This article considers how time, space, and history are mobilized across a contemporary range of debates in postcolonial studies, world literature theory, and memory studies. The time-maps surveyed all revolve around Eurochronology and its contestations, and range from novels by Joseph Conrad and V.S. Naipaul, to a video installation and essay by the South African artist William Kentridge, to the critical study of the Indian Ocean world. Traversing literature, art, critical theory, and personal story, the essay provides an imaginative and imagistic guide to new ways of thinking time. It concludes with a speculation on the promise of a “soft” rather than “mean” time, the latter evoking imperial standardization and the former describing a terrain in which affect and history are set in rippling motion.
Memory must not vanish.—William Kentridge and Peter Galison, The Refusal of Time/Die Ablhnung der Zeit
Time-Maps and Postcolonial Knowledge
The time of postcolonial politics conjures a wake: waves rippling after some ship of violent modernity passes; an aftermath that is also a living-after, as in the twice-grown grass to which “aftermath” still refers in agriculture; a space of mourning opened up by the encounter with the dead; and, also, a growing, flowing surge forward in which the future touches the past. The fluid time of the postcolonial seems to follow in the wake of Eurochronology, that fateful, fatal tethering of teleological progress to centrifugal modernity. This hallucinatory form images time shot forward and space radiated outward, both departing from some mystical, continental-scale Greenwich. Mean time, indeed. And what, to reverse my order, does time mean? To mean time, to designate time, entails mapping time, tracing the forward lines and coming-back-round curves, the creeping links and perforating breaks, the eddies and the swells, the liquid peaks and the valleys in the very shape of time. I will return to the possibilities of such soft time as an alternative to mean time, but first there is grounding and gridding to do.
David Harvey has specified three coexisting dimensions of what he calls spacetime: (1) the absolute, where space is geographically fixed and empirically measured and calculated, and time is linearly plotted, “stretching infinitely from the past to the future,” as for Newton, Descartes, Kant; (2) the relative, where space and time are linked via processes and motions, rendered multiple rather than differentiated or singular, and subject to more complex forms of measure and calculation, as for Einstein; and (3) the relational, which rather than focusing on distinct processes and motions happening in space and in time (say, the movements of atoms or the fall of apples) instead sees the hybrid union of spacetime as internal to those very processes and motions, as in the work of Leibniz, Deleuze, Spinoza, Bohm.1 If absolute space and time resound with mean time, and relative spacetime represents the collapse, black-hole-style (about which more later), of the sorts of Eurochronological maps that see phenomena out there and unfolding from here, relational spacetime designates a zone of becoming, spinning spheres of motion animated by potentiality. I will not take up Harvey's catalog of thinkers here, though both Einsteinian relativity and Deleuzean affect will enter my argument. The main method of this essay concerns the presentation of a series of metaphoric and imagistic time-maps through which distinct varieties of spacetime emerge. Beneath these time-maps are the grids of empire and the moving terrains of trauma and memory. Beyond them are intimations of other ways of thinking.
Many of the traumatic histories of modernity are inextricable from the temporalities of nation-state formation, be they the backward and forward gazes to ancestral origins and future glories that figure in Benedict Anderson's account of the fundamentally calendrical time of nations, or the non-coevality and non-synchrony that provide the temporal armature of imperial spatialization. Postcolonial criticism has long cautioned against geopolitical maps that center some event, like European imperial nationalism, so as to constitute later iterations elsewhere as belated repetitions, copies, comings after, or in Partha Chatterjee's still useful term, derivatives.2 “First in the West, then elsewhere,” writes Arjun Appadurai, speaking of how late modernity's cultures of globalization time-map the postcolonial world into a permanent state of afterwardness.3 It is against just this logic that Frantz Fanon, four decades earlier, exhorts the Third World to stop playing “catch up” with Europe.4 There is no way to turn back time; there is only the slow work of tracking how time itself has turned, logging who has been bound to its wheel and how and why and in what's name, and finally, imagining alternative ways of being in time.
