A Break in Time: Politics and Temporality Part 2

Space and Time Series 2, Kazuo Nakamura (1974)

Editor's Note: In the previous section of A Break in Time, Edmund Berger forwarded the idea that notions of temporality are intrinsically interwoven with politics as such and that any attempt to disambiguate the two would be to do a disservice to both. Last week we looked not only at time as a politically structuring force, but we also examined the first of three modalities of time: the religious. Drawing upon that analysis, this week's section of A Break in Time serves to examine what Berger calls the political modality of time.


I: The Political Modality of Time and Speed

“The process of the world suddenly assumes a dreadful rapidity,” wrote Jacob Burckhardt. “[D]evelopments that used to require centuries appear in months and weeks, passing by like fleeting phantoms and, with their passing vanish.”1 The words of Burckhardt, a 19th century cultural historian, and popularizer of the term modernity, were foreshadowed by the observation of the monk Rupert Kornmann that “contemporary history is a repetition of actions and events of thousands of years, all in the briefest of possible periods.”2 Burckhardt was looking backwards across nearly two centuries of turmoil, crisis, and creative flux, but Kornmann's insights were born from life in the orbit of revolution. This revolution was, of course, the French Revolution, that succession of events spanning the decade between 1789 and 1799—and that which primed the world for the intertwined emergence of Napoleonic power and repeating energetic volleys of revolutionary discharge. From the point of view of the era of revolutions that began in France and swept across the whole of Europe, culminating in the revolutions of 1848, modernity was born in chaos and creation, catastrophe and regeneration. For Burckhardt and Kornmann—like Luther before them—time itself seemed as if it were speeding-up, the life-worlds of politics and cultural undergoing an accelerating rate of change.

We've seen briefly that the revolution exhibited strong temporal dimensions, as the struggle over the calendar clearly shows. Even at the point, however, the transition was not complete; for Sylvain Maréchal, the time of the new calendar—the temporality of reason's cult—was to be cyclical, and while non-Platonic in nature, it was to be affixed to the symbol of the sun and other orderly, cosmological rotations. Yet as Sonja Perovic points out in her excellent history of the revolutionary calendar, Maréchal and his cohorts were also deeply fascinated with the recurrent nature of certain types of catastrophes—namely, volcanoes and earthquakes.3 In 1793, several years into the events of the revolution, Maréchal staged a play called Le Jugement dernier des rois, prophétie en un acte en prose (The Last Judgment of All Kings: A Prose Prophecy in One Act). Rife with appropriated religious image and heavily coded with visions of the apocalypse—the language of final judgment, the tapestry of prophecy—Maréchal's play brings to the revolutionary event a fully naturalized, eschatological dimension. Revolutionary agency is like a natural disaster: the monarchs are destroyed by the eruption of a volcano.

If revolutions had, to this point, been locked into the revolving door articulation of time, the connections made with natural catastrophes opened up an entirely new meaning. When he entered the new developments of geology and mineralogy into the Encyclopédie, Baron d'Holbach used the term révolutions de la terre to describe these events.4 This was a new kind of revolution: a non-cyclical articulation and a predominantly secular one at that, that hypothesized the aforementioned events as the root cause of religious sentiment. This sat alongside the cyclical understanding of time, and in the synthesis of the two, the proper time of modernity itself could be articulated. By contextualizing the revolution within this temporal matrix, and by associating it with natural disaster, the human role in fomenting of revolt is diminished. To quote Perovic:


The regicidal volcano is such a successful image because it combines two contradictory images of new time. No ordinary volcano, it projects a catastrophic image of nature that is nonetheless completely subsumed under human intention. Erupting with periodic regularity – more like a clock than a real volcano – the volcano reflects the beginning of a new history as well as a return to a natural, geological time. In its effort to align a revolutionary history predicated on rupture with a natural (and anti Christian) time derived from geology and the earth sciences, the volcano articulates the same temporality as the new calendar. Just as the revolutionary calendar abolished Christian chronology in favour of a new time line and a return to a natural cycle derived from astronomy, so too the volcano explodes six thousand years of biblical chronology to reintegrate human history within a much longer geological age of the earth. Thanks to the dramatic device of a volcanic guillotine, Maréchal is able to bypass the entire problem of human agency.5


