Untimely Mediations

Jonathan Gil Harris

 

"Allegory of Truth and Time" by Annabale Carracci, ca. 1584-85

 

     1. Once upon a time, Time was all the rage in Shakespeare scholarship. Though Time's longue durée lasted from approximately 1960 to 1980, its high-water mark was arguably 1964. In that year, Shakespeare Quarterly published no fewer than three essays on Shakespearean Time, including studies of Time in Romeo and Juliet and the Time Sense of Antony and Cleopatra, as well as an article on "The Shakespearian Clock: Time and the Vision of Reality in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest."1  Also in that year, Inga-Stina Ewbank published her well-known essay on The Winter's Tale, fittingly entitled "The Triumph of Time." In the world of Shakespeare criticism, at least, Time had triumphed indeed.

     2. But what -- or whose -- was this triumphant Time? In her essay, Ewbank argues that The Winter's Tale probes "what time means and does to man."2 Ewbank's syntax, in making "time" a singular active subject and "man" its passive object, reveals much about her conception of Time, to which she attributes supreme agency "both as Revealer and as Destroyer" (85). There is something tellingly fetishistic about this formulation and its capitalized proper nouns. By endowing Time with anthropomorphic qualities that, in the course of its unilinear march into the future, have utter dominion over "man," Ewbank hints at even as she elides how we make Time do things -- how, in the words of Michel Serres, we are equally "exchangers and brewers of time."3 Time "means" and "does" things to us; but for this to be so, we also have to culturally produce (or "brew") Time as meaningful and active. As a result, Time is always a political animal, even though its politics are (as in Ewbank's case) disavowed.

     3. The tendency to locate Time entirely outside the sphere of politics may begin to explain its virtual disappearance, during the nineteen-eighties and nineties, from the lexicons of North American new historicist and British cultural materialist criticism.4 The distinctive topographical metaphors of this criticism -- witness its fondness for "sites" or "locations" of diverse cultural practices -- worked in any case to privilege space over time. Because both new historicism and cultural materialism sought to trump the universal with the local, Time also became something of an irrelevance if not an embarrassment, a throwback to an age of criticism invested in Ewbank's every-"man" rather than the cultural and the contingent. Time, in a paradoxical reversal, had become timeless, and so we no longer had time for it.

     4. But Time, it is a changin', as the four essays in this issue of Early Modern Culture suggest. If temporality is once again a lively topic of inquiry in Shakespeare and early modern studies, it's clear that the contributors to this issue do not share Ewbank's universalizing conception of Time. To begin with, time does not appear in these essays with a capital T. It is no longer singular and unilinear, but tends instead to be multiple, fractured, even anachronistic. Furthermore, the contributors understand temporality to be a culturally variable production. And in the process, they make explicit the politics of various time "brews." Huw Griffiths reflects on how the late Elizabethan English sonnet form does not so much chronicle the vicissitudes of individual subjectivity as offer a veiled commentary on the past ruins of empire and the silent possibility of an alternative republican future. Shankar Raman exfoliates the multiple temporalities compressed into the word "now" in Marvell's "Horatian Ode on Cromwell's Return from Ireland," and reads this over-determination as symptomatic of the English Revolution's undecidable horizons of political possibility. Linda Charnes argues that the impulse to historicize Henry V is informed by an aversion to anachronism and a nostalgic desire for things as they "really" were; yet the very condition of nostalgia is an eighteenth-century invention that has anachronistically collided with the play-text and helped to turn it into a patriotic fantasy about England's glorious past. Finally, Sadia Abbas shows that, even as current liberal and neo-conservative calls for a "reformation" of Islam replay the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation's violent production of a supposedly progressive modernity, critiques of teleological time as an exclusively Western fallacy equally reinscribe a problematic politics of absolute cultural and temporal difference between West and non-West.

     5. The resurgence of early modern scholars' interest in time can be traced to a number of factors. Recent theoretical writing has displayed a renewed preoccupation with temporality across a wide, and seemingly incommensurate, range of methodologies, each of which has done much to critique the vision, typified by Ewbank, of a singular and unilinear Time. The feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz, building on Gilles Deleuze's dense studies of temporality, has revived interest in the heterodox, non-linear models of time propounded by Darwin, Nietzsche, and Bergson.5 French actor-network theorists such as Michel Serres and Bruno Latour have put pressure on what they see as a spurious temporal as well epistemological progression from "pre-modern," hybrid knowledge formations to the purified sciences and humanities of "modernity."6 Following the pioneering work of Johannes Fabian on modern ethnography's "denial of coevalness," post-colonial theorists, especially Dipesh Chakrabarty, have questioned the Eurocentric teleology implicit in a historicist tradition derived from Hegel, a teleology that puts non-Western cultures in the "waiting room" of history.7 If actor-network and post-colonial theorists have critiqued the supersession of "primitive" pasts that undergirds the teleological temporality of modernity, queer theorists, including Lee Edelman and Judith Halberstam, have debunked that temporality's conception of where we are headed: Edelman in particular has taken aim at the heteronormative logic that makes the childless homosexual an impediment to futurity.8

