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“‘The Present’ is Merely a Fragile Consensus”: An Interview on Power and Time (Part I)

by contributing editor Jonathon Catlin

By Jonathon Catlin

The edited volume Power and Time: Temporalities in Conflict and the Making of History (2020) appeared last year from the University of Chicago Press. The work is co-edited by Dan Edelstein (William H. Bonsall Professor of French and Professor of History at Stanford University), Stefanos Geroulanos (Professor of History at New York University), and Natasha Wheatley (Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University). Power and Time’s seventeen chapters span disciplinary approaches ranging from history, to law, to anthropology, to the history of art, and each illustrates how political authority is constituted through the shaping of temporal regimes in historically-specific ways: The expansionist futurity of the Nazi “New Man” meets the apocalyptic presentism of the Manson Family “cult,” meets the “deep time” of our Age of Plastic. In their introduction, the editors propose a new theoretical model of historical temporality, chronocenosis (inspired by the biological notion of biocenosis), a term which reflects not only “the multiplicity but also the conflict of temporal regimes operating in any given moment” (4). The volume goes on to explore competing orders of time not only as they are reflected in iconic moments of rupture, such as the French Revolution, but also in “silenced clashes” stabilized by often unnoticed but decisive temporal frameworks: “An aesthetics of power and time offers a way for organizing the complexity of power, for locating [its] multiple and conflicting temporal regimes, and for understanding how these get harmonized into a seemingly sinuous, often undifferentiated temporal experience that largely eschews conflict” (37). Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed the editors about their new volume.

Jonathon Catlin: This remarkable volume spans a breadth of geographies, periods, and historical methods so vast that I fear we will only be able to get a taste of them here. Yet all the essays hang together around the common framework of investigating “the co-constitution of temporal and political orders” (3). I wanted to start simply by asking about the origins of the volume and the 2015 conference on which it was based. Why did this set of historical-theoretical concerns strike you when they did as warranting new interventions?

Dan Edelstein: If memory serves, Stefanos and I discovered on a walk around Washington Square that we were both working in this vein. Stefanos mentioned at the time that he’d recently had a very similar conversation with Natasha Wheatley. So in a sense, we all stumbled on the topic independently, which led us to believe that it might be an interesting subject for a conference. And clearly others were also thinking along these lines: Christopher Clark was at the conference and presented his last Lawrence Stone Lecture, an early version of what became the closing chapter of his book Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (Princeton, 2019).

So it is interesting to ask: why was time in the Zeitgeist, so to speak? Obviously there were a number of important works that had paved the way, though some of the most canonical had been out for quite a while: I’m thinking particularly of Reinhart Koselleck’s Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (1979, translated 2004) and François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2003, translated 2015).

I’m not sure there’s an overarching explanation for why, in 2015, many intellectual historians were thinking about political theory in relation to time, but perhaps a partial reason has to do with the fact that it’s been a while since there’s been a “methodological moment” in intellectual history. The major methodological pieces of the Cambridge School were written in the heyday of pragmatics (e.g., Skinner and speech act theory) and structural linguistics (e.g., Pocock and Saussure). Foucauldian genealogies and Begriffsgeschichte have also been around the block a few times. I’m not suggesting that it’s time to throw out the old and bring in the new! But it does seem that there’s a certain periodicity to these kinds of debates and reflections. Notably, we’re not the only ones proposing new perspectives on methodology: Benjamin Straumann recently published a fascinating article on The Energy of Concepts” (2019) that questions whether we should replace our basic Wittgensteinian understanding of concepts with one inspired by Frege.

Whatever the reason, it does seem that the prevailing methods in intellectual history do not accord much room or importance to what we might call the “x-axis” of political thought. Obviously, intellectual historians think about conceptual change over time. But what often gets missed is the role of time within political theories. There are of course exceptions to this generalization—J. G. A. Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment (1975) being no doubt the largest. This particular aspect of Pocock’s masterpiece, oddly enough, did not spark much emulation. In general, intellectual histories, especially of political thought, trace the evolution of concepts between t1and tn, but pay less attention to the embedded narratives or histories that might underpin a concept, organize a theory, or chart a range of potential interpretations.

