‘What Time is It There?’: Synchronicity in Global History

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By guest contributor Maryam Patton, this one of the four commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Sebastian Conrads What is Global History? (Princeton, 2016). You can read the first contribution, by Daoud Jackson, here.

Modern historians are trained above all to avoid anachronism, but the opposite of anachronism is not an intuitive concept. This antonymic definition of the historian’s craft offers little understanding of what it means to be correct ‘in time.’ The fear of anachronism furthermore entertains assumptions about time itself that historians rarely challenge. Why do we only write synchronic or diachronic histories? These models treat time as either at a standstill or moving inexorably forward, but trace nothing more than a line on a 2-D graph whose axes are time and space. They are objectivizing labels we use that avoid the possibility that, as Augustine famously suggested, time exists only in the present in the mind. Still, it is perhaps the best we can do for now until the field faces the implications of suggestions by physicists like Carlo Rovelli that time is like heat and “the growth of entropy distinguishes the past from the future for us and leads to the unfolding of the cosmos” (Rovelli, 195). But if, according to Sebastian Conrad, “history, indeed, was largely chronometry” then global history offers a critique of this paradigm and challenges the predominant temporal metaphors of traditional forms of historical writing (Conrad, 141).

Conrad’s What is Global History is almost as much about the nature of the historical discipline more generally as it is about the new kid on the block, who was never really all that new (Conrad, 17–20). The thematic chapters engage both the limits and potential for global history to offer new insight on the problems that all historians face regarding the past. In the process, Conrad showcases the wide range of monographs that broadly come under its scope. The resulting variety might suggest global history is too imprecise a label to impart meaningful distinctions, and alternatives like world history, deep history, or Atlantic history all illustrate attempts to home in on specific methodological bents like global connectedness, grand timescales, or geological agency. But at the moment, my particular focus is on the chapter “Time in Global History” and the potential for global history to rethink historical time.

Conrad suggests that global history yields two primary methodological alternatives when it comes to temporal scale, namely that of huge swaths of time, in the case of deep or big histories, or synchronicity, whereby events or phenomena that are contemporaneous are meaningful even if geographically distant (Conrad, 150). As Conrad admits, the first alternative, characterized by studies like Daniel Smail’s Deep History and the Brain or David Christian’s Maps of Time, often requires a union between history and the natural sciences and is difficult for any single scholar to pursue. Synchronicity then seems the more promising pursuit, especially given global history’s underlying concern for links and connections. The best example Conrad highlights is Christopher Hill’s National History and the World of Nations wherein Hill examines the emergence of the genre of national histories in France, Japan, and the US. Instead of a traditional comparative study, Hill adopts a synchronistic view of the 19th century world and links the global currents of interstate relations, growing trade, and the communication revolution to their local expression in the aforementioned settings. But this and Conrad’s other examples illustrate the tendency that global history, especially the synchronistic kind, tends not to concern itself with the pre-modern era.  Conrad’s only pre-modern example of a synchronous global history is John Will’s 1688: A Global History, which Conrad dismisses as “blinkered…with no larger argument and without considerations of causality” (Conrad, 153). Example works for the 19th and 20th centuries abound.

Unless viewed within the sum totality of the human experience, as in the case of deep or big history, human history prior to 1800 yields far fewer meaningfully global studies when compared to the modern era. This is not a complaint, though I admit I am an early-modernist, but an observation I find curious given repeated suggestions that “a genuine global consciousness began to take shape in discrete Eurasian regions in the early modern period” (Conrad, 17). What would early modernists with a global bent do without Sanjay Subrahmanyam to assure us it is possible? Jokes aside, perhaps it is a matter of practical, not theoretical, difficulty, and with time scholars will uncover more of a global early modernity. But how many centuries far back can one reasonably push the paradigm of globality? If only a couple centuries more, then global history begins to resemble a subject matter more so than a methodology.

In addition, however, to the straightforward observation that synchronism offers limited practical application for pre-modern history, I am highly skeptical it has any analytical salience, at least not in the way it is used by global historians of the modern era. I began this piece with a perhaps esoteric critique of the terms synchronic and diachronic for flattening our understanding of time. Their strictly linear perspective can be traced to Enlightenment ideals of progress and deterministic trajectories which in term shaped ideas about history, often in highly politicized forms. And though we now avoid writing history using the language of progress and development, its effects linger in the push to trace the origins of globalization and in our temporal vocabulary with terms such as ‘modern’. Synchronism is not as straightforward as taking account of events that happened at the same time when we consider that time was measured, felt, and understood in countless different ways. Synchronism, and by extension time itself, needs to be historicized.

We take for granted that the year begins on January 1st. Despite Pope Gregory XIII’s monumental efforts to unify Europe’s calendars in the late 16th century, local response to calendar reform was far from uniform. It was not as straightforward as converting from one date to another, because any particular date varied in its local cultural importance (Selfridge-Field, 22). Time was political. The picture becomes even more complicated when one considers the different temporal rhythms of early modern Christendom’s neighbors, for example the Ottomans who employed multiple calendars depending on the administrative context. Just as time passes quicker or slower depending on where you are on earth, information travelled at different speeds and scholars are now exploring when the idea of contemporaneity began to emerge.

By calling for the historicization of time and synchronism, I do not mean to ignore the prodigious efforts already available to us. Fernand Braudel’s longue durée and Reinhart Koselleck’s time structures were crucial steps towards expanding our understanding of plural temporalities, but these are just the beginning. Classic reference texts like Adriano Cappelli’s Cronologia e calendario perpetuo were invaluable keys to synchronize the myriad of calendars from the past and allowed scholars to translate time. But in the process, we have stripped away much of the temporal disorder that characterized pre-modern life in ways we no longer understand. I believe our engagement with historical time is poorer for it. Global history’s penchant for synchronism threatens to take this another step further by eroding the cultural history of time, but if properly historicized, then perhaps synchronism can continue to serve global history as a methodological choice.

Maryam Patton is in the dual History and Middle Eastern Studies PhD program at Harvard University.

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