     6. These theoretical reframings of time, or at least their popularization within the North American academy, have received a considerable fillip from dramas unfolding on both domestic and global stages during the six years of the current Bush administration. Queer theory's reflections on temporality explicitly resist the gay marriage wedge-issue played in election years by Republican strategists, for whom a reactionary embrace of the heterosexual family has paradoxically become the marker of a reproductive "progress." Similarly, actor-network theory and, as Abbas notes, post-colonial theory both offer forceful alternatives to a neo-conservative foreign policy devoted to the rhetorical production of "New" and "Old" spaces of culture and the "democratization" of Muslim societies. The politics of time -- in the Bush administration's case, the politics of both a homophobic futurity and an Islamophobic (and occasionally Francophobic) pre-modernity -- has rarely been so evident.

     7. However, with a few notable exceptions, including the work of some of the contributors to this issue, the recent re-theorizations of temporality have so far had little impact on the mainstream of early modern studies.9 This is doubtless partly because of the vice-like grip that a certain kind of historicism continues to have on scholarship in the field. In various ways, the common challenge posed by the new theorists of temporality concerns the extent of our allegiance to absolute temporal difference -- between past and present, but also between knowledge systems, cultural formations, or sexual identities -- as the organizing principle of history. Yet temporal difference is the sine qua non of a historicist practice, indirectly influenced by Foucauldian archeology, whose critical reflex is to separate the "now" from the early modern "then" all the while supposedly avoiding the trap of teleologism. (I say "supposedly" because - despite Sadia Abbas's eloquent argument to the contrary - many Foucauldian studies presume that early modern discourses and identities are teleologically proto-modern, different from the present largely by virtue of having not yet fully coalesced or developed into the modern.10)  There is also a well-intentioned if problematic ethnographic relativism at play in the historicist impulse to quarantine the "now" from the "then"; to repudiate the specter of Western universalism, the "early modern" becomes a historically displaced avatar of the foreign culture whose difference from "us" must be respected, and who makes "our" modernity refreshingly contingent and local.11

     8. Historicism's largely unspoken assumptions about temporal difference suggest a fundamental problem, however, with my narrative about the history of Time and time in early modern studies -- i.e. that, after its sixties heyday, Time was more or less banished from scholarship for two decades prior to resurfacing as time in the last few years. For in crucial ways temporality has never left our critical discussions and practices. During the turf wars of the nineteen-eighties between new historicists and cultural materialists, a common quip was that historicists, with their investment in containment, couldn't explain how the English Revolution could have started, while cultural materialists, with their investment in transgression and rupture, couldn't explain how it could have ended.12 The subversion/containment debate was thus reframed as a conflict between two supposedly incompatible understandings of temporality: on the one hand, a synchronic hermeneutic that fetishized functionalist interpretation (how all the components of a system worked to maintain it); on the other, a diachronic hermeneutic that favored dialectical interpretation (how conflict within a system destroyed it).13

     9. In retrospect, however, this great contest between synchronic and diachronic analysis appears less and less to have been a real choice. In Foucauldian-inflected historicism, the two have worked in tandem by presuming an orderly succession of what Linda Charnes aptly terms "boxes of time," divided from each other by the borders of periodicity. These period boxes are examined both synchronically -- by treating any one box as a self-contained system with its own "cultural poetics" -- and diachronically -- by sniffing out the signs of rupture or dialectical transformation that mark the divide between one box and the next. Thus historicists produce and reproduce an "early modern" box temporally differentiated from a "modern" one, even as the first anticipates the second.

     10. What has been left out of historicism's false choice between synchronic and diachronic analysis is any theorization of anachronism. For historicists, anachronism is the bogey to be avoided. It is a byword for bad or unthinking scholarship; by implying proximity or affinity between past and present, anachronism breaks the law of temporal distance and difference. But at what cost do we cleave to this law as an apotropaic safeguard against universalism? What do we do when historicism's archeological layers get messed up, when we are confronted -- in Abbas's apt formulation -- with the "layers of fossil sedimentation after an earthquake, rather than properly buried strata of an orderly succession of historical moments"? Indeed, to what extent may such "earthquakes" be the norm rather than the exception? And what happens to the past's "fossils" once they are re-exhumed? How is the matter of the past not necessarily dead (as Greenblatt's famous séance-like tryst with early modernity -- "I began with the desire to speak with the dead" -- would have it14), but still alive and active in the present?

