Time is a Tense Ecosystem: An Interview on Power and Time (Part II)

by contributing editor Jonathon Catlin

By Jonathon Catlin

The first part of the interview can be read here.

JC: Theorists of history such as Koselleck have explored the multiplicity of historical times captured by Ernst Bloch’s notion of the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen). Koselleck pursued this through the metaphor of temporal layers or “sediments of time.” You quote Sebastian Conrad to this effect on “layers of time that pile up and interact…scales [that] coexist, and complement each other” (26). Your notion of chronocenosis seems to go further, emphasizing the competitive relation of temporal regimes: Time matters because temporal clashes and antagonisms play an essential role for the legitimacy or downfall of regimes. While conceptions of modernity rooted in the Atlantic Revolutions emphasize rupture symbolized by the adoption of new, secular calendars, Koselleck’s conception of modernity centers on the formation of nation-states and emphasized the acceleration of time, the formation of new “collective singulars” in forward-looking concepts like progress and history itself. Modern time as rupture, then, versus as progressive continuity. But you try to scramble this dichotomy: “revolutions are far from the main occasion on which time and power collide, wrap into each other, disentangle and redesign everyday life. Indeed, often-conflictual regimes of temporality suffuse even the most stable of political states,” for “every established political regime, every sovereign, pursues continuity—often even eternity—and to do so negotiates its relationships with other established forms of time” (7). Could you elaborate on these less obvious temporal clashes?

DE: First, I’d just point out how spatial representations of time—sediments, layers, etc.—naturally translate into a sequential model of temporality. In some respects, that is a conception of historicity as periodization, and many of the categories we used to periodize history embed within them a particular historical regime (perhaps none so clearly as “the Middle Ages” as Kathleen Davis has discussed).

Revolutions can certainly contribute to this impression of history as a sequence of distinct periods. At least from the French Revolution onward, it is part and parcel of revolutionary political culture to assert a new beginning, a new regime, even a new calendar. But what the French Revolution really inaugurates is a redistribution of historical regimes. Conservative thinkers and politicians, from Burke and Maistre to Metternich and Thiers, would orient their political and historical thought around the French Revolution just as much as progressive writers. Even among those sympathetic to la grande Révolution, there are rival accounts: Lamartine defends a Girondinist history, where Buchez and Roux (editors of the Histoire parlementaire) recount a history much more favorable to the Jacobins. Already during the French Revolution, political rivalries were often expressed through feuding historical narratives. Camille Desmoulins mounted his attack on Robespierre’s policies in a short-lived journal called Le Vieux Cordelier, a celebration of the “old” Cordeliers club’s politics. Robespierre responded by tying Desmoulins’s ally Danton to a long list of revolutionary traitors, starting with Lafayette. Revolutions weaponize history; revolutionary feuds are often over clashing accounts of what happened, and of how the present moment connects to different pasts and points to different futures.

But to get to your question, it certainly isn’t only during revolutionary times that we witness this profusion of warring historical regimes. In her chapter on Supreme Court jurisprudence, Kristen Loveland shows how the justices use—and choose—precedents to conjure up a sense of authoritative neutrality. And yet, as she shows, justices routinely dissent from each other’s reading of historical precedents, and string together past cases to reach different conclusions. These conflicting versions of legal history reflect very different accounts of past decisions, inform present ones, and shape different projections of the future.

SG: Indeed we try to scramble that dichotomy of “modernity as progressive continuity” versus “modernity as rupture or as series of ruptures.” I like the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” motif as much as anyone (and even more so Blumenberg’s playful addition, the “non-synchronicity of the synchronous”) but as you indicate, since Koselleck it’s a certain geological metaphor that has gradually taken hold. Temporal clashes, like Dan just discussed around revolutions, don’t work well at all in either of those models. This is where our approach to chronocenosis comes in: temporal regimes have competing, cooperative, collateral, conflicting relationships with one another. We describe them as a tense ecosystem.