This essay considers multiple imagings of time: Eurochronological and postcolonial, messianic and melancholic, gridded and entangled, hard like the iron hands of a clock, soft like the swells of the sea. Like entries in the field guide of a decolonizing imaginary, these time-maps offer snapshots of postcolonial conditions of being—living after/living with/living on. The wake, writes Christina Sharpe, is “a problem of and for thought.” In the wake, she adds, “the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present.”5 Sharpe's excavation of the abiding effects of violence done to black bodies over time unfolds “a method along the lines of a sitting with, a gathering, a tracking of phenomena.”6 She figures “this gathering, this collecting, this collecting and reading toward a new analytic, as the wake and wake work.” Sharpe's wake work resounds with Jacques Derrida's hauntology, animated by the time of the specter, that ghost or Thing that comes from the past for the future and whose radical untimeliness refuses fixed spatiotemporal location, singular being, closed endings, and certain knowledge.7 My approach in this essay takes up these impulses to gather, to track, and to walk the fault lines beneath the joints of time. In what follows, time appears in figures and across fields as various as the video/sculpture installation, the modernist and postcolonial novel, world literature theory, space-time collapse in a distant star, the self's memory, memory studies, space-time flows on a past-present ocean. I would recommend reading not for linear sequence but rather in a spirit of spatiotemporal unsettling. Call it a setting in motion or even an unsettling in motion.
The time-map of my title is meant to evoke, with its hyphen, the yoking together of the temporal and the spatial. Even more, time-map echoes time-lapse's sense of a movement or animation inherent in time. This is not spring forward/fall back (mean time's standardization of time from the central point of some imperial compass), but rather fast forward/rewind. Time-lapse photography, like the time-mapping this essay performs, causes us to reel as things often clocked through distinct stages speed up for consumption in “real time.” The birth and death of a star in a sequence of seconds, the life cycle of a butterfly, the span of a critical argument, all accelerated. This essay begins with mourning and proceeds to hope: first sounding the depths of imperialist time-maps and then surfacing to a critical history of the refusals of such time. Such refusals allow for (1) the exploration of terrain beyond empire and nation; (2) the chronicling—through alternative chronologies—of places of regional and inherited memory; (3) renewed encounters with the subjective and affective textures of memory; (4) via all of the previous, the ongoing unlocking/unclocking of the spacetime of the postcolonial; and (5) a related rippling forth of a melancholic yet reparative realm that I will call oceanic spacetime, a field of swells and flows, depths and crests, a wake that demands us to awaken.
To think the time of the political, particularly in a moment when democracy is, in the postcolony as in the metropole, still very much “to come,” it is necessary to host the ghost, admitting the eruptive visitations and intersecting presences of things whose “time” is untimely. Such things, Derrida shows, cannot be captured in singularities; they straddle zones of existence and states of becoming. The Wretched of the Earth casts this fluctuating being in terms of “the zone of occult instability” where the native intellectual joins the people in “that counter movement which they are just giving birth to, and which, as soon as it has started, will be the signal for everything to be called in question.”8 Fanon's time of the political can also be detected below the stop-start rhythms of revolution, in the tick-tock of bodily time, linked to the pulsing of affect, the racing of the nervous system, and the eruptive instant when the native springs to life over the corpse of the settler. The Wretched of the Earth, like Black Skin, White Masks, is a repository of dead and live bodies, bodies that viscerally house the violence of racism. I evoke these bodies as an imagistic preface to the following discussion of two time-mappings of bodies into history.