     11. In this context it's salutary to return to Fredric Jameson's Political Unconscious, the work that has not only provided historicism with its de facto imperative, "always historicize!", but also helped translate the terms synchronic and diachronic from linguistic to historical analysis. The new historicist/cultural materialist debates of the nineteen-eighties employed the terms of Jameson's study to advance two divergent ideals of what he supposedly meant by "always historicize!": always contextualize in relation either to a moment or to a transition. What got neglected was how Jameson's injunction is, in some respects, also a call to anachronize. Noting the propensity of literature to resist any univocal reflection of the material circumstances of its production, Jameson writes how literary "form, secreted like a shell or exoskeleton, continues to emit its ideological message long after the extinction of its host."15 With his suggestive metaphor of the exoskeleton, which boldly reanimates the dead fossil of Foucauldian archeology as a past organism partially alive in the present, Jameson suggests that historicism needs to do more than simply read synchronically and/or diachronically; it also needs to consider how its objects are anachronistic assemblages that are temporally out of joint with themselves and their moment. In the process, Jameson makes space for what Nietzsche called the "unfashionable" or "untimely."16

     12. The untimely is that which is out-of-time, inhabiting a moment but also alien to it. By resisting absorption into a homogeneous present, it also brings with it the difference that portends the future even as it conjures the past.17 This insight is developed with particular intensity in the work of Walter Benjamin. In his study of German baroque trauerspiel, Benjamin argues that this dramatic genre characteristically awaits a future that is enabled by the untimely figure of the ruin; the latter enacts the irruption of the past into the present, but in a form that strips both "now" and "then" of their synchronic plenitude. The ruin makes itself available to allegorical manipulation by the playwright, who seeks to bestow on it a new, future plenitude that may never come.18 The trauerspiel playwright's reworking of the untimely ruin thus resembles the "weak messianic impulse" that Benjamin identifies in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Like Nietzsche, Benjamin rails against the antiquarian spirit that insists on collecting historical facts simply so that these may be organized in orderly temporal sequence "as things really were." The "Theses" propose instead what we might call an untimely materialist historiography: Benjamin's historical materialist "seizes on a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger" in order to explode the empty homogeneous time of the present and usher in, if not the Messiah, then at least the hope of redemption from that danger.19 Benjamin thus qualifies historicism's investment in orderly temporal distance by insisting as well on the strategic proximity of past and present - an explosive time-brew, to paraphrase Serres once more, that has the power to generate new imaginative and material possibilities.

     13. I have dwelt at length here on the matter of the untimely in Jameson and Benjamin because I believe it can begin to illuminate certain common threads linking the contributions to this issue. All four essays deal, albeit in divergent ways, with the untimely. Each attempts to find within their chosen genre -- early modern sonnet, ode, play, and contemporary political discourse -- that which is anachronistic or out-of-time. In the process, each asks us to query the pervasive logic of orderly temporal difference and distance that informs mainstream historicism. By reformulating the relations between past, present, and future, moreover, the four essays ask that we pay heed to both the politics of various time-brews and the agency of the critic.

     14. Jameson's version of the untimely models a criticism that would read the temporally conflicting formal properties of texts as the imprint of a history analogous to Lacan's Real, or that which "resists symbolization absolutely."20 This historical Real comprises less actual facts organized in linear succession than silent possibilities that may never come to pass. Huw Griffiths, who of all the contributors most clearly signals his debts to Jameson, attends brilliantly to the historical Real he sees lurking within the late Elizabethan sonnet form. Unlike Joel Fineman and a generation of critics who have read Shakespeare's sonnets as concerned with individual subjectivity, Griffiths suggests by contrast that several late Elizabethan sonnets express intractable political problems of the time and, indeed, of time. And they do so less because of the topics they explicitly treat than because of their striking formal properties. Here Griffiths seizes -- like Benjamin21 -- on "the untimely trope of the ruin," an anachronistic motif that not only appears repeatedly in the sonnets, but also finds a formal counterpart in the rhetorical technique of metanoia, or ironic reversal. In the uncertain political climate of Elizabeth's declining years, both Spenser (in the introduction to Lewkenor's translation of Contarini's tract on the republic of Venice) and Shakespeare (in the epilogue to Henry V) pen sonnets that present images of past empires in ruins (Babel, Rome, the trans-channel kingdom of King Henry). These ironic commentaries on the transience of past greatness explode into their present moment, however, thanks to what Griffiths suggestively calls the sonnets' "recessive rhetoric" -- a procession of metanoiac "buts" and "yets" that, in qualifying the claims to permanence of imperial regimes, register an untimely republican possibility that cannot be explicitly named in the paranoid political culture of 1599.22