Stefanos Geroulanos: That’s my memory too (of how we came to the subject). For my part, I was bothered by a certain static quality characteristic of histories of concepts, a kind of inertia that shadows the privileging of “big concepts,” that stabilizes them into the same well-known periodizations. I had started thinking about the figure of the “New Man” and the role it has played in revolutionary circumstances, aesthetic politics, and also scientific policy. What did it mean that people proposed to build a “new humanity,” to change human nature? —when would that humanity be? how did it relate to the revolutionary situation or, perhaps more interestingly, to periods when it was pursued as a scientific goal—which followed an entirely different temporality than the political/revolutionary invocations? What kind of futures were these images of humanity depicted, imagined, promised, painted, sculpted (into stone or metaphorically) and in what relations did they stand toward the present, and to what present(s) for that matter? While Dan was working on revolutions, I was discussing this with Natasha, who was already working on the time of law and on historical right.

I remember returning to Koselleck with a deep sense of dissatisfaction about his famous 1970s essays. His way of working was compelling, yet it simply sapped the energy out of any temporal questioning in subjects and moments that I was interested in—it even foreordained the questioning. Multiple temporalities, acceleration, a certain German-centered vision of the nineteenth century—ok, thanks for the metanarrative, but this is a fully armored theory of modernity, whereas there are so many other spaces to mess around with time. So, where to go? We all seemed to have this desire to chisel at a new chessboard. By the conference in May 2015, this sense that Koselleck et al. insisted specifically on a particular regimen of multiple temporal regimes while most people working on temporality were striking out in different directions felt more intense for me. Caroline Arni had published a spectacular essay on the French Saint-Simonian Claire Démar who committed suicide just after publishing her manifesto; Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov has a different, no less fascinating piece on the culture of birthday gifts to Stalin. Henning Schmidgen had written books—in the plural!—on conceptions of the temporality of the brain—and I love his piece on belatedness and forced synchronicity that we have in the book; Claudia Verhoeven’s essays on Russian terrorist temporality and its “wormholes” had led her to thinking about Charles Manson’s weird theories of time. These divergent approaches suggested a more competitive, conflict-ridden approach to time.

What made the canon all the worse, I think, was the limited range of alternatives: I thought Johannes Fabian’s 1983 Time and the Other (which is contemporary with Koselleck’s early essays)was useful in parsing relations of temporality and power in the anthropological encounter, but then it idealized coevalness rather than leaning on non-coevalness as the basis of all temporal interactions, including in matters of class, race, gender, work, age, and so on. Hartog’s approach to regimes of historicity, which is derivative of Koselleck, intentionally empties out the contemporary moment. So I felt that grasping at a new approach meant thinking with a number of criticisms of these figures. And I kept having that dreary experience where you engage a colleague who looks at you like an alien and a fool because you aren’t starting out with E. P. Thompson’s classic article, or with memory studies, or slams the hammer that you must begin with Heidegger or Benjamin or in fact with Koselleck and Fabian. But you’re no longer sure where to start out, there’s so much to work with, you’re not sure how to frame particular problems of interest, and the more you read the more the ground keeps giving. It is urgent to get time and its connections to power right. That was the coalescence of impulses for me.

Natasha Wheatley: One way of gathering together some of these themes, to riff on what Dan and Stefanos have already said, is that we had each stumbled into problems in which time seemed central, but not at all in its usual methodological guise of context, or anachronism, or change over time, or modern acceleration, and so on. Time wasn’t the property surrounding the object in question, but rather a constitutive feature of its internal architecture. Simplistically put: we were pursuing not so much a regime in time, but time in a regime. We were all hungering after ways of conceptualizing and approaching problems of that sort. And we wanted to do so dialogically, to think and exchange broadly with others in different fields and disciplines, and to hopefully generate new methodological oxygen and energy. I see the project as an opening, an invitation to think with us and the other contributors about the things power does with time. A volume with all the doors and windows left open.

