Temporality

In my Master's thesis I used two concepts developed by Achille Mbembe that I think might help elucidate the narrative nature of tenure regimes; 1) The integral ties between spatiality and temporality he establishes in "At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa" and 2) the form these ties take on in quotidian life, deemed by him conviviality.

Legal regimes are vast and convoluted rhetorical tapestries draped over reality until corrosion, crisis or mere circumstance lifts them up, shakes them out and judges whether they face a good washing or wholesale replacement. I'll need to look more into this, but I don't think this is a notion unknown to the legal field. The field is indeed rife with rich language that points to this fact. Take, for example the concept of “piercing the corporate veil”. Like any good yarn, that veil comes with refurbished subjectivities; it engenders a new economy of spatial configurations; and it constitutes its own temporality.

Mbembe asserts the relative nature of the interaction between spatiality and temporality as the primary explanation for the phenomenon of territoriality in Africa. Similar to the way that Bhabha posits the “ambivalence of modern society” that results from the instaneity of two conflicting temporalities as “the site of writing the nation,” (Bhabha 209) Mbembe employs the idea of instantaneous temporalities to explore the Nation’s physical limitations. Given that boundaries on the continent are in a continual state of flux—pulsating with the ebb and flow of ethnic, economic, religious, sexual and political determinants—territoriality, he argues, must always be conceived not merely in geographical terms, but in temporal ones, as well. Thus the “inviolability of boundaries among states” (Mbembe 2000: 267) (i.e. the semblance of permanence exuded by political boundaries) paints a two-tiered picture of the continent’s territorial divisions, with the static outlines of the colonial past hovering over a dynamic system of continual, relative expansions and contractions. The frequent result of this is a severing of regional idiosyncrasies—of a traditional, economic, or political nature—under the imposition of nation-state boundaries grandfathered in, and in the service of an increasingly distant colonial age.

Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: a History of Race and Nation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

I want to focus on one page in particular from Greg Grandin’s The Blood of Guatemala. In his discussion of how education curricula and scheduling served to widen the class divide between rural K’iche subsistence farmers and urban principales, Grandin argues that the school year was planned around the needs of the coffee-based export economy. He shows how this fed the class divide by structuring time around the demands of the agro-production cycle. (172)

This scenario, however, makes me think about an ongoing quandary that I’ve yet to put to rest. As part of the effort to complicate nature-culture binaries, environmental historians have highlighted the agency of non-human actors, and broken down such monoliths as wilderness and nature to show how they are socially constituted. Likewise, non-human actors have been shown to complicate matters of scale, forcing us to problematize political boundaries like the city, state or nation by asking how dynamic environments influence or condition socio-political life. Yet the closest we have come to an equivalent watershed regarding temporal scale involves embedding human events within longue durée treatments of geological and climatological transformations. In these cases, however, there still exists a stark separation between what we may call “natural” (i.e. geological and climatological) and “cultural” time; temporally speaking, though juxtaposed, history is still anthropocentrically isolated from the natural history that surrounds it.

This may be because the environmental longue durée (remember, it didn’t mean geology and climate for Braudel, 1960) requires such a wide-angle view that the historical event is smoothed over; seen from a distance its “lumpiness” (Sewell 1996, 843) disintegrates.

However, disturbance theories and patchwork models have shown that non-human time doesn’t need to be equated with a leap to the geological longue durée (Zimmerer 1994). So I wonder if, rather than reverting to geological time when looking for a non-human temporality, we can instead talk about “plant time,” the meristematic temporality that bestows some order on plant events—photosynthetic moments, budding germination, reproduction.