     15. Shankar Raman's meticulous analysis of Marvell's "Horatian Ode on the Return of Cromwell from Ireland" invokes the untimely in a somewhat different way, and to somewhat different ends. Cromwell temporarily materialized the silent possibility of republicanism lurking in Spenser's and Shakespeare's sonnets, and Marvell suggests as much with an image of ruin: Cromwell did "ruin the great work of Time,/ And cast the Kingdoms old/ Into another mould."23 But whereas the untimely ruins examined by Griffiths portend a future possibility, Cromwell's ruination of "the great work of Time" introduces, in Raman's analysis, a different untimely effect. For what Cromwell ruins is not just English royal tradition, let alone Irish polity, but also the coherence of "Time." Marvell's poem is ostensibly committed to the cause of decision-making and linear progress towards an imperial future. Raman, however, detects in the poem a pronounced temporal ambivalence. Not only does it tug against orderly chronology, swerving from present to past to future and back again; in a fashion that resonates with Deleuze's account of Stoic time in The Logic of Sense, the poem also splits a continuous, knowable "now," characterized by infinite temporal extension, into a series of "nows," each of which is subdivided (and vanishes) into an uncertain past and future. Marvell's fractured "now," at odds with the straighter temporalities of both republican revolution and royalist tradition, becomes undecidable, expressive of even as it is out of joint with its "untimely historical moment." Raman sees this moment as provoking Marvell's "putative detachment" from his time, which raises questions about how we conceive the political effects of the untimely and, more broadly, how we understand the grounds upon which both politics and agency are constituted. Yet if Marvell's detachment indeed expresses the untimeliness of his moment, his "now" puts pressure on the very notion of the moment -- a term that, in its presumption of a quantifiable unit of time within a linear sequence, Raman's analysis renders tellingly problematic. And the essay's title, in its suggestive slippage from "Marvell's Now" to "Marvell Is Now," equally prompts a questioning of the problematic "now" of the historicist critic's practice. To what extent can that modern "now" ever be a transparent and self-identical moment differentiated from a self-contained early modern "then" that precedes it? How is the historicist's "now" every bit as untimely as Marvell's?

     16. Raman shows with particular acuity how the tense of the untimely is impossible to pin down: it smudges the boundaries between supposedly discrete boxes of time. For Griffiths, that smudging is legible in past ruins that explode into the present; for Raman, it is materialized by a "now" divided from itself. By contrast, Linda Charnes finds the untimely in "temporal anomalies" that collapse the future into the past. By reading Shakespeare for textual shards that bear the anachronistic imprint of knowledge systems that post-date them, Charnes offers a counter-intuitive reorientation of causality that allows the future to produce the past.24 Hence she refers to her temporal anomalies not as ruins, which would imply an untimely relation to antiquity, but as "crash-sites," a term evoking the wreckage of futuristic "spaceships" that have voyaged through Star Trek-like "wormholes" and collided with Shakespeare's present. Charnes limns one such wormhole in an exhilarating reading of a famous textual crux from Henry V -- Mistress Quickly's remark about the dying Falstaff and a mysterious "Table a'green fields." Most modern texts of the play follow the eighteenth-century editor Theobald's emendation of this line to "[he] babbled of green fields."25 As Charnes shows, citing Erasmus Darwin, one of the symptoms of nostalgia -- an affliction discursively produced long after Shakespeare -- included a longing for the "green fields" of home. Theobald's emendation has stuck, despite nostalgia's anachronistic relation to the play, partly because Henry V has itself come to make sense to modern readers as a nostalgic fantasy for a past golden age of English empire (and this despite the ironic reversals that Griffiths notes in its concluding sonnet). Charnes thus recasts the play's apparently retrograde regard for the past as a crash-site that anachronistically bears the traces of the future. I'm reminded here of the bent temporalities of a song by British punk group The Buzzcocks, "Nostalgia for an Age to Come."26 This temporal reorientation suggestively delivers on Charnes's promise to rethink chronology on the model of the Aymara Indians, who see the future as behind and the past directly ahead of them.