An example of a temporal clash: think back a year ago, when Covid first hit, and it was impressed upon all of us that we perhaps already had it, had caught it a few days earlier, but it wouldn’t show at first, and then a few days in (3? 5? 10? who knew? who could test?) a patient would become symptomatic and then there would be multiple stages, the inhuman course of disease taking over the body, but meanwhile the patient could or would have infected others, perhaps before symptoms appeared, who would follow entirely different temporal courses of disease. All the while, different governmental actors enforced divergent regimes, tweets punctuated time, graphs showed a linear upward curve, and so on. If someone’s family lived in a different place, you might hear them say, “they’re two weeks behind us right now,” while e.g. Italy was two weeks ahead. Different communities would be hit differently, often depending on how home and work was organized. To read the numbers of hospitalized patients, or of the dead, was to look back a couple of weeks, to a moment of infection, and to imagine probabilities and courses of infection in “the now.” New York was living in a complete chaos of temporalities, as everyone tried to figure out whether and how to retain or replace existing ones, all in the middle of a “rapid” lockdown and those awful, near-“constant” sirens. Every new message inflicted scary information, true or false. When was all this happening? What time did one inhabit? Was it the same time as that of one’s intimates? Did kids inhabit the same time as adults? Did the aged? Did pupils after the school closures experience, thanks to Zoom, a fundamentally different sort of time pressure? Who did not find the shock of the moment to be concomitant with religious language (and zombie movies)? Even climate change (the apocalypse of our time?) had not succeeded in convincing political leaders that our time was falling apart, and Covid did. So, to what extent had Covid inflicted an irregular collapse of particular established temporalities, such that the law would be affected one way, medicine in several others, work time clashed with “essential worker” status and with medical rhythms, and so many borders—national, political, corporeal—were themselves in each case differently affected? This is what I meant before by repeating the “fragile consensus” term in describing the present: now it was broken. Every email, their tempo ever more punctuated, began by bemoaning “these extraordinary times,” or its author would scramble (at least I did) for a better term than “crisis,” given that at least since 2008, the language of crisis had itself become ubiquitous.

I hope the Covid example doesn’t come off as glib; it is intended to evoke the vivid kinds of temporalities that different people, institutions, were forced to confront—temporalities and rhythms clashing from the intimacy of the body to the grinding-to-a-near-halt of global capitalism. Our point is that such temporalities existed and competed already. The body’s time is distended by overwork; the body’s time is itself not simply one; intimate spaces and moments exist in the absence or presence of disease and certainly the omnipresence of digital organization; the temporalities of law and labor, the theologies of the time that remains. There are correlations between these temporalities and power dynamics. These correlations need to be studied further, and historians are well placed to do so.

And just to take us back to the book: several essays in the book, besides those mentioned already, handle other chronocenotic situations. Jamie Martin writes of the shifts from economic theories focused on the business cycle to economics of crisis and back to cycles in the decades around 1900; these were theories designed to deal with policy, uncertainty of current events, prediction, and so on. Andrea Westermann’s essay confronts the temporality of plastic on its way to becoming a geological factor. In a philological coup, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite discusses the invention (and backdating) of the expression “Long Divided Must Unite / Long United Must Divide” in China as a seventeenth-century mechanism for handling an ongoing dynastic collapse and replacement that contributed to the “cyclical view” of Chinese history. Our introduction glances at the competing and often conflicting temporalities of 1789, while Dan’s essay considers the different kinds of economies—political and emotional—that can be discerned in Revolution, with the attendant temporalities.

NW: Yes, it’s a great prompt, Jon, and let me chime in with a different sort of example: Australia in the 1990s. As counterintuitive as that may sound, it is a good illustration of one of those unexpected temporal clashes inside relatively stable states. If my chapter in the book explores how indigenous land rights movements produced temporal chaos for settler law in this moment, the legal story is in fact only one dimension of a larger recalibration of geopolitical, colonial, environmental, and spiritual temporalities. Their volatile interaction quite fundamentally rezoned the settler state in time and space. As mining and development projects on the “resource frontier” made questions of land ownership acute, a groundswell of indigenous activism and landmark court cases challenged and ultimately transformed the “origin story” of the state, drawing attention to the fundamental criminality (land grabbing, dispossession, and genocidal violence) of its founding. But it wasn’t only that the settler state now required a new historical narrative and ethical calculus, captured so forcefully in Prime Minister Paul Keating’s landmark 1992 “Redfern Speech.” Recognition that indigenous peoples had legally owned the land prior to colonization spurred the consciousness that they had done so for at least 50,000 years. Suddenly, an epic “new” history extended back into the quasi-infinite past, a history that revolved around the intimate and spiritual relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. As Miranda Johnson and others have argued, these new images and stories landed forcefully in a white Australia existentially adrift: as late vestiges of cultural and economic proximity to Britain dissolved, the country sought new ways of understanding itself in the world, in the region, and on the land. Vampire-like, perhaps, many non-Indigenous Australians hungrily appropriated this sacred, ancient past, which seemed to hold out the promise of redemption and meaning at a moment of disillusionment with postindustrial modernity. A mythic, spiritual timescale filtered down into the prosaic everyday; like so many of my generation, for example, I grew up with storybooks of the Aboriginal dreamtime. New selves and national identities emerged (the point, according to Keating, was “to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognise that they are part of us”). Many resisted and contested these changes, of course, railing against a “black armband” view of history, inciting a vociferous cycle of history wars and blunting native title’s radical potential. The moment of reckoning with indigenous rights, then, triggered an ornate chronocenosis involving the whole spectrum of social and political life: from the legal foundations of the state, origin stories, school curricula, and popular culture, to identities, subjectivities, and spiritual experience. The co-constitution of time and power was restructured, although no formal revolution took place. These time-knots and spectacular timescales continue to feature in public debate. In advocating for constitutional recognition, First Nations’ landmark 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, for example, explains that indigenous sovereignty is a “spiritual notion”: unextinguished, it exists alongside crown sovereignty. “How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?”