The Refusal of Time
William Kentridge's 2012 multimedia video installation The Refusal of Time is keenly aware of imperialism's clock. In an interview about the piece, the artist cites as inspiration an anarchist of the 1880s who tried to blow up the Greenwich meridian but, thanks to a bomb attached to a faulty clock, succeeded only in blowing up himself.9 The attempt inspired, as Kentridge notes, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907), a modernist set piece of temporal and psychic distortion and decalage, bitter irony, and an abiding sense of the futility both of imperial modernity and of the fight against it. Young, weak-witted Stevie Verloc spends his time in his sister Winnie’s kitchen “drawing circles with compass and pencil on a piece of paper.” Stevie will eventually be swept up into an anarchist plot described by its architect as “an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad.”10 Stevie is Eurochronology's victim, but Conrad also depicts him, in a familiar move that recalls his myriad natives, as the intuitor of an alternative cosmology. “Drawing circles, circles, circles; innumerable circles, concentric, eccentric; a coruscating whirl of circles that by their tangled multitude of repeated curves, uniformity of form, and confusion of intersecting lines suggested a rendering of cosmic chaos, the symbolism of a mad art attempting the inconceivable.”11 Conrad's hallmark adjectival embroidery, which describes something banal to the point of baroque excess, is echoed and eclipsed by the accelerating rhythms of repetition and elaboration. Meaning intensifies but also evaporates. Ultimately the sentence, turning and whirling, is one with the circles it feverishly describes. Though Stevie's circles are later described by the narrator as “suggesting chaos and eternity,” they are well in excess of any such semiotic capture.12 Within the novel's brooding setting of fog-obscured London streets, shabby shops and homes, and august Ministry halls (including one dominated by a clock, a “ponderous marble timepiece with [a] sly, feeble tick”), this description stands out as a different time-map.13 It both reproduces the compass of mean time, that imperial-modern-mechanized-capitalized-governmentalized complex which Stevie dies trying to explode, and offers, in those very same compass-mapped circles, placeholders for another kind of order, an order that is disordered, tangled, multitudinous, intersecting, resounding. The latter hints at another time-map, one for which The Secret Agent clears the ground but cannot quite draw the lines (perhaps because this time-map demands not only circles but the swirls and swells, ripples and wakes of soft time).
After the death of Stevie, his sister, and her husband, Verloc (the novel's central protagonist, anarchist infiltrator, and agent of Stevie's demise), the architect of the plan, the Professor, cries out to the canny survivor Comrade Ossipon: “the time! The time! Give me time!”14 Ossipon responds by downgrading time to a mere object of exchange: “your scurvy, shabby, mangy little bit of time.”15 Observing that the Professor considers himself “strong” because he always carries explosives sufficient to send himself and twenty others to “eternity,” Ossipon retorts: “But eternity is a damned hole. It's time that you need. You—if you met a man who could give you for certain ten years of time, you would call him your master.”16 The “damned hole” of eternity and “mangy little bit of time” are a riposte to mean time's imperial pretensions—even more than the plot device of blowing up the Greenwich meridian, but far less than Stevie's circles or the fleshy viscerality of his body. Grotesquely collected with a shovel by a London bobby, Stevie's remains haunt the novel with the reminder that time, though shabby, is imperious in its demands and that the hands of the clock will have their day.
Damned holes return again in Kentridge's The Refusal of Time, inspired both by the anarchist plot of 1886 and by the artist's collaboration with Harvard historian of science, astrophysicist, and filmmaker Peter Galison. In an essay that predates the 2012 installation, also titled The Refusal of Time, Kentridge and Galison speculate on the black hole as a metaphoric time-map in which both disappearance and persistence are in play. “According to some key general relativists,” they explain, “an encyclopedia could fall in—but no messages, not the slightest message, can escape. Imagine volumes A-Z falling smoothly into a black hole, sailing past the point of no return, gone forever.” The black hole here becomes black whole, a spherical maw with the capacity to swallow everything, including information culture's propensity to simultaneously archive and delete itself. Encyclopedia, subject heading, even subject being, disappear. But some physicists—whom I like to imagine joining psychoanalytic critics, post-Derridean spectralists, and memory-studies scholars in the conviction that nothing is “gone forever”—dispute the claim that the black hole is absolutely annihilative. Instead, as Kentridge and Galison recount, these physicists see what went into the black hole as “leak[ing] out” and “floating up” in bits or “locked in a tiny remnant at the center of the black hole” or dancing on “vibrating strings stuck on the horizon, the trace of all in-falling things.”17