     17. The science journalist James Gorman, as Charnes notes, claims that Aymara temporality is "nearly incomprehensible from the perspective of the West." Here Gorman arguably stumbles into the trap that Sadia Abbas warns against in her essay -- of asserting an absolute temporal and cultural divide between West and non-West. Indeed, the Aymara sense of time is perhaps not as incomprehensible to Western writers as Gorman believes. After all, Shakespeare produces a version of it when Macbeth, reflecting on the witches' three-fold prophecy, notes that his future as Scottish king "is behind."27 This unexpected affinity between past and present, West and non-West, is precisely the kind of untimely possibility that Abbas asks us to consider. By turning to contemporary calls for an Islamic Reformation, her aim is less to critique the phrase's admittedly problematic echoes of the Protestant Reformation, whereby bloody sectarian struggle is finessed as a means to teleological progression from tyrannical faith to democratic modernity. Rather, it is to query the often lazy anti-teleological reflex of many literary and cultural critics. As Abbas argues, the spurious attribution of teleological time to the West and anti-teleological time to the non-West unwittingly reinscribes a binary of absolute difference that is crucial to the very project of global modernization the anti-teleologists would resist. What I find exemplary about Abbas's critique is the clear-eyed defense she offers for modes of relationality between past and present, non-West and West, that have been disallowed by the historicist fetishization of distance and difference. Chief amongst these are proximity and affinity -- both of which entail "thinking contrapuntally," as Edward Said recommends.

     18. But I wonder if Abbas shoehorns the anti-teleological reflex into a glass slipper that does not quite fit it when she equates it exclusively with a Foucauldian criticism invested in distance and difference. Aside from the suspicion I have already voiced that Foucauldian thought can often be disingenuously teleological, I would argue that the most dynamic and supple anti-teleological thought of recent years deals not just in difference but also in affinity, and less in distance than in proximity. This is evident from anti-teleological theorizations of history in sub-fields as diverse as queer theory, post-colonial ethnography, and science studies.

     19. In a recent polemical essay published in PMLA, "Queering History," Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon critique the teleological conception of time that informs historicist difference. Their primary target is the uncritical embrace of a "hetero-temporality" that characterizes historicism's before-and-after chronologies and makes of anachronism an impermissible perversion. In contrast to historicism's hetero-temporality, Goldberg and Menon propose a model of "homohistory." The "homo" of their homohistory doesn't champion sameness in the guise of universalism but, rather, the possibility of anachronistic affinity between supposedly different regimes of sexuality. As Goldberg and Menon observe, no identity and period can "stabilize [itself] so fully into self-sameness as to allow easily for the adjudication of difference or sameness to emerge with finality." Moreover, they see an uncritical investment in temporal difference as informing teleological accounts of history -- both covert and overt -- from Foucault to Fukuyama; assertions of such difference "falsely and oppressively arrive at fixed conclusions, not only in the production of theoretical objects but also pressingly in a political field that assumes the end of history and global domination by the forces of a new imperialism."28

     20. With this last assessment, Goldberg and Menon's homohistory moves beyond the theorization of sexual identity to the arena of global domination and imperialism -- a stage shared by Amitav Ghosh's extraordinary exercise in post-colonial ethnography, In an Antique Land (1992).29  This "traveler's tale," as Ghosh calls it, arose from the fieldwork he undertook in Egypt while pursuing a doctorate in anthropology. As he recounts his interactions with Egyptian villagers, Ghosh simultaneously tells the story of another pair of travelers to Egypt in the twelfth century: a Tunisian Jew, Abraham Ben Yiju, and his Indian slave and business associate, Bomma. Ghosh painstakingly pieces together their peregrinations from a paper trail of documents that had until the late nineteenth century been housed in the geniza of a synagogue in Fustat, now part of Cairo. Ben Yiju -- a devout Jew, son of a rabbi, and brother to merchants in Sicily -- migrated first to Aden and then to Mangalore in India's Malabar coast, where he lived for twenty years. Even as Ben Yiju "identified" as a Jew, he spoke and wrote in Arabic, and was well versed in Sufi traditions of mysticism. In an Antique Land thus dramatizes a world of movements across cultural, religious, and temporal boundaries that we have come to regard as insuperable. In looking for contemporary traces of the trans-cultural affinities and border-crossings that he finds in the paper trail of Ben Yiju and Bomma, Ghosh visits the Egyptian shrine of Sidi Abu Hasira, a medieval Muslim saint who was also a Jewish rabbi. He is detained at the site by authorities who cannot understand why an Indian should be interested in the shrine. As Ghosh is interviewed by a suspicious official, he has a revelation: "But then it struck me, suddenly, that there was nothing I could point to within his world that might give credence to my story -- the remains of those small, indistinguishable, intertwined histories, Indian and Egyptian, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Muslim, had been partitioned long ago" (339).

