Conceptualising Time and (Re)Thinking History.

Two newspaper articles have caught my eye recently as they, somewhat obtusely, pivot around themes central to how we study the past; they illustrate what are, I think, deep and profound challenges to writing history in the way that we currently do.

Firstly, the Financial Times. A few weekends ago, it carried a feature on so-called ‘millennials’, the generation born between c.1980 and 2000, who are characterised by both a lack of brand loyalty and an unwillingness to plan long-term. The article pondered the economic consequences of millennials’ spending, and expressed concern that they would rather, say, blow their savings on a holiday than hoard it for retirement.

Elsewhere, Wednesday’s Guardian carried a long, densely-packed article on the haunting past, of how various cultures appropriate past grievances or atrocities for present-day ends. Its author, journalist David Rieff, is of the view that we are now overburdened by memory, that both western and non-western societies alike need to move on and learn to forget. He asks:

What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancour and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness?


My interest is not whether millennials actually exist as a homogenous social group. Nor do I have a strong opinion on whether we should let the past be the past. Instead, I think it is more profitable to reflect on the temporal relationship that these phenomena express, and what this means for academic history.

I would suggest that millennials are a product of what François Hartog identifies as the new regime of presentism, of a culture that privileges the here and now over the past or future — millennials live entirely in the moment, we are told, with no concern for their past (brand loyalty) or future (retirement).[1] They are imbricated in, shaped by, a culture of instantaneity (online shopping, dating, etc.) and financial short-termism (after all, what is the purpose of low interest-rates if not to encourage spending over saving?).[2]

Hartog’s regime of the present finds expression in Rieff’s article, too, in his references to what scholars dub ‘retrospective justice’ (i.e., attempts, in the present, to right the perceived wrongs of the past).[3] Reiff alludes to various conflicts, from the middle-east to Bosnia, where collective memory and national identity have been mobilised to commit all nature of atrocities. We could extend his discussion further: the UK is awash with allegations of child sexual abuse against former politicians, children’s entertainers and celebrities. A number of inquiries and investigations are being pursued, and they have been motivated, I would suggest, by a similar use of  memory as in the conflicts discussed by Rieff; they, too, have created a new, present-day framework for viewing the past, one that emerged following the death of Jimmy Savile in 2011, and which is animated by the believed superiority of present-day knowledge, or of knowing what we know now.[4] These inquiries are also facilitated by the new centrality of trauma to medical thought and are further bound up with, and enabled by, what Hartog identifies as the rise of ‘victim culture’ in the twentieth century. Instances of retrospective justice, in other words, are a product of present-day concerns and values, and have colonised the past in their image.

That our age privileges the present, and violates the past-present distinction, is of significance to academic history, for it challenges our comonsense understanding of time, the backbone of historical research. Generally speaking, time acts as a medium or plane through which historians can locate events, and is often conceived, rather simplistically, as objective, neutral, chronological, universal, singular and unending. Furthermore, historians install a firm demarcation between the past and the present in their writings, and stress the linearity of time. Hence why any attempt to impose present-day values onto the past is anathema: historians insist that the past is and should remain detached from the present.

There seems little appetite for moving away from this model of time. Indeed, my worry is that historians will simply capture, and thereby mollify, new temporal challenges within pre-existing narratives, that the discipline has nothing novel or insightful to say about what is changing in front of us. Disconcertingly, historians often assume that time just exists, and eschew any attempt to conceptualise it more thoroughly. Witness the way in which ‘big history’ and ‘deep history’, recent attempts to study the past across long durations, posit time as central to their methodology but then fail to conceive of it as anything other than a neutral, objective medium for stratifying events.

The recent debates over the emotional dynamics of historical research are another case in point. Incorporating themes such as distance, fantasy, presence, affect and materiality, these debates have found their fullest articulation in historical research influenced by queer studies, feminism, trauma theory and psychoanalysis.[5] Its adherents are all in broad agreement that researching and writing about the past implicates the historian’s psychology, facilitating emotional investments between scholar and the object of her study that transcend temporal distance.[6] But though at first glance such histories suggest a willingness to experiment with a new past-present relationship, they follow traditional accounts in relying on the distinction between a temporally demarcated then and now. For ‘affective history’, past-present connections can be formed through an emotional bond, but this can only ever be a bridge between — not a dismantling of — the separate domains of past and present. The historian’s belief in the linearity of time remains unshaken.

Why historians privilege this linear model of time over any other is unclear. It stymies any attempt to engage imaginatively with the new past-present relationship, and seems quaint when considered from the perspective of a physicist or anthropologist (whose disciplines long ago discarded the belief in universal, objective, linear time). Indeed, there is something naive in relying on a temporal model that assumes an ‘objective’ plane in which all events can be located, and made all the more so given the energy devoted by historians to rescuing those disempowered by class, race, gender and other distinctions. I would also ask whether historians (plus journalists like Rieff), in claiming that time is objective, neutral and irreversible, eschew moral engagement with the past and excuse themselves from historical acts of injustice (imagine telling a proven victim of abuse or sufferer of PTSD that their experiences are in the past, no longer of validity or importance).[7]

So, how should historians respond to this new present-centric culture? Outright denial would risk estrangement and instead offer further evidence of historians’ disdain of anything that smacks of ‘theory’. Hartog’s response, meanwhile, is insipid and reactionary, articulating a wish that historians vigorously (but fruitlessly) police the new culture of the present whilst preaching the importance of the past-present divide. My own view is that history needs to reflect the temporal order around it — that is, historians need to be more self-critical of their understanding of time, more open (indeed, experimental) with the concepts that they adopt. They need to respond to the new cult of the present, not by entrenching old concepts but by working to create new methodologies. I don’t know what form the eventual solution(s) will take, but I don’t think it’ll emerge until we look more critically at what we’ve got.


[1] François Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time, trans. by Saskia Brown (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
[2] A culture of instantaneity that I am bound up in, too (why is blogging so popular, if not for its immediacy, its unmediated dissemination of ideas?)
[3] On retrospective justice, see Berber Bevernage, History, Memory, and State-Sponsored Violence: Time and Justice (London and New York: Routledge, 2012).
[4] As allegations were made against Ted Heath in the summer of last year, an article in one broadsheet explained: ‘So what should we read into new police investigations [into Heath]? Probably not too much at this stage. As we know now, historically the police failed to take this type of allegation seriously and ignored or possibly covered up child abuse claims made against prominent individuals such as Cyril Smith and Jimmy Savile.’ The italics are my own. See Oliver Wright, ‘The Allegations Multiply, But Why Now? And Where Did They All Come From?’, The Independent, 5 August 2015, p. 5.
[5] On recent histories that engage with affect, fantasy and distance, see Joan Wallach Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).; Laura Doan, Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experiences of Modern War (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).; Eelco Runia, ‘Presence’, History and Theory, vol. 45, no. 1 (2006), pp. 1-29.; and Mark Salber Phillips, ‘Distance and Historical Representation’, History Workshop Journal, iss. 57 (2004), pp. 123-141.
[6] On this, see Barbara Taylor, ‘Historical Subjectivity’ in Sally Alexander and Barbara Taylor (eds), History and Psyche: Culture, Psychoanalysis, and the Past (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 195-210.
[7] To be clear, Reiff does not advocate this position, nor come close to it. My point is that, in less sympathetic hands, this is where an argument like his could lead.


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