On April 10, 2019, a team of scientists released photographs of a black hole at the center of the galaxy Messier 87, 53.49 million light-years from Earth. The photograph was heralded as evidence of Einstein's intuition of the relativity of spacetime. Hyper-concentrated matter and energy disappear into a black hole, where they remain trapped forever. Swirling into the hole like water circling a drain, matter and energy solidify at the edge, or event horizon, of the black hole. It is the ring of light rimming the black hole that the photographs captured. In a black hole, everything can be nothing forever. In their piece eight years before the photographs of Messier 87's black hole, Kentridge and Galison muse on this very possibility. “All the information of the world encyclopedia stays there, forever, scrambled, like sparkling ashes from a fire, but still there, still inscribed on the surface of a bubble . . . A holographic trace persisting, inscribing all of our work and imagination . . . the long trail of words wound around the final splintering of spacetime.” The end point, for physics, appears to have been “the end of time,” twenty-first century string theory's intimation that “space and time are illusions . . . we're going to have to give up.”18
In an interview about The Refusal of Time, Kentridge said that he wished to capture the question, so alive for a South African of his generation, of how change in time happens.19 Drawing on the temporal coincidence between Einstein's theory of relativity in 1905 and the birth of cinema a decade earlier, Kentridge's installation takes up scientific metaphors for the experience of time, as well as the refusal or “giving up” of it. The piece comprises drawings and models made by Kentridge in a painstaking process, as well as fast-paced video loops of dancers moving, playing music, and singing. In this sensorium, resistance to time's imperial line emerges through scenes of repetition and replay, disaggregation and assemblage. Giant metronomes fill the gallery, pumping like oil pistons, while in another corner rises the iron outline of a clock whose hands run forward and back. Kentridge's interview describes the systole/diastole that is the dominant movement of The Refusal of Time as a condition in which “things disaggregate” and “things come together.” These might be human figures composed of black geometrical shapes that fall ash-like apart in one video sequence. Or, the things subject to collection and disappearance might be moments in time, as captured in video footage of Black South African actors rhythmically, repetitively doling out food and swabbing surfaces, or marching in a sequence carrying easels, tripods, spinning wheels, gaslights, telephones, bathtubs, and pistons (fig. 1). Like Chaplinesque figures caught in modern times, these silhouetted actors at once image their capture by the machinery of apartheid modernity and animate it with a force that overfills it, spills beyond it, and lights it up with human rhythms of kinetic, ludic, insurgent force.
The march sequence offers a version of the black hole, with its simultaneous swallowing of matter-energy into darkness and ring-lit commemoration of its passing into that oblivion. Kentridge himself specifies the black hole as “the raw material of metaphor and allegory,” and the march sequence certainly invites such a reading.20 In his sketch notes, Kentridge identifies the tripod as a mast on a “raft for a Medusa” that also bears human figures carrying sounding brass instruments. “[A] boat to cross the river Styx/ crossing the event horizon. Slower and Slower, the boat is becalmed. Its Morse code S.O.S. slows to a growl. The boat separates from its image. Zeno's paradox. The boat goes slower and slower—but it does go off the edge of the world—into the black hole.”21 The processing figures, comments Kentridge in his interview, are versions of the images on the wall of Plato's cave. As shadow puppets of illusion, they make possible a sense of moving forward in time all the while moving only to the end, the black hole. Like those souls trapped in Plato's cave, those who would give up space and time must recognize their metaphorical-figural nature. Another sketch for The Refusal of Time in fact depicts a series of “PLATONIC OBJECTS & Their Witnesses”: a figural, almost human-like coffeepot regarding a globe, a “big cat” in South African safari parlance, a reclining human figure, a typewriter, a Kandinsky-like mobile that could be a model of planetary orbits, and finally, a pair of busts facing one another (fig. 2).