     21. Ghosh's metaphor of partition evokes his native India and the East Pakistan he lived in as a child, as well as the violent cartographical divisions of British colonialism and superpower imperialism. His use of the partition metaphor is not just spatial, however, but also temporal. Speaking of "the borders that were to divide Palestine" in the 1940s, Ghosh notes that they had "already been drawn, through time rather than territory, to allocate a choice of Histories" (95). This temporal partition, between a supposedly antique people and a supposedly developed one, is the familiar enabling fantasy of the linear temporality that Ghosh calls History, with a capital H. In a move that parallels the four contributors' substitution of Ewbank's Time with time, Ghosh seeks to retrieve history with a lower-case "h," which he sees as a non-linear, laminar plane that flows in many directions and generates numerous hybridities. And lest we think that he is simply offering a tragic "ubi sunt" narrative -- whither the utopian hybridities of medieval Asian, North African and Mediterranean cultures? -- Ghosh undoes the effects of temporal as much as spatial partition by repeatedly finding unexpected, anachronistic affinities between past and present. Thus he reflects on the similarities between the local village Arabic dialect of twentieth-century Lataifa and the twelfth-century North African Judeo-Arabic spoken by Ben Yiju (104-5); and he notes the uncanny parallel between a road built in modernized Mangalore and a canal built in nineteenth-century Egypt, both of which have been diverted from their paths to avoid collision with a temple (265). Ghosh also finds startling proximities between the present and supposedly distant pasts. Searching for the remains of a pre-Hindu deity in Managalore, he meets a professor who tells him that

I could, if I wanted, have a glimpse of that deity, a darshan, that very night. "How," I asked, imagining a night-time vigil at a lonely shrine in a deserted and wind-tossed palm-grove. "Is there going to be a secret exorcism?"

     Professor Rai cast me a quizzical glance. "On television," came the laconic answer. "In a film that's going to be broadcast this evening." (252)

Over and over again in In an Antique Land, we witness the anachronistic convergence of epochs supposedly partitioned from each other by the unilinear progression of History. But as Ghosh says, "it was precisely the absoluteness of time and the discreteness of epochs that I always had trouble in imagining" (201).30

     22. In his refusal of a unilinear History based exclusively on temporal difference, Ghosh the maverick ethnographer comes very close to Michel Serres the maverick philosopher and historian of science. Serres has scandalized many intellectual historians by asserting seemingly anachronistic connections between Lucretius' atomism and twentieth-century physics.31 Justifying these connections, Serres refutes the geometric model that would see time as simply linear and entailing stable quantifiable periods and temporal distances. Instead, he suggests that we regard time as topological and "crumpled":

If you take a handkerchief and spread it out in order to iron it, you can see in it certain fixed distances and proximities. If you sketch a circle in one area, you can mark out nearby points and measure far-off distances. Then take the same handkerchief and crumple it, by putting it in your pocket. Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed. If, further, you tear it in certain places, two points that were close can become very distant. . . . As we experience time -- as much in our inner sense as externally in nature, as much as le temps of history as le temps of weather -- it resembles this crumpled version much more than the flat, overly simplified one.32

Here Serres offers what is perhaps the most compelling theorization of a temporality that allows for untimely proximity and affinity as well as orderly distance and difference. (And I think it's worth stressing that he does not replace the latter pair of relations with the former but, rather, allows for both.) Serres's crumpled handkerchief illustrates a topological theory not simply of the untimely, however, but also of mediation in Bruno Latour's sense of the term. For Latour, mediation does not entail, as it is customarily understood to do, an intermediary medium of transmission between two pre-existing entities such as subject and object, or consciousness and world, or present and past. Rather, mediation materializes a network of agency comprising multiple actors (whether humans, animals, tools, knowledge systems), which collectively produces something different from what any of its components can produce alone.33 Serres's crumpled handkerchief is but one agent in a network of mediation: it is not a lone object, nor can it generate points of topological connection between folds or pleats by itself. It can only be crumpled by the action of the handkerchief-crumpler, with whom it forms a network; in turn it too is an actor, contributing to the collective agency of its mediation with the crumpler (who could not do what she does without it).

