the politics of time: modernity and avant-garde by peter osborne (1995)

osborne is after the big q: 'what kind of time does 'modernity' inscribe?' (5). however, osborne is not interested in a naive historicist account of modernity, since 'there is a tension between the use of modernity as an empirical category of historical sociology and its inherent self-referentiality, whereby it necessarily denotes the times of its utterance, whenever the question of change within the present is at issue' (4). osborne is trying to do two things: to historicize temporality and to temporalize history.

a number of factors make the concept of the modern possible. the usual suspects: 'the temporality of capital accumulation' (13), 'the temporalization of the founding geopolitical difference of colonialism' (21), etc. osborne points out, however, that modernity ('neuzeit' or 'new-time' comes into usage in 1870) is the result of the obsolescence and residual structure of christian eschatology. that is, modernity--'an abstract temporality of qualitative newness which could be of an epochal significance, because it could now be extrapolated into an otherwise empty future, without end'--is, in effect, 'a combination of the christian conception of time as irreversible with criticism of its corresponding concept of eternity' (11). more pointedly, modernity is the secular version of a 'historical sublime' (11).

that phrase invokes 'the identity of duration and eternity' that so concerned the modernists: 'that 'now' which is not so much a gap 'in' time as a gap 'of' time' (14). so much is familiar, as is the idea that 'modernity is permanent transition' (14), the 'differential temporality' of the modern (15), and the colonial 'development which defines 'progress' in terms of the projection of certain people's presents as other people's futures' (17). modernity 'is a form of historical consciousness, an abstract temporal structure which, in totalizing history from the standpoint of an ever-vanishing, an ever-present, embraces a conflict plurality of projects, of possible futures' (23). sure.

but what of temporality? osborne's book is about this problem: when you provide a historical account of the modern, you lose the standpoint of the present; when you provide a phenomenological account of the present, you lose sight of historical totality.

[i'm skipping a lot of the fine grain of his engagements with althusser, kristeva, fukuyama, heidegger, lacan, especially ricoeur, etc. bc i don't want to get into it. the hegel stuff though is worth reading.]

'with capitalism came the homogenization of labour-time: the time of abstract labour (money, the universal equivalent), the time of the clock' and the 'generalized social imposition of a single standard of time.' yet if 'capitalism has 'universalized' history, in the sense that it has established systematic relations of social interdependence on a planetary scale,' homogenous empty time remains merely an 'abstract form of quantification, external and indifferent to the concrete multiplicity of the rhythms of different social practices' (24). 'chronological time is a relative historical novelty as the dominant form of social time consciousness' (67).

against empty time, the phenomenological tradition 'attempts to ground the understanding of historical time in an account of the temporality of human existence' by turning to its 'narrative mediation' (45): 'a narrative mediation grounded, ontologically, in a temporal structure of action for which each interpretive closure opens out, simultaneously, onto the radical indeterminacy of a new beginning' (53).

side note: what the fuck is up with heidegger? 'when dasein reaches its wholeness in death, it simultaneously loses the being of its there' (57). 'all 'historizing' is a historizing of history, just as all temporalizing is a temporalizing of temporality.' (59) shut up!

okay, back to osborne. osborne thinks he can synthesize the phenomenological side of the coin with historical totality. osborne quotes derrida, 'history keeps to the difference between totality and infinity,' to which osborne adds: 'history is the very movement of this difference' (61).

we go from here to an extended consideration of death as the productive limit of time from which osborne draws an analogy to history. i'm not going to reconstruct the argument here, but i am going to say that osborne is a great reader of both hegel and freud. the heidegger bit drags, but the hegel stuff is riveting. the payoff is basically a defense of osborne's theory of mediation: 'the death drive marks a difference between the temporal registers of nature and history within the psychic economy of the individual at the same time that it establishes a connection between them, via the social: the sphere of that always partial identification with an (imaginary) other' through which time comes into being in the play of 'identity and difference' (111).

ok, i'll talk about benjamin tomorrow. this is fun.

haha i lied i'm back.

ok, so osborne turns to two signal categories: modernity and tradition. he points out that (as benjamin showed) modernity always entails the double time of modernity/tradition as self/other. but this means a dialectical dependency: modernity always depends on tradition to reconstitute its essential continuity by a distinction which keeps in the serial historical frame that lends tradition its power. that is, ironically, modernity preserves tradition in their shared narrative of progress.

benjamin's famous essay on history is read as an attempt 'to refigure the interruptive temporality of modernity as the standpoint of redemption and thereby to perform a dialectical redemption of the destruction of tradition by the new' (115). hence his shift from 'narrative forms of historical totalization to montage: from story to image' (115).

tradition, in contrast, relies on the serial integration of interruptive moments. (the etymology here is again interesting, in that tradere meant to surrender or hand over--to pass along tradition, then, but also how christians referred to those who handed their holy texts over to unbelivers. tradition has always been defined as much by the anxieties of the present as any root in the past.)

there's more here, but the knotted paradoxes of the previous paragraph point up a turn to the promise of the title: 'modernity contains a range of possible temporalizations of history within its fundamental, most abstract temporal form. it is the idea of a competition or struggle between these different forms of temporalization, within everyday life, which leads to the idea of a politics of time' (116). (i think, in this sense, osborne's work is very much aligned with the recent work of jacques rancière, my philosophical bf.) if the stakes here seem ambiguous, osborne shows his hand a little when he criticizes the 'crisis in historical thought, in which the desire for ethics overwhelms the necessity of politics' (118).

as such, osborne has no time for a naive ethics of radical alterity. the necessity of politics is the necessity of history: 'history is the conflict of desires' (125). if this sounds familiar to fredric jameson heads, the next line is a direct quote from the political unconscious. which means we're back at mediation: 'at the level of social experience, modernity is a form of forgetting, or, at least, the repression of history into the cultural unconscious' (137).

memory as narrative form is intriguingly linked to the embodied labor-time of the commodity as well as an excellent reading of benjamin's the storyteller which famously observes the 'crisis in the communication of experience' that the rise of the novel parallels (135). here we return to the theses on history, which reacts against a historicism in which 'historical events appear indifferently as 'mass-produced articles': each one new, within its own time, yet in terms of the nature of the time that it occupies, and hence its relation to the present, 'ever-always-the-same'' (140).

to be continued...