Global Temporalities (Winter 2018)

Co-led by Sudipta Sen and James Smith, this proseminar encouraged students to explore the ways in which both systems and subjects produce divergent realities and outcomes by "digesting" and "metabolizing" the experience of planetary time.

ISS Fellows: Sudipta Sen (History) and James Smith (Anthropology)


Winter 2018 | Wednesdays, 3:10 - 5:00 p.m. | 273 SS&H | ANT 298 / HIS 298 | CRN 42365 (ANT) & 58003 (HIS) | FlyerSyllabus



The Big History project pioneered by historian David Christian and sponsored by Bill Gates wants to reach out to children in every classroom in North America and take them on a journey lasting 13.8 billion years. This "big picture", their website says, “is the attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity." This is much more than a colorful, panoramic retelling of human history for schoolchildren. Rather, it is yet another example of a tectonic shift that has been taking place in our thinking about the history of time in both public discourse and academia over the last two decades.

This upheaval can be seen in the flood of books over the last two decades on the collective destiny of humankind, from Fred Spier's The Structure of Big History from the Big Bang until Today (1996) to David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2005). Christian predicts that in another fifty years a new, universal history will transcend all disciplinary boundaries, lift the artificial barrier between the study of nature and society, and "blur the borderline between history and the natural sciences". In his magisterial survey of the history of computers, Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (2012), Dyson argues that time is racing away from all known human experience so quickly because it is no longer based on the idea of clock-time but on the sequence of bits and order codes that only keep track of events in a program. A similar climatic clock governs the idea of the "Anthropocene", a term coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and adopted by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, which fuses human and geological time in tracing the point forward from which human activities began to exert an irreversible impact on the environment.

The urgency of this proseminar comes from a mounting concern that these new and related approaches to the study of timescales and temporality challenge the division of intellectual labor across disciplines within and beyond the social sciences. What kind of time-frames and critical thresholds have led us to the doorsteps of irreversible climate change, genomes, stem cells, nanotechnology and network society? How have these new questions of temporality affected the debates around globalization and our understanding of the postindustrial, late capitalist or postmodern global order? To what extent have such questions arisen from anxieties about the anthropocene, planetary crisis, or futurity?

Focusing on temporalities as frames of experience as well as critical practice, the proseminar will encourage students to explore the ways in which both systems and subjects produce divergent realities and outcomes by "digesting" and "metabolizing" the experience of planetary time. It will not only provide an overview of the main theories of temporality across disciplines, but also provide an interdisciplinary forum to address questions of time and temporality pertinent to their research projects and might not fall easily within the purview of their disciplines.

While globalization and global studies now are well-established interdisciplinary fields of study bridging disciplines within the social sciences, the burgeoning field of temporality studies is even more eclectic in its disciplinary borrowings, straddling areas of interest as diverse as theories of affect in literature and notions of temporal duration in the cognitive sciences. The task of this proseminar is to bring these typically disconnected sets of debate under one rubric, engaging a strategically diverse mix of students and select faculty and scholars.

Even more compelling from our standpoint is the urgency of the theme outlined in this proposal. Current controversies over the entwined destinies of global capital, sustainability and climate change beg the reconsideration of planetary scales of temporality that now command our attention not only in academia, but also in popular media and society at large. This workshop will introduce graduate students to these larger cross-disciplinary questions so that they can retool and sharpen their research agendas, and also enrich their undergraduate teaching portfolios.

The proseminar will meet weekly throughout Winter Quarter 2018. A bulk of the discussions will be dedicated to both foundational and cutting-edge work. There will be three sessions devoted to outside guests whose work is part of the syllabus.





1. Time and the Late Capitalist Order

January 10, 2018


2. Temporality: Overview of Key Theories and Debates

January 17, 2018

What is time?

These three words constitute a fundamental question for human experience. We are conscious of time, exist in it and are ultimately led to our demise when our time ends. Time is integral -- an essential component of our humanity and it is for this reason that understanding or at least describing it, is important. Traditional philosophy in the West has long grappled with this term and its intrinsic ambiguity, its elusive contours, and the vastness of its scale. Time is no small thing. 

Our reading group began this week’s discussions by dwelling on philosophical and theoretical considerations of time and temporality. From the Pre-Socratic notion of time as change and transience or impermanence to Kantian notions of time as intuition, we discussed the changing nature of time as a subject/category, till its culmination in more phenomenological ideas, wherein time is time experienced by the self (and hence a priori) as opposed to time being imposed as an ordering principle upon experience. This distinction led us to thinking about the notion of temporality or time as experienced by the human subject, which in turn drew us to the concept of coevalness. Coevalness refers to the idea that events, phenomena and objects can be of the same age, date or duration; they can be equally old or can exist simultaneously in a non-linear fashion. These are concept fundamental questions that break down the illusion of time being as a singular narrative and linearity and pushes us towards thinking more consciously about the world, where categories defined by seriality and succession either expand or collapse, as is the case with postcoloniality or “modernity”. In addition, we questioned the premise that time is fixed, that it is the same for everyone, and we exchanged our own ideas about time’s experiential elastic, and relativistic nature.

