Chronotopologies ○ Daniel Irrgang and Clemens Jahn

Concept Diagrams

The principle of the intersecting axes constituting the operational time-space of chronotopologies.


Fig. 3 & 4: “Chronotopoi of Variantology” (2013). The Variantology research project, conducted by Siegfried Zielinski with a wide network of international researchers and collaborators, investigates the “Deep Time Relations of Arts, Sciences and Technologies”. In its media-archaeological approach, the project does not aim at grand historical narratives but at manifold particularities such as artefacts and cultural practices ranging from Chinese musical pitch instruments of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) to Arabic divinatory devices of the 14th century. One of the project’s motivation is to challenge the notion of European Modernity in both its temporal and spatial Eurocentric limitations. The “Chronotopoi of Variantology” was the first chronotopology developed by us. We used the spatial and temporal information inherent in the index of persons of all five English volumes of the Variantology project (2005–2011, König Books, Cologne) as dataset for the spatial and temporal coordinates. The Variantology project’s inherent issues concerning time (Modernity) and space (Europe) strongly influenced the development of the time-space axes principle which would provide the basis for the following chronotopologies. The original work, “Chronotopoi der Variantologie”, was published in the German anthology book Variantologie. Zur Tiefenzeit der Beziehungen zwischen den Künsten, Technologien und Wissenschaften, eds. Siegfried Zielinski and Eckhard Fürlus in cooperation with Daniel Irrgang and Clemens Jahn (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2013), on pp. 473–477 and on the book’s foldout cover.

Vilém Flusser

Fig. 5 & 6: “The nomadic way and the support network of Vilém Flusser” (2015). Developed for the exhibition “Bodenlos. Vilém Flusser and the Arts” at ZKM Karlsruhe and Academy of Arts Berlin, the diagrammatic depiction of the migration and travel movements of the Czech cultural philosopher Flusser is more than a biographical ornament. It not only shows the fate of forced migration that Flusser, coming from a Jewish educated middle class life in Prague which was violently interrupted by the invading German armies in 1939, shared with so many contemporaries. His biographical experiences, characterized since that first migration by further travels and relocations, also strongly influenced Flusser’s intellectual work, which becomes most apparent in his book Freedom of the Migrant, his autobiography Bodenlos [Without firm ground], or in existential categories such as “nomadism”. The chronotopology shows Flusser’s movements between and in Europe and the two Americas while marking, in space and time, friends and collaborators pivotal for his thinking. Read in juxtaposition with his bibliography it becomes apparent how influential Flusser’s migrating and intercultural experiences were for the different periods of his work.

Allahs Automata

Fig. 7 & 8: “Provenances and Futures: The World of Arab-Islamic Automata as an Interface Between Old and New Worlds” (2016). This chronotopology is more closely related to “Chronotopoi of Variantology”, especially in its argumentative vector and epistemic interest. It was developed for the exhibition “Allah’s Automata. Artifacts of the Arab Islamic Renaissance (800–1200)” at ZKM Karlsruhe which brought forward the strong argument that, when talking about the history of automata or of mechanical, hydraulic and pneumatic machines, one cannot start with the European Renaissance or Leonardo da Vinci but has to go further back in time and beyond the borders of Europe. Thus, this chronotopology assembles a (necessarily incomplete) list of thinkers and experimental researchers together with centres of knowledge, such as the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-ḥikma) in Baghdad and the Academy of Gondēshāpūr in the southwest of what is today Iran. The chart also indicates the strong migration of knowledge, spanning over centuries and continents, which shows, as Michel Foucault has powerfully argued, that the search for a kind of unique “origin” of knowledge, wisdom or episteme does not make any sense.

