alludes to the famous Charlie Chaplin movie. as It explores the conceptions of the present time of the press as a modern temporal dimension clearly distinct from past time. Research on the modern regime of temporality identifies “breaking the time” between past, present, and future as a crucial mechanism of the production of historical time. To grasp the manifold ways in which the press differentiated the present time (and future time), this chapter focuses on two groups of articles: those about turn-of-the-century 1899–1900, often containing overviews of the changes taking place in the past hundred years, and the one commenting on the revolutionary events in Warsaw in 1905. The two moments were occasions of intense debates about the innovative character of the present time and show that the Polish-speaking population imagined itself synchronized with European modernity. In the articles about the turn-of-the-century Polish partitions, the Poles appeared mostly as passive recipients of a European-global modernity, but the articles about the revolution of 1905 describe an active operation of synchronization. Moreover, both groups of articles portray the present time as a transit point of unfinished process from an outdated past toward a modern and better future. Many studies see this location of the present time in an ambivalent position between past and future as characteristic of the modern regime.

Considering the question about semiperipheral positionality, which is the main starting point of the analysis, the book therefore comes to two conclusions. On the one hand, the analysis of sources confirms the validity of semiperipheriality as a term to highlight a specific Polish (Central) Eastern European form of ambivalent self-location in and through historical time, which bears traces of the asymmetrical temporal order of European-colonial modernity and cannot be defined either as perfectly modern nor as completely outside of modernity. On the other hand, the last chapter in particular suggests that, in European/colonial modernity, semiperipheriality is not only a peculiar Polish, but also a “universal” form of constructing time and understanding oneself in time. Hence, the book concludes with a plea to consider Eastern Europe a valid and interesting perspective for developing a theoretical understanding of the modern regime of temporality.


Clara Frysztacka is Assistant Professor (akademische Mitarbeiterin) at the Department of European Contemporary History at the Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder. She holds a BA in History from the Università degli Studi di Milano, an MA in Eastern European Studies from the Freie Universität Berlin and a PhD from the University of Siegen. Her dissertation earned four academic awards (award of the Embassy of the Polish Republic, award of the German Association for East European Studies (DGO), Award of the Dirlmeier Associtation and the Bachtin Levebvre Prize for research on space-time). Her book “Zeit-Schriften der Moderne. Zeitkonstruktion und temporale Selbstverortung in der polnischen Presse (1880–1914)” was published in 2020 with De Gruyter Oldenbourg. She was one of the conveners of the Explorative Workshop Postcolonial Critique: Latin American and Eastern European Perspectivations (America South – European East) that was held at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2019.


Citation: Clara Frysztacka, Writing(s) on Time in Modernity. Production of historical time and temporal self-location in the Polish-speaking press, 1880-1914, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.10.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25299.


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