3. Time in Anthropology

January 24, 2018

This week was devoted to reviewing classical debates in the anthropology of time. We began with Durkheim’s claim that time is a fundamentally social process apprehended only through collective representations – a perspective Evans-Pritchard built on in his study of Nuer time-reckoning. Arguing that Nuer have a two-partite system of “oecological” time, conceived of through activities and cyclical relationships with the environment, and “structural” time, conceived of in terms of sociality and relationships between lineages, Evans-Pritchard offered a view of time as emerging via cultural categories and natural processes (e.g. seasons). From there we moved on to the works of Alfred Gell and Nancy Munn, both of whom summarized their understandings and critiques of Durkheim and Evans-Pritchard, albeit from different perspectives. Interested in developing a non-relativist theory of time, Gell elaborated on the work of philosopher John McTaggart, who categorized the reckoning of time in a dual scheme of the “A series” and “B series”, in an effort to prove time’s unreality: while “A time” refers to the past/present/future series, which is always in flux as a future event becomes present and then past, “B time” refers to the before/after series and remains unchanging, as one date in history always stands either before or after another. Working through what McTaggart found to be contradictions revealing the fallacy of time, Gell declared himself a “moderate B series” advocate and suggested that regardless of one’s position, the distinction between the two series has broad relevance across the social sciences. Nancy Munn provided a somewhat more contemporary perspective (though writing in 1992, the same year as Gell), arguing for, among other things, a theory of time as always constituted through the spatial dimension, and a theory of temporalization “that views time as a symbolic process continually being produced in everyday practices.”

4. Time, Social Movements, and Resistance

January 31, 2018

On week four of our proseminar, along with various articles on how temporality is articulated in contemporary movements of resistance, we also read and discussed Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov, Two Lenins: A Brief Anthropology of Time on the great Bolshevik leader and his namesake living through the harvest of the revolution, and the early Soviet planned economies. In this new and stimulating book Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov explores several episodes of gift-giving as sites for exploring the relationality between multiple temporalities. 

For instance, Ssorin-Chaikov examines Vladimir Lenin's imposition of "modern" Soviet time on the Evenki reindeer herding community in Siberia as an example of the persistence of traditional temporal frames. He argues that multiple temporalities become visible in moments of gift-giving, and that distinct temporalities continually relate to one another through processes of change and exchange. Building on anthropologist Nancy Munn's assertion that "sociocultural systems do not simply go on in or through time but arethemselves time," he argues that "modernity is not just something homogenous that takes over a local temporal multiplicity but is itself constitutive of multiplicity" (Ssorin-Chaikov 121-123). Reframing modernity in this way allows scholars to think critically about common assumptions that traditional societies are set apart from modern society by epochal beaks between the "before" and the "now." It becomes possible to see modernity as a "temporal device" that has created imagined hierarchies between societies. He argues, "at stake in this kind of temporalization is what and who is truly modern, who is truly 'ahead'" (128). Ssorin-Chaikov guides his readers toward an intense meta-awareness of temporal relations that facilitates more mindful scholarship on the subtleties of being and belonging to both time and history.

6. Temporality in Gender and Sexuality Studies 

February 14, 2018

For this week's discussion we began with some of the provocations from Julia Kristeva's historic essay "Women's Time" published in the journal Signs in the fall of 1981, focusing on how different generations of western feminism grappled with the dominant regimes of hetero-social, singular and linear time, and in doing so opened up new possibilities of recondite and deviant forms of temporal reckoning. From these points of feminine/feminist divergence we moved on to more recent studies of temporality and queerness, focusing on Elizabeth Freeman's exploration of dominant arrangements of time and history in her 2010 book Time Binds. Freeman alerts us to the normative grammars of time and history in literature that relegate the queer to margins, and seek to contain the unruly and inadvertent forms of temporal experience and expression. Yet, as she demonstrates eloquently throughout the book, the literary archive is strewn with traces of unaccounted "queer-time" that discomfits the given continuities of the past, present and the future that seem indispensable to the narratives of modernity or capital. We ended the session with Peter Coviello's study of Walt Whitman at the bedsides of convalescing soldiers during the Civil War, pausing on the history of wartime intimacies between strangers, and unmarked forms of homosociality, pointing to queer possibilities that did not always follow a definitive temporal of historical dénouement.   

10. What Futures?

March 14, 2018

Morten Nielsen, writing about how young people scrimp, save and spend a considerable portion of their lives thinking and making plans to build houses in Maputo, Mozambique, posits that while this kind of activity has real economic underpinnings and consequences―including the borrowing and repayment of loans and collaterals on plots of land―many such houses never get built. Nielsen muses on the possibility that time, in this kind of cultural practice that hinges on the subjunctive registers of the past and the future, can be even considered as reversible. Out last discussion for this proseminar lingered on this possibility of the relationship between autobiography, remembering, cross-generational aspects of collective time, and many other ways in which different human societies attempt to project the passage of time. Similar, indeterminate and dystopic forms of the immediate future are evident in our own post-millennial epoch with great faith and mistrust bestowed at once on the technological capacities of our brains and machines. All discussants seemed to acknowledge that our postmodern or late-capitalist era has seen an eruption of prophetic and prognosticative forms of temporality whose histories are still in the making. The session ended with a brief roundtable on our ongoing individual research projects.