     23. Inasmuch as the crumpling of the handkerchief also serves as Serres's metaphor for the non-linear connections between past and present, it shows how the untimely is an act of mediation that couples critic and historical materials. As with Benjamin's explosive recoveries of the past in present moments of danger or Ghosh's teasing out of affinities across geographical and temporal partitions, Serres's crumpling of the past and future into the folds of the present is an act of strategic proximation -- it requires the artful labor of the critic, a labor that goes beyond mere empirical description of things as they really are or were. Serres thus allows us to recognize how our untimely mediations create the past and the present, less in the sense of making them up, than of persistently transforming the web of relations that tether the past to us -- and us to it. Greater critical attention to our untimely mediations can also help us realize that, contra Greenblatt, we have never been speaking with the dead. We instead speak in networks within which, like Jameson's literary exoskeleton, the past is alive; and in its untimely life, that past speaks with and through us in the accents of the present and, in ways we can never quite predict, the future.

 

 

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Notes

1 See David Kaula, "The Time Sense of Antony and Cleopatra," Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 211-23; G. Thomas Tanselle, "Time in Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 349-61; and Tom F. Driver, "The Shakespearian Clock: Time and the Vision of Reality in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest," Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 363-70. Key work on Renaissance Time in the 1970s, often more Heideggerian than humanist, includes Ricardo J. Quinones, The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972); Gary F. Waller, The Strong Necessity of Time: The Philosophy of Time in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Literature (The Hague: Mouton, 1976); and Wylie Sypher, The Ethic of Time: Structures of Experience in Shakespeare (New York: The Seabury Press, 1976).

2 Inga-Stina Ewbank, "The Triumph of Time in The Winter's Tale," Review of English Literature 5:2 (1964): 83-100, esp. 99.

3 Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Eclaircissements: Cinq Entretiens avec Bruno Latour (Paris: Bourin, 1992). See also Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 75.

4 The only part of the Shakespearean world in which time seems to have remained a persistent preoccupation during these decades is Japan, where scholars produced a steady succession of essays on temporality in the sonnets, many of them framed by a perceived affinity between Shakespeare's and Zen Buddhism's perceptions of transience and mutability. See, for example, Tetsumaro Hayashi, "Time and Timelessness in Shakespeare's Sonnets," Indiana Speech Journal 15 (1980): 11-17; Toshiko Muramatsu, "Logic of 'Time' in Shakespeare's Sonnets," Ronshu (Komazawa University) 21 (1985): 131-52; Akira Notani, "Time vs. Shakespeare: From The Sonnets to Drama," Kenkyu Kiyo (Notre Dame Women's University) 15 (1985): 79-99. See also Soji Iwasaki, Shakespeare and the Icon of Time (Tokyo: Liber Press, 1992).

5 Elizabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution and the Untimely (Durham: Duke UP, 2004). See also Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, transl. Hugh Tomlinson (London: Athlone Press, 1983), Bergsonism, transl. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone, 1988), Cinema 2: The Time-Image, transl. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989), and The Logic of Sense, transl. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), especially chapter one.

6 See, e.g., Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, transl. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995); Latour, We Have Never Been Modern.

7 Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia UP, 1983), chapters 1 and 2; Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), 8.

8 Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke UP, 2004); Judith Halberstam, In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York UP, 2005).

9 For work in early modern studies that builds on actor-network theory's reconceptualizations of time, see Linda Charnes, "We Were Never Early Modern," in John J. Joughin (ed.), Philosophical Shakespeares (New York: Routledge, 2000), 51-67, a revised version of which appears in her Hamlet's Heirs: Shakespeare and the Politics of A New Millenium (New York: Routledge, 2006), chapter four; and Julian Yates, "Accidental Shakespeare," Shakespeare Studies 34 (2006), 90-122. Dipesh Chakrabarty's critique of historicism informs Benedict Robinson's Islam and Early Modern English Literature: The Politics of Romance from Spenser to Milton (New York: Palgrave, forthcoming 2007). Queer theoretical interventions in the temporalities of early modern studies include Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon, "Queering History," PMLA 120 (2005): 1608-17, and Carla Freccero, Queer/Early/Modern (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

10 For all the anti-teleological ambitions of his archeological historiography, where epistemological rupture substitutes for Hegelian dialectical progression, Foucault still seems partial to narratives about how "they" became "us," whether it's the sodomitical act sliding into homosexual identity in The History of Sexuality Volume 1, transl. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), or the leprosarium and the plague-city morphing into the panoptic disciplinary enclosure in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, transl. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon, 1977).