For the year 1999, German-speaking humanities mark an epistemic shift which coincided with the turn of the millennium: the spatial turn. One might argue if “turn” is an adequate designation for this shift of interest and perspective in research or whether it is a strategic label to claim a rupture of a significance similar to the “linguistic turn”, recorded 50 years earlier by Gustav Bergman for analytic philosophy and popularized by Richard Rorty.[1] At least it may have similar implications as the “pictorial” or “iconic turn” of the early 1990s, then declared by W.J.T. Mitchell and Gottfried Boehm.[2] In any case, this new emphasis on space and places can be seen as a long due counter-movement to the postmodern emphasis of (historical) time dominant in the 1980s and, subsequently, to the non-places of the cyber- or virtual space of the 1990s.
For our own work, which we have framed in several projects as “chronotopologies”, one of the main protagonists of the spatial turn plays an important role: the historian Karl Schlögel. In fact, it was his lecture “Die Wiederkehr des Raumes” [The Return of Space] at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study in 1999 that marked retrospectively the beginning of the turn.[3] Schlögel further developed his arguments presented in Berlin in his seminal book Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit [We Shall Read Time in Space], first published in 2003. This collections of studies builds on Schlögel’s general plea for a “topographically centred historiography”[4] that overcomes its disciplinary chronological or sequential determinism. Such a historiography may also prevail over its text-based sources and logocentric approaches: According to Schlögel, the study of maps and thus the training of the sensual and conceptual faculties to “read” this specific sign system, and the identification of the semantics, historicity and cultural biases at play (of both the producer of a map and of those who aim at reading it) need to be added to the methodological toolkit of the historian, promoting geography from an ancillary science to a necessary hermeneutic basis for historical scholarship. As the specific hermeneutic or epistemic sur plus of maps Schlögel identifies their “main feature and main capacity in displaying synchronicity”[5]: Places, persons, events, other phenomena and – most importantly – the relations between them can be displayed on a two-dimensional surface and thus made accessible for the analytical eye at a glance. In some cases, maps may make visible (literally) relations such as parallels, coincidences, clusters and other synchronicities that were previously not apparent in sources such as written documents. This is an analytical quality of diagrammatic signs – we will come back to that.
Our chronotopologies are in a sense a reaction to Schlögel’s pleas. However, the term itself is not rooted in historiography but in a somewhat related discipline concerned with narratives: literary studies. Mikhail M. Bakhtin’s famous notion of chronotope coined in 1937 (a term he himself took from a lecture by the biologist A.A. Ukhtomsky he had attended to in 1925)[6] literally means “time-space”. It addresses the representation of time and space as interdependent structural dimensions in literature: “Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.”[7] It is exactly this “intersection of axes” of time and space where Bakhtin locates the chronotope that inspired our chronotopologies.
Chronotopes also oscillate within the work of another literary scholar who explicitly builds on Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope, taking its notion seriously. Franco Moretti, in his brief but influential study Graphs, Maps, Trees, published 2005 in the wake of the spatial turn, simultaneously credits and criticizes “Bakhtin’s essay on the chronotope: it is the greatest study ever written on space and narrative, and it doesn’t have a single map.”[8]
Moretti instead choses another approach: he uses graphical representations such as graphs, maps, and tree diagrams, proven tools of the natural and social sciences, as analytical tools for the study of literature. In his section on maps, Moretti extracts the spatial information from a 19th century novel’s narration, such as places of dwelling or routes taken by protagonists and visualizes them as maps. Such a map is no simple representation of elements and relations already obvious in the written text, it rather “offers a model of the narrative universe which rearranges its components in a non-trivial way, and may bring some hidden patterns to the surface”[9].

Here the practice of map-making and map-reading – presenting, as Schlögel described it, narrative elements in the synchronicity of space and time – becomes an investigative strategy. Interestingly, Moretti corrects his own assumption of the map or of mapping as epistemic tool within his own explorations. He confesses that, in his approach, he does not really use those maps as maps – in their original sense as means for navigation, to find places or ways – but as diagrams: “their true nature emerges unmistakably from the way I analyse them, which disregards the specificity of the various locations, to focus almost entirely on their mutual relations; which is indeed the way to read diagrams, but certainly not maps.”[10]
Maps in this diagrammatic modus operandi constitute “a matrix of relations, not a cluster of individual locations”[11]. In fact, Moretti’s characterization of diagrammatic maps is pretty close to Charles S. Peirce’s notion of the diagrammatic sign, which plays a pivotal role in his semiotics, logics, and philosophy of mind. Constituting a sub-class of the icon in Peirce’s famous semiotic triadic sign classification, the diagram is characterized by a structural or relational similarity to its object. “A Diagram is mainly an Icon, and an Icon of intelligible relations.”[12] Those structures are not visible when observing the signified object but are constituted by the diagram itself, which gives the diagrammatic sign a special epistemic capacity, as Peirce put it: “I believe I may venture to affirm that an intelligible relation, that is, a relation of thought, is created only by the act of representing it.”[13] This capacity, however, does not end in showing or constructing those relations. Rather, diagrammatic signs can be used as tools to modulate the relations they show, which makes it possible – in a mode of a thought experiment – to “change” the signified structure of the object. It is this “operational iconicity” where, according to Peirce, the diagrammatic sign gains its power as a tool for thought experiments, transferring abstract or conceptual thought in the sensual or visual domain, where they can be manipulated and experimented with, be it on a piece of paper or on a computer screen.
Our chronotopologies react to Schlögel’s plea for a historiography that adds the spatial dimension to the discipline’s dominant time scale by acknowledging the epistemic and heuristic potential of maps and their visual power to synchronize elements. They take Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope and its intersection of the time and space axes as a starting point to construct a coordinate system with three axes: y signifying the time vector which is, in principle, expandable into the “deep time” of the past and towards the potential space of a manifold future; x and z providing the wide plane for the cartographic projection of space.