Another still shows the artist himself in a time-map, his body up against a backdrop of temporal wordplay (fig. 3). This liquid lexicography surfaces something deep within time, as words “disaggregate” and “come together.” From the metrical-lexical march of “keeping in time/time keeping,” words emerge to signal what is intime (intimate) in time. The intimacy of time clocks in as the pulse of being, all kinetic motion as the bodies on the installation's screens move, dance, and sing in strange, wonderful, and resistant concert with the motors and machines of mean time. In perhaps the most well-known image of the latter, figure 4 shows the wholesale entombment of a body by a time-map that traps. The englobed figure exteriorizes and literalizes the mean time that encircles the world, providing a visual image of that moment of capture that is always already there in Eurochronology's clock. But it is the intervention of The Refusal of Time (both the written volume and the installation) to show how the visual representation of states of temporal being (time-mapping) and their flooding with sound and movement (time-map animation) captures something beyond capture, namely entanglement.
Achille Mbembe defines “entanglement” as a condition that interlocks “presents, pasts, and futures that retain their depths of other presents, pasts, and futures, each age bearing, altering, and maintaining the previous ones.”22 What Mbembe captures in philosophical formulation, Kentridge stages in the instant of the image: the condition of a continuity that need not be mapped as line, indeed, which exceeds linearity through a dazzling concert of repetition, replay, and reversal, all subtended by an eschatology not of progress, but of change—the postcolony's promise of a future still to come. Narrative time, the subject of the next section, captures this condition, too, and often with a similar affective charge, though one all too often rendered melancholic in disembodied terrains of memory.
Time Tells: Word, World, Self
Time-maps are not exactly narratives, but an account of them can emerge from narrative. And narrative theory has often resorted to time-mapping, as in the study of the novel's deep formal investment in Bildung or development, and its forward-moving motors of character, plot, and even history itself. In Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the narrative chronotope, “time thickens out, takes on flesh, and becomes artistically visible, likewise space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot, and history.”23 Time-maps are also centrally invoked in world literature's project of remapping literary history over the last quarter century. Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters advances the notion of “the Greenwich meridian of literature.” “The unification of literary space through competition presumes the existence of a common standard for measuring time, an absolute point of reference unconditionally recognized by all contestants. It is at once a point in space, the center of all centers (which even literary rivals, by the very fact of their competition, are agreed in acknowledging), and a basis for measuring the time that is peculiar to literature.”24 I take issue with Casanova's conviction that literary time “allows literature to free itself from political time,” particularly in light of Fanon's heterogeneric, often literarily laced political time, and I am far less convinced than she is of literature's ability “through a gradual acquisition of autonomy, to escape the ordinary laws of history.”25 For Casanova, literary spacetime emerges from the struggles, conflicts, and rivalries that unfold in the shadow of a larger worldscape of “political, national, linguistic, commercial, diplomatic” limitations. Such geopolitical mapping yields the disciplinary time-map of “a time specific to literature, measured with reference to literary Greenwich meridian, in terms of which it becomes possible to draw an aesthetic map of the world, the position of each national space being determined by its temporal distance from the center.”26 This argument takes on a distinctly postcolonial cast in subsequent world literature theory. If Casanova advocates a microscopic-macroscopic shift “between the individual writer and the literary world” in the name of restoring literature “to its own distinctive time, to situate it in its own world, with reference only to the literary Greenwich meridian,” postcolonial approaches to world literature have necessarily to blow up that sense of time as (someone's) property.27 This, indeed, is the starting point of the critique of Eurochronology, and Eurocentrism, too.