11 There is surely also an institutional interpellation responsible for this critical investment in difference. When the academy creates and trains "early modernists," it cannot help but produce a community of scholars who have a professional investment in both regarding their chronological object of study as unique and policing its temporal borders from what supposedly comes before and after. Little wonder, perhaps, that recent work questioning periodicity has had only a small effect on the field; even if early modernists are persuaded by such work, it is difficult for them to put its assumptions into practice when they have been trained to read, and are paid to teach, texts from a circumscribed period.

12 See, e.g., Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 2nd ed. (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002), pp. 186-7.

13 See, e.g., Don E. Wayne, "Power, Politics, and the Shakespearean Text: Recent Criticism in England and the United States," Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, eds. Jean Howard and Marion O'Connor ( London: Methuen, 1987), 47-67; and the introduction to my Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998).

14 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 1.

15 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (New York: Methuen, 1981), 151.

16 See Friedrich Nietzsche, Unfashionable Observations, transl. Richard T. Gray (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1995), especially chapter three, "On the Utility and Liability of History for Life."

17 See Grosz, Nick of Time, 13. Jameson couples his call for attention to the untimely aspects of literary form with a plea for consideration also of its Utopian or "anticipatory" potential; The Political Unconscious, 296. Derrida similarly notes how, even as the untimely "conjures" (i.e. evokes and exorcises) the past, it looks to the future; Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning,and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994), 50, 58.

18 Walter Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama, transl. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1977).

19 Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, transl. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 255.

20 Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 35. See Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, Livre I: Les Ecrits techniques de Freud (Paris: Seuil, 1975), 80.

21 Griffiths does not engage Benjamin in this essay, but he has done so to suggestive effect elsewhere; see Huw Griffiths, "Translated Geographies: Edmund Spenser's 'The Ruines of Time,'" Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 / Special Issue 3 (1998): 7.1-26 URL: <http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04- 2/griftran.htm>

22 It is worth pointing out that Griffiths offers a neat alternative to another recent, well-known project of historicizing the same year: see James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London: Faber and Faber, 2005).

23 Andrew Marvell, "A Horatian Ode on the Return of Cromwell from Ireland," in Elizabeth Story Donno (ed.), Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1976), 55, lines 34-6.

24 One might compare Charnes's temporal inversion of causality with Bruno Latour's analysis of the retroactive production of the past; see "The Historicity of Things: Where Were Microbes before Pasteur?", in Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Boston: Harvard UP, 1999), chapter five.

25 Henry V, 2.3.13-17, in Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Maus (eds.), The Norton Shakespeare (New York: 1997); see also Maus's gloss on these lines, 1471 n.4.

26 "I wonder what it'll be like in days gone by/ As I sit and bathe in the wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come/ . . . About the future I only can reminisce"; Buzzcocks, "Nostalgia," Love Bites (E. M. I.: 1978).

27 Macbeth, 1.3.115. The play's unusual disruptions of time have attracted much critical attention; see, for example, Tom F. Driver, "The Uses of Time: Oedipus Tyrannus and Macbeth," in The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama (New York: Columbia UP, 1960), 143-167; Kiichiroh Nakatani, "Expressions of Time in Macbeth," Hiroshima Studies in English Language and Literature 19:2 (1973): 45-63; Maurice Abiteboul, "La temporalité dans Macbeth," in Nadia J. Rigaud, Aspects du théâtre anglais (Aix-en-Provence: UP de Provence, 1987), 11-22; Philippa Berry, "Reversing History: Time, Fortune, and the Doubling of Sovereignty in Macbeth," European Journal of English Studies 1 (1997): 367-87; and my own "The Smell of Macbeth," in Nicholas D. Moschovakis (ed.), Macbeth: New Critical Essays (New York: Routledge, forthcoming 2006).

28 Goldberg and Menon, "Queering History," 1612.

29 Amitav Ghosh, In An Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale (New York: Vintage, 1992). All quotations are cited in the main body of the essay. I have written elsewhere about Ghosh's ethnography and its potential uses for early modern scholarship; see Jonathan Gil Harris, "Afterword: Walk Like an Egyptian," in Bryan Reynolds, Performing Transversally: Reimagining Shakespeare and the Critical Future (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 271-86. My comments above about Ghosh's book are freely adapted from this earlier essay.

30 For a reading very different from mine, which regards Ghosh's investment in circumcision as a return of the repressed of Christian typology and its progressive temporality of supersession, see Kathleen Biddick, The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology and History (Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 2003), 95-104.

31 "Lucretius' De Rerum Natura is a treatise on physics. In general, the subsequent commentary of both critics and translators has refused to consider it as such . . . relating the knowledge given in the text to some unknowing prehistoric era," Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. Josué V. Harari and David F. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982), 98.

32 Serres with Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, 60.

33 Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 78-82.

 

 

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