U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Elapsed and Yet-Elapsing Time

It (the talking, the telling) seemed (to him, to Quentin) to partake of that logic- and reason-flouting quality of a dream which the sleeper knows must have occurred, stillborn and complete, in a second, yet the very quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer (verisimilitude) to credulity – horror or pleasure or amazement – depends as completely upon a formal recognition of and acceptance of elapsed and yet-elapsing time as music or a printed tale.
–Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, Chapter 1

For the past few weeks we have been publishing James Livingston’s essay “What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?” in installments. We published the fourth and final installment of the essay last Saturday. On behalf of the S-USIH community of writers and readers, I want to thank Jim once again for bringing this work to us and letting us publish it here at the blog.

Livingston did not write the essay for serialization; he thought we should publish it all at once, of a piece. The serialization was my idea — and I really had to fight for it, right up to the last installment. In this post I want to explain to our readers why I thought it was best to present the essay as we did, reflect on how the form of publication may have affected the force and flow of the argument as it unfolded, and suggest some ways we might follow up on this initial publication.

First, I thought we should publish the piece in installments simply because of its length. The first draft clocked in at around 11,000 – 12,000 words. Now, if our format here were closer to that of an online journal, it would have made sense to put the entire text up in one file. But because this is a blog — an interactive space — and our aim is to foster conversation, it seemed better to roll out the essay in “shorter” segments (2500+ words is not short for a blog post). Publishing the essay in installments created some interstices or pauses in the argument, giving readers some room to argue back.

Now, I’m not suggesting that our commentariat wouldn’t have been up to the task of reading and responding to the whole essay. As blogs go, we’re kind of partial to long reads and substantive, focused discussions. So I was pretty sure that serialization wouldn’t scare off the regulars, any more than posting the whole essay would have scared them off. But it seemed to me that rolling the essay out over a few weeks was a better way to build interest – “tune in next week….” – and encourage new readers/commenters to join a sustained, measured conversation.

Serialization also worked as a kind of riff on some of the issues of temporality, teleology, and historical narrative addressed within the essay.   It posed a bit of a challenge for readers to comment on an argument that was already finished but unfolding in time – there was no way of taking in the whole, or skipping ahead to the ending, even if readers thought they could guess what it was. But if the readers were stuck in time, so was the author. He also couldn’t jump ahead and answer the objections to one part of the argument with something that would come later. For the most part, though, the prolepsis was built into the text, so that the readers were not without some sense of the trajectory, and the author was not without some means of contending for his argument as it was still unfolding.

Of course, all this business of anticipating the trajectory of an argument and construing meaning as we go along happens so quickly and so automatically that we may not always notice the work it requires from us, or the workmanship it reveals, or the way the whole process might work to naturalize a certain conception of time. And that was part of Livingston’s argument – but an argument he wanted to make at breakneck speed and then some. Slowing down the pace of publication rendered more visible the places where Livingston himself elided distance and difference by collapsing – or, really, compressing — time. I’m not saying our readers would have missed those elisions otherwise – far from it. But I think the leisurely pace of publication helped throw those moments or moves of the argument into sharper relief and led to some sharp, smart discussions in the comments.

That was the biggest payoff, really, of serialization: the liveliness and sheer savvy of the comment threads, week after week. You all were simply outstanding, and it was a real pleasure to see this community of inquirers convene so cheerfully and argue so competently and congenially about the substantive claims in this substantial work – or, at least, this substantial work-in-progress. Indeed, I’m sure the comments on these posts are going to be crucial for revisions to this piece. In fact, if it is published in another format, I think the comments should probably be published alongside it.

A number of people have asked when and where this essay will be re-published in its entirety. I know a couple of people wanted to use it in classroom teaching, or cite it in current writing projects. Now, it would be a fairly straightforward matter to reformat this text as a single document and publish it as a .pdf – with pagination, and (one would hope!) a footnote or two. That would at least make the text easier to assign or cite in the short term.

But it might be worthwhile to explore some other possibilities. I think this piece (or a revised version of it) could serve as the opening essay in a dialog or debate. When this argument is as good as Livingston can make it, surely then (if not sooner) someone will offer their own best argument against it. I think that would be a historiographic debate worth reading. It would be wonderful if S-USIH could publish such an exchange — maybe as an eBook or a print-on-demand book or something like that. But even if it turns out that we can’t bring that kind of project to our members or our readers, I sure hope someone will.

In the meantime, it’s clear that I will need to have some words with James Livingston about this business of invoking St. Augustine to say the Amen to some mighty dubious historiographic claims. For now, though, I will just close with this quote from the Confessions, Book XI.

You are the Maker of all time….Your years are completely present to you all at once, because they are at a permanent standstill. They do not move on, forced to give way before the advance of others, because they never pass at all. But our years will all be complete only when they have all moved into the past….You made all time; you are before all time; and the ‘time,’ if such we may call it, when there was no time was not time at all.

Based on what he’s already argued, I have a pretty good idea of what Jim will make of this passage. However, he could always surprise me; I’m not God, you know, and the future isn’t fixed. But the end sure as hell is.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Have to say I’m with Jim on this one. I took offense at some of the things he was saying in Part I of the piece, but I liked the overall argument very much. But what would have seemed like a harmless aside if the whole thing had been published at once seemed like the main argument of Part I, so I felt compelled to argue with it. By the time I got to Part IV, it became clear that what I was concerned about in Part I didn’t matter to the overall point, but by that time we’d already had an unnecessarily contentious go-round about it.

    I honestly feel that this sort of decision should depend on who the author is and how he or she writes. Jim is extraordinarily well-read and his essays tend to go in many places before settling in on their chief argument, so I don’t think they lend themselves well to serialization. He’s also a strong, popular, and interesting writer, so I think he can make people read 10k words when another author maybe couldn’t. For a different author, I’d suggest a different approach.

  2. As I had written in the comments before I essentially agree with Livingston’s thesis, in part because it was how I was trained to understand both Capitalism and slavery. I was impressed with the piece’s erudition. I knew and understood the references to Hegel and Marx.

    What has me puzzled, and my brain just can’t seem to grasp it. is the pairing, if that is what it is, of William James and Augustine. That is compression of philosophic time to be sure. But I feel like I want more concerning the connection. Augustine is a complex and brilliant writer and thinker and James of course is of the essence of American intellect in so many ways but it is hard for me to think the two together. That is one of many questions I have. But thanks to L. D. and Livingston for doing it at all and in the way it was done whatever its complications.

  3. Thanks again to LD for making this happen. And thanks to the people who mustered comments, all of which provoked me to rethink and rephrase, not merely rehearse. The serialization worked, I believe, in exactly the way LD thought it would–as a way of making us all think about how we use language to portray the passage, the absence, or the abolition of historical time.

    My retrospective agreement with her points me toward a disagreement. I don’t collapse or compress time in the manner of Walter Johnson and William Faulkner. I don’t invoke Augustine as if he were our contemporary. But I do suggest, following Erich Auerbach, that his attitude toward history is comparable to mine–not the same, but comparable.

    This suggestion–it’s not yet a fully developed argument–is animated by the idea that the collapse of historical time in the new “history of capitalism” sounds like the Stoicism and Skepticism, and yes, the early Christian beliefs that made for the beautiful soul, as Hegel named those who could experience freedom as the exercise of imagination on the inner plain of battle with oppression, those who had resigned themselves to the end of change. Again, I’m looking for an Augustinian alternative.

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