JC: Building on this, in your introduction you note “moral remainders” of historical injustices whose legacies endure such that they cannot be said to belong entirely to “the past.” At the same time, climate change and other catastrophic threats have entered us into a moral contract with future generations. Campaigns for justice, recognition, reparation, and restitution all delve into the time-power nexus and push legal thinking toward “transtemporal or intergenerational justice that might graft centuries into the same legal present and tie dispersed generations into a common moral transaction” (20–21). Could you speak to some of the ways the volume addresses shifting legal temporalities and perhaps some of their contemporary deployments?

NW: Law surfaces in many guises in Power and Time. Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford explore how the attenuated geographies of empire meant that justice came refracted through attributes of pace and duration—true for “slow justice” (as paper trails and protagonists inched around the globe and court cases stretched out over decades or even lifetimes) as well as “fast justice” (with swift, summary justice in the colonies triggering anxiety about petty despotism and the “constitutional dangers of empire”). Sunil Purushotham, meanwhile, reveals Jawaharlal Nehru’s evolving framing of postcolonial Indian sovereignty as a rich time knot, involving not only the mediation of problems of tradition, modernity, technology, and progress in an atomic age, but also Nehru’s dual practice as historian and historical actor.

But, Jon, you’re right that the urgent political and ethical questions of our own day make the relationship between law, time, and morality especially explosive, as we write in the introduction. The problem of intergenerational justice—facing both forward and backward in time—makes the combustible present one epic, sprawling struggle over the relationship between power and time, from reparations and the Rhodes Must Fall movement to the existential imperatives of climate justice and planetary survival. One can ask: how should we understand the responsibility of present generations for historical injustices like slavery and empire? But that formulation leaves the past at a neat distance, when in fact the heart of the matter is the dense way these processes sedimented into structures that are very much alive and ongoing today, dissolving any easy means of cleaving past from present. Similarly, in considering our moral obligations to future people for the state of this planet, many climate activists respond: “the future is now.” If we have important recent work on global spatializations of justice—I think of Adom Getachew on a “welfare world” and Samuel Moyn on “global subsistence rights”—it is not only the geography but also the chronology of justice that is (or needs to be) expanding. The elongated temporalities of decolonization and climate change render many simple forms of historicism and futurity limp and ineffectual. In their stead, the ethical present balloons out in all temporal directions—a kind of dark sublime—inciting us to live with and in “the past” and “the future” in far thicker ways, and to devise forms of politics adequate to the challenges of that expansive present.

JC: I know Stefanos is particularly fond of neologisms, and the “index of temporal terms” at the end of the book directs us to a number of striking concepts: “antichronism” (abolition of time), “temporal crisis,” “time of disease,” “historicity” versus “presentism,” and, of course, “chronocenosis,” your term for competing and conflictual temporal regimes. How might some of the concept-work in this volume speak to our present moment of intersecting crises?

SG: Don’t blame me! The terms in the index are in circulation already, and most of them aren’t neologisms really. Most are attempts in particular fields to develop a useful approach to temporality that sometimes defends the field and its particularity, sometimes announces a specific way of handling a temporal question. As we invite our readers to work on questions of time once more, these terms declare emphatically that a common-sense or empirical approach to time just won’t suffice. So we don’t shy away from bringing these terms together—because we do think that these terms have to be engaged together, they do their work most effectively together, and they have to be related to one another and often in competition with one another. The languages of time are not snakeskins to be shed as the real thing wiggles out of them; they are the fabric of ideas and social practices.

DE: Hopefully the volume will also serve as a reminder that, to paraphrase a famous French sign about trains, one historical regime can hide another. There’s a certain laziness to popular historical thinking, which can even seep into more academic work. We tend to subsume the present under an omnipotent symbol: the jet age, the age of information, the age of climate change. Each of these symbols encapsulates a tidy little history. The jet age: from the wheel to the ship to the car to the airplane—next up, flights to Mars! Climate change: industrialization, over-industrialization, apocalypse. But these shorthand historical regimes are deployed in mutually exclusive ways. Why worry about nuclear proliferation if we’re going to drown in rising sea levels? Do we still care about traveling to Mars if we’re busy mining cryptocurrencies? I think that one of the most interesting things about our current moment is that the many competing historical visions in circulation don’t share many common reference points. If you go back to the nineteenth century, or even the Cold War, the main rivals for the domination of history were engaged in direct combat, and argued over the meaning of the same events. Today, we have fleeting historical regimes du jour (anyone remember the Population Bomb?), but seem incapable of thinking about multiple historicities that are not parallel and do not always intersect. That seems like an important challenge for future historians to take up—at least according to this account of history.

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.

Leave a Reply