The revolution as agent unto itself was a theme later reiterated by the philosopher Schlegel, who remarked that these events “can create, develop, and annihilate themselves.”6 In the thick of the events of the French Revolution itself, this autonomous power was affixed to the temporal acceleration in the writings of the French statesman and Royalist, François-René de Chateaubriand. Despite having been exiled to Great Britain following the failure of Royalist troops in a battle with the French Revolutionary Army, he attempted to write a historical account of the great events themselves. Yet, as Koselleck recounts, “he was soon forced to realize that whatever he had written during the day was by night-time already overtaken by events. It seemed to him that the French Revolution led into an unparalleled open future.”7

Not all attributed the acceleration of events to some force operating beyond historical agency. Robespierre, during his 1793 speech before presentation of the Revolutionary Constitution to the National Convention, declared that “[t]he time has come to call upon each to realize his own destiny. The progress of human Reason laid the basis for this great Revolution, and you shall now assume the particular duty of hastening its pace.”8 For Koselleck, Robespierre's comments exhibited a continuity, albeit a shifting one, with Luther's vision of the acceleration of time leading to the Second Coming. Just as Maréchal and others saw revolution as a kind of secular eschaton, so too did Robespierre see the emergence of a golden age—the critical difference being that for the latter, the providential hand of progress was man's own. The sense of acceleration, then, maintained the catastrophic dimension lent to it by the Protestant reformation, but instead of divine closure of history, it was a humanistic opening. Roaring along the line of time, the future was unknowable, and thus was suffused with possibility.

It follows from this that two different understandings of the emergent temporality coursed through what we've dubbed here as the political phase. On the one hand, acceleration itself is the revolutionary task with the correlated open future serving as the tabula rasa upon which the enlightenment project can carry itself to its highest heights. And on the other hand, there is a process that is operating free of the human hand, with revolution and the movement of reason appearing in a more theological guise. Nonetheless, it became clear that as the revolution dragged on and the events piled atop themselves, the dialectical interplay of revolution and reaction spiraling into the unknown future, that it had taken on a life of its own that operated at a level beyond that of the actors waltzing across the theater's stage.

Even after the events of the revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars had come to a close, the accelerating historical pace that had been set in motion did not. Speaking of 1815’s Congress of Vienna which stood poised to establish European-wide peace after over two decades of consistent conflict, the statesman Klemens von Metternich commented that “many a business which under other circumstance would have required a long time for arrangement was concluded in the course of an afternoon.”9 And while he actively sought the restoration of power against the revolutionary tide, he understood that the temporal flow would not return to its earlier state: “since that date [1815] the age was left to itself; it progresses because it cannot be held back […] led it will never be again”. The autonomous power Schlegel identified thus passed to time itself, and in this sense, the conditions the revolutions had pushed against were fundamentally shattered. “[T]here could be no turning back of the clock to the days of the ancien regime,” Mark Jarrett writes, “whose very imperfections had led to revolutionary upheaval.”10

As Rhys Jones notes in his essay “1816 and the Resumption of Ordinary History,” the inability to stabilize time meant that the strategies pursued by Metternich and others “were to become highly contested, often leading to conflicts that threatened to reignite the extraordinary events that 1815 was supposed to have concluded.” Modernity had become seemingly fallen completely out of joint, uncoiled from any sense of reversibility. From this position, revolution itself was stretched out, no longer a one-off event or radical phase-space of enormous upheaval. It was something eternal: the permanent revolution. While commonly associated with elements in Marxist thought, having appeared in the pages of Marx's The Holy Family in 1845, it had appeared earlier in a German journal in the 1830s, and would be subsequently taken up by the statesman and self-declared anarchist, Proudhon, during the revolution of 1848. In a speech in October that year, titled “Toast to the Revolution”, he zeroed in on the relationship between revolutionary activity and irreversible temporality: “revolution is always in history and that, strictly speaking, there are not several revolutions, but only one permanent revolution.”11 By the time he penned his Philosophy of Progress in 1853, this permanence of impermanence was raised to the ontological ceiling:


Progress, once more, is the affirmation of universal movement, consequently the negation every immutable form and formula, of every doctrine of eternity, permanence, impeccability, etc., applied to any being whatever; it is the negation of every permanent order, even that of the universe, and of every subject or object, empirical or transcendental, which does not change.12


For Proudhon, opposition to progressive time was the hallmark of absolutism, that is, the concentration of the very forces that the actors of the revolutionary epoch had so furiously attempted to overthrow. Time was revolution, the imperceptible movement of progress across the ages, and the Absolute was “the affirmation of all that Progress denies, the negation of all that affirms.”13 Gustave de Molinari once wrote that “[e]very small or large progress possesses its crisis”—and this insight radiates through the juxtaposition between Proudhon's philosophy and the forces of reaction that he strove to wield it against.14 On the one hand, the flux of events, and on the other, the state, embodying the agency of the absolute, and between the two, the fault-line of an intense conflict. The crisis of time, here is not a struggle over one form of politics or another, but the assault on the political itself through the forces that threaten to tear it asunder.



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  • 1. Reinhart Koselleck, “The Conceptual History of Crisis”, in Reinhart Koselleck and Todd Posner (trans.) The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 246
  • 2. Koselleck, Future Past, p. 59.
  • 3. Sanja Perovic, The Calendar in Revolutionary France: Perceptions of Time in Literature, Culture, Politics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • 4. While far beyond the scope of this present overview, it is essential to note the profound impact of the emergent geological sciences—along with intimately intertwined fields, such as paleontology, natural history and evolutionary history, the study of anatomy, etc.—on not only the ongoing struggle to free scientific endeavor from religious codification and discipline, but on understandings of temporality that gripped the popular imaginary during and after the events of the French Revolution. The theory of catastrophism, developed by naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier through his study of animal fossils, posited that the history of the earth was punctuated by cycles of catastrophes that triggered mass extinction events. While in his hands catastrophism lent support to the religious notion of the “young earth” by positing that catastrophes accelerate development, Cuvier's work in the study of geological strata opened the door to wider studies of the earth's past ages. An alternative to Cuvier's catastrophism would arrive, however, with James Hutton's uniformitarianism. In the 1750s, Hutton developed the concept of deep time from arguing that, contra Cuvier, geological history unfolds through extremely slow cyclical pattern of formation and dissolution of sedimentary strata, which he then applied to the study of unconformities—places where two different rock formations from different geological epochs meet one another in the same geographical space. The realization of these temporal processes plunged the origins of the earth—and its eventual conclusion—into unimaginable depths: “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end,” wrote Hutton. For an overview of these theories and their importance in their time and place, see Martin Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). For a vibrant exploration of the intersection of the discovery of deep time with the fall-out of the Revolution, see Scott J. Juengel's excellent “Mary Wollstonecroft's Perpetual Disaster”, in Romanticism and Disaster (January, 2012), http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/disaster/index.html.
  • 5. Perovic, The Calendar in Revolutionary France, p. 142.
  • 6. Koselleck, Futures Past, p. 55.
  • 7. Ibid., 40-41.
  • 8. Ibid., 13.
  • 9. Rhys Jones “1816 and the Resurgence of Ordinary History”, Journal of Modern European History (Vol. 14, No. 1, 2016), p. 120.
  • 10. Ibid, 124.
  • 11. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “Toast to the Revolution”, (October 17th, 1848), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/pierre-joseph-proudhon-toast-to-...
  • 12. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Shawn Wilbur The Philosophy of Progress (1853, translated by Shawn Wilbur and Jesse Cohn in 2009), http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/proudhon/philprog.pdf, p. 12.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Koselleck, “The Conceptual History of 'Crisis', p. 243.

Edmund Berger is an independent writer and researcher based in Horse Cave, Kentucky. His writings and assorted scribblings can be found at DI-Subunit 22 and Vast Abrupt, among other places. He can be followed on Twitter @EBBerger.