How time shapes our understanding of global politics

Caroline Holmqvist, Tom Lundborg

THIS discussion is structured around four empirical areas, which can be thought of as potential case studies. The first explores competing temporalities embodied in the United Nations (UN) system; the second looks at apocalyptic visions of the global climate crisis; the third focuses on the instantaneity of global information flows; and the fourth examines practices of pre-emption in global counterterrorism measures. In each case, the dominant role of teleological understandings of time and history in modern political discourse is questioned, and at least four conceptions of time other than the teleological invoked: cosmological time, eschatological time, instantaneous time, and time as a flow of becoming.
By tracing the competing temporalities at work in these given examples of world political affairs, this chapter provides an overview of the types of inquiry that a focus on time in global politics might generate.
They serve to illustrate the manifold ways in which questions around time and politics can be pondered and explored – mindful of the way in which certain discourses of global politics are permitted, promoted and excluded in various ways by and through different conceptions of time. As such, this quartet of ‘cases’ testify to the competing modes not only of explaining and understanding, but also practicing world politics, enabled by different conceptions of time.
In other words, they point to the politics of time in global affairs. Before turning to these potential studies we begin by giving an overview of how time has been used as a point of entry into studies of global politics, as well as provide a brief introduction to the alternative notions of time that we use in each ‘case’ by contrasting them with the dominant linear and teleological time associated with modern political discourse.
Time, Politics and Globalisation: The most cited books on contemporary globalisation are based on a rather limited engagement with time and temporality, which mainly focuses on the significance of speed, acceleration, and the compression of time and space. Much of this literature is based on David Harvey’s (1990) concept of the ‘time-space compression’, which refers to how the ever-increasing speed of ‘transnational flows’ has collapsed distances in time as well as in space. The flows of, for example, money and information have become instantaneous, rendering spatial distances obsolete (Appadurai 1996, Urry 2003). The narrow focus on the significance of speed, acceleration, and the time-space compression is also evident in the literature more specifically concerned with the political dimension of contemporary globalisation. In this context, globalisation is mainly discussed by pointing to how the acceleration and speed of transnational flows challenge the static borders of sovereign territory (Der Derian 1992, Agnew 1994, Tuathail 1996, Scholte 2005, Held and McGrew 2007).
While the globalisation literature has opened up important questions about the potential significance of time for thinking about politics, there is much work to be done in order to advance our understanding of how different conceptions of time can be used for examining, analysing and understanding global politics and political life under globalizing conditions. In order to do this, a more expansive and nuanced analysis of time and its relation to politics is necessary. Therefore, we need other adjacent fields of study, which can be used in order to investigate the significance of time as a constitutive dimension of politics.
On the one hand, there is a growing interest in time and temporality among philosophers, social theorists, and scholars of International Relations (IR) (Hoy 2009, Hom 2010, Ruin and Ers 2011). On the other hand, there is a literature more specifically concerned with the politics of time and temporality. For example, in his book Untimely Politics Samuel Chambers (2003) has challenged the dominant linear conception of time and argued for an alternative non-linear way of thinking about politics, mainly by drawing on the work of Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida. Elizabeth Grosz has also problematised the linear conception of time in her book Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Politics (2005), which analyses the significance of time as a productive force that conditions different forms of political struggles, in particular feminist struggles. Kimberly Hutchings’ work on Time and World Politics (2008) was mentioned earlier and stands as the most significant theoretical contribution to thinking about the relationship between theories of time and theories of world politics.
Another important theoretical contribution is Nathan Widder’s Reflections on Time and Politics (2008), which offers a series of critical reflections on the limits of the linear progressive view of time and opens up to a more radical understanding of time and politics based on continental and poststructural philosophy. In a more empirical sense, Michael J. Shapiro’s book The Time of the City (2010) addresses the politics of urban life through the lens of various philosophical conceptions of time. Finally, Tom Lundborg’s book entitled Politics of the Event: Time, Movement, Becoming (2012) demonstrates how the concept of the ‘event’ can be used for analysing a sovereign politics of time seeking to reproduce ideas about a ‘modern’ political order through the inscription of ‘borders in time’ separating the past from the present and the future.
Like many of these works we are interested in challenges to the dominant teleological concept of time.
Alternative Concepts: According to the dominant teleological conception of time, past, present and future are conjoined linearly, suggesting a ‘forward movement’ or ‘progress’. The linear understanding of time is strongly associated with the grand ideologies that dominated the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: liberalism and communism.
With the end of the Cold War came the declaration that history itself had come to an end (Fukuyama 1992). While Fukuyama’s thesis has been widely criticised, the teleological conception of time it relies upon continues to have formidable influence, not least on discourses of global economic development that express confidence in continuous growth and the promise of progress from ‘under-developed’ to ‘developed’.
At least four additional conceptions of time to the teleological can be identified in the tradition of intellectual history. First, the cosmological conception of time derives from Aristotelian thinking and was further developed in Renaissance philosophy via early modern science and entails a view of time as cyclical and repetitive (Cassirer 1979). This view of time has for example been used to think about the repetitive nature of politics in the modern era, and the eternal movements of inter-state politics in a world that lacks a higher authority than the sovereign state (Walker 2010).
Second, the eschatological conception of time is concerned with time as finite and the world coming to an end, and is strongly associated with theological Judaic-Christian traditions (Löwith 1949, Taubes 2009 [1947]).
This view of time has for example been used to think about the values and fears that often underlie ideas about the world suddenly coming to an end via nuclear war, terrorist attacks or environmental disasters (Bradley and Fletcher 2010).
Third, the conception of instantaneous time relates to the view of the contemporary era as one of ‘instantaneity’, characterised by the time-space compression and the ways in which time has become ‘radically present’ (Harvey 1990, Beck 1992, Heller 1999, Bauman 2000).
This notion of time has for example been used to highlight the implications of the rapid increase of transnational flows – of people, money and information – which some see great potential in, while others point to the fears, dangers and risks commonly associated with them (Lundborg 2011).
Fourth, the conception of time as a flow of becoming was developed by 20th Century continental philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan, among others, and points to how time eludes the static being of the individual subject, prompting attempts to construct fantasies of the full presence of the coherent subject (Deleuze 1994, Lacan 2006).

—Courtesy: GP

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