Inspired by Moretti and his experiments with maps to investigate spatial relations and by Peirce’s concept of operational iconicity, we construct these chronotopologies not as mere representations of historical facts but as epistemic or hermeneutic tools: They provide a diagrammatic space where manifold events, places and actors can be located and their spatial and temporal relations extrapolated; a space of synchronicity where alternative narrations are valid and which is not determined by hegemonic historiographies such as those of European Modernity. At the same time, this diagrammatic space is an open space: In contrast to the finitude and sequential, sometimes teleological structure of historiographical timelines, where elements are neatly put in line, chronotopologies provide a time-space which can be extended and where elements can be changed or complemented. This operational iconicity of chronotopologies make them experimental maps or diagrams, providing a tool for thought experiments where new narratives can be discovered in the past and where multifarious possibilities can be projected into the future.
The chronotopologies of this essay show examples of our work in the last years, investigating alternative histories and biographies. The principle of the intersecting axes constituting a time-space is a constant of these diagrammatic tools; its structure or principle is presented in figs. 1 and 2.

[1] Gustav Bergmann, “Two Types of Linguistic Philosophy”, in: The Review of Metaphysics 5 (1952), pp. 417–438; Richard Rorty, “Introduction. Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy”, in: Rorty (ed.) The Linguistic Turn. Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 1–40.

[2] W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Pictorial Turn”, in: Artforum 30 (1992), pp. 89–94; Gottfried Boehm, “Die Wiederkehr der Bilder”, in: Boehm (ed.), Was ist ein Bild? (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1994), pp. 11–38.

[3] Cf. Stephan Günzel, Raum. Eine kulturwissenschaftliche Analyse (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2017), pp. 110 f. In 2002 the literary scholar Sigrid Weigel proclaimed a “topographical turn” in cultural and literary studies, which, although arguing from a different perspective than Schlögel, follows similar principles; Sigrid Weigel, “Zum ‘topograhical turn’. Kartographie, Topographie und Raumkonzepte in den Kulturwissenschaften”, in: KulturPoetik 2/2 (2002), pp. 151–165.

[4] Karl Schlögel, Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit. Über Zivilisationsgeschichte und Geopolitik. 3rd ed. (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 2009 [2003]), p. 11 (transl. DI/CJ).

[5] Ibid., p. 97 (transl. DI/CJ).

[6] Cf. Simon Dentith, Bakhtinian Thought. An introductory reader (London/New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 49.

[7] Mikhail M. Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel. Notes toward a Historical Process [1937]”, in: The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essay by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 84–258, here 84.

[8] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees. Abstract Models for a Literary History (London/New York: Verso, 2005), p. 35.

[9] Ibid., p. 54.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 55.

[12] Charles S. Peirce, “Prolegomena to an Apology of Pragmaticism”, in: The Monist 16/4 (1906), pp. 492–546, here 497.

[13] Charles S. Peirce, “PAP [1906]”, in: Peirce, The New Elements of Mathematics, vol. IV: Mathematical Philosophy, ed. Carolyn Eisele (Den Haag: Mouton, 1976), pp. 313–330, here 316.

Daniel Irrgang is a research fellow at Weizenbaum Institute, Berlin, where he is part of the research group Inequality and Digital Sovereignty with Berlin University of the Arts. His work focuses on depictions of knowledge, HCI paradigms, exhibition practices as well as on media archaeology, art & technology and epistemology. He holds a PhD in Media Studies with a thesis on diagrammatics and expanded mind theory.

Clemens Jahn is a Berlin-based art director, design strategist, and creative consultant.


chronotope; mapping; diagrammatics; historiography; media archaeology


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel. Notes toward a Historical Process”. In Michael Holquist (ed). The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essay by M. M. Bakhtin. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981). pp. 84–258.

Bergmann, Gustav. “Two Types of Linguistic Philosophy”. In The Review of Metaphysics 5 (1952), pp. 417–438.

Boehm, Gottfried. “Die Wiederkehr der Bilder”. In Gottfried Boehm (ed.). Was ist ein Bild? Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1994. pp. 11–38.

Dentith, Simon. Bakhtinian Thought. An Introductory Reader. London/New York: Routledge, 1995.

Günzel, Stephan. Raum. Eine kulturwissenschaftliche Analyse. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2017.

Mitchell, W.J.T.. “The Pictorial Turn”. In Artforum 30 (1992), pp. 89–94.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees. Abstract Models for a Literary History. London/New York: Verso, 2005.

Peirce, Charles S. “PAP”. In Charles S. Peirce, The New Elements of Mathematics, vol. IV: Mathematical Philosophy. Den Haag: Mouton, 1976. pp. 313–330.

Peirce, Charles S. “Prolegomena to an Apology of Pragmaticism”. In The Monist 16/4 (1906), pp. 492–546.

Rorty, Richard. “Introduction. Metaphilosophical Difficulties of Linguistic Philosophy”. In Richard Rorty (ed.). The Linguistic Turn. Essays in Philosophical Method. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1967. pp. 1–40.

Schlögel, Karl. Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit. Über Zivilisationsgeschichte und Geopolitik. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 2009.

Weigel, Sigrid. “Zum ‘topograhical turn’. Kartographie, Topographie und Raumkonzepte in den Kulturwissenschaften”. In: KulturPoetik 2/2 (2002). pp. 151–165.

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