In my own case, I’d come to such questions through an interest in law and time. A whole array of temporal operations are integral to law’s functioning and its authority, from its reliance on continuity to its formal use of analogy (which, legally speaking, collapses differences between times and places). Especially dramatic in this regard are understandings of sovereignty, which often comprise doctrines of perpetuity or immortality—something like a philosophy of history contained in sovereignty’s conceptual structure. I wanted to analyse what legal regimes presumed about and required of time—how they stretched it and collapsed it, arranged it and consumed it—in ways that were constitutive of their power and authority. I’ve found the history of science more methodologically generative and inspiring than a lot of intellectual history for problems of this sort, with its focus on what we might call the preconditions of truthiness—its attention to the internal truth structure of disciplines and fields and knowledges. I’m playing around with ways of drawing that sensibility into legal and intellectual history. Indeed, you see the influence and imprint of the history of science—and of anthropology—throughout this volume. Not least in the pieces on regimes of inquiry, whether Jamie Martin on the temporal imaginary of economic knowledge, or Joanna Radin and Emma Kowal on the time of the freezer and the “cryopolitics” of indigenous blood samples suspended between life and death, or Maria Stavrinaki on prehistory and/as posthistory and “apes and caves and bombs.” We’re all experimenting with different ways of cracking open the problem of time, reaching for a methodological expansiveness and subtlety capable of capturing the sorts of conjunctures we encountered in our research.

JC: I appreciate the way you collectively explore temporal regimes and their conflicts from the bottom-up, asking, “How is the fantasmatic unity that permeates most temporal experience made possible, and which frictions and chasms does it paper over?” (4). This question goes back to Kant, who answered in his First Critique, if not quite satisfactorily,that “time is the form of internal sense,” the synthetic apprehension upon which unified, conscious experience is based. Though time is the currency of historical analysis, historians have not always interrogated their (modern, Eurocentric, etc.) assumptions about time; hence your stated goal for the volume is “to relocate questions of temporality from the esoteric margins to the center of modern historiography” (4). “Temporal” and “global” turns in history were already proclaimed a decade ago, but you regret that “history writing on time has not really harassed the central categories of the discipline. ‘The past’ that historians supposedly study remains largely unchallenged in its meaning, ‘the present’ always too clear” (5). Instead, you write, “what we usually call ‘the present’ is merely a fragile consensus, a silenced clash,” and the same goes for naively accepted past presents (27). If this is the case, you write, the “presentism” diagnosed by François Hartog and others “is an illusion” (34). Do historians need a stable conception of “the past” they are analyzing? Is identifying one possible, or even desirable, in light of your volume?

SG: When we begin working on a particular subject, or within a certain framework, different agents and institutions fill these temporal categories of past and present with meaning in very different ways; they think in different scales, experience different kinds of temporal continuities, are perhaps differently traumatized, and so on. So: no, historians need the exact opposite of a stable conception of “the past” and the same goes for other temporal categories, “the present” included. Ethan Kleinberg has written more beautifully and effectively on this than I can. It would be unfortunate (intellectually, politically) for the discipline to pretend that the past is a single past. Or that the same moment even, examined at different scales, in different documents, or across different actors, is in fact the same moment. Why would anything different go for that awkward nexus we call “the present,” this moment we ourselves begin from? Just as you suggest, with reference to Kant, we all have some sense of the present, of time passing now; debates in the philosophy of time going back to Aristotle and Augustine have tried to deal with this problem. But as we detail in the introduction, this is indeed something of an illusion—not necessarily a bad one, just one that ignores all sorts of ways in which our temporal experience is synthesized out of very different temporal regimes. The way I would abbreviate our argument in our introduction is that the present, any present, involves the silent clash or fragile consensus you mention.


Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Book jacket courtesy of Jorinde Voigt.

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