In Christopher Prendergast's coinage and Emily Apter's nuanced elaboration, Eurochronology undergirds sacrosanct literary mappings, originating in “the nations that name the critical lexicon.”28 Privileged categories and paradigms—a theory of genre deeply rooted in print culture and the novel, periodization leading to an apex of modernity and postmodernity—fill in the world as effectively as that “bright shining map marked with all the colors of a rainbow” that greets Conrad's Marlow in the offices of the imperial Company.29 As Apter puts it, conjuring the territorial imperialism of comparative literature's original disciplinary mode, “developmental narratives of literary history that structure the unfurling of national literary traditions privilege the works of canonical authors as peaks in a world-literary landscape.”30 I imagine Conrad again, towering above his merchant marine past, lashed like some latter-day modernist Odysseus to the mast of his very un-English English novels, hearing the colonial world roll by, and both discerning and disturbing the notes of mean time. Heart of Darkness resounds with progress's accumulative roar, the devilish tick-tock of empire's ceaseless marking of differential development (the very metronome that turns the voyage upriver into “travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”), and the occasional interruption of what Marlow, close to reaching the First Station, calls “the voice of the surf heard now and then [that] was a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother.”31 The intimations of “remote kinship” that trouble the steamship's forward-marching thrust indicate how imperial textuality sounds and founds different notes. This allows Heart of Darkness to register an anxious ambivalence about the end products of civilization. This doubt becomes demand in the final phrase of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: “Who knows but that, at the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”32 Adding Ellison, Wright, and Baldwin, in America, and Achebe, Ngũgĩ, and Soyinka, in Africa, to Conrad is to elaborate, only in English, only through black men, and only in a particular generation of antiracist and anticolonialist literature, how even those literary histories animated by the resistance to Eurochronology still, in Apter's phrase, “structure the unfurling of national literary traditions [that] privilege the works of canonical authors as peaks.” Scholars both for and against world literature (like Casanova, though very different in approach, I am in the former camp, Apter and Spivak in the latter) have pursued what is to be gained by supplementing rather than surmounting those peaks, adding other authors of multiple identities, emergent genres, languages other than English, moments not only imperial and postcolonial but classical, premodern, postmodern, cyber-now, and a range of other specificities that threaten to disappear into the maw of Eurocriticism's Eurochronology. In this essay, however, I raise world literature merely to telegraph how its defining call for spatial extension beyond a narrow, elite family of national literary greats is undergirded by an apprehension of mean time. World literature’s mean time is the Greenwich meridian to which Casanova sees all evaluative criticism returning as it places the world's literature not only in space and time but on some virtual winners' block, first, second, third. Equally mean is the developmental style of literary history, the story of generic rises and spreads, conquests and dead-ends, beneath which it is easy to hear Eurochronology’s axiomatic whisper, “One nation’s now is another’s next.”
The imperial now is no longer, as in Conrad's fin de siècle, the end point of Progress uncertainly poised on the precipice of reversion, but, as Paul Gilroy has shown, a present overfull with the romantic-melancholic past of former greats and current losses.33 I am interested in the echoes and overlays, the temporal and spatial returns, that link these moments and their iconic literary time-maps. Such haunting returns mark out what Casanova calls literature's “invisible and secret measure of time” with less geopolitical rigidity, as the terrains of metropole and colony flash back and forth between, into, and as one another. Where the imperial romance taken up by Conrad and Doyle, Kipling, and Stevenson has as its hallmark figure the map of some “darkest” area requiring filling in, wrenching forward, and regularly falling back as the empire's outpost returns to haunt its center, later mourners of empire render that map in palimpsestic form. By way of example, I turn to V. S. Naipaul's intimations of a spectral “uncelebrated darkness” as he considers a sign marking the founding of the town of Amesbury in the year 979. “More than five hundred years before that, the Roman army had left Britain. And Stonehenge had been built and fallen into ruin, and the vast burial ground had lost its sanctity, long before the Romans had come. So that history here, where there were so many ruins and restorations, seemed to be plateaus of light, with intervening troughs or disappearances into darkness.”34 With its imperial chiaroscuro and undulating swells of presence and absence, Naipaul's imagery recalls the masts and peaks of canonical literary history and makes clear their inextricability, for Sir Vidia, from the larger time map that preoccupies The Enigma of Arrival. Where, and when, is England and empire? It is in answering this question in a Conradian spirit (everywhere and always) that Naipaul earns his place, ascends to his particular plateau.
Enigma's curiously heterogenic text (announced as a novel, structured as psycho-autobiography, and elaborated as ethnography, history, and criticism) chronicles Naipaul's time in the garden cottage of an Edwardian country house to which he has retired to recover from a bad publishing experience related to a book on Trinidad, to begin work on “my African story” (A Bend in the River, 1979), and to soothe his “rawest stranger's nerves.” Those nerves are anxious in the presence of an England whose ruins connote “a sense of glory dead” and a reminder of a “long ago perfection, occurring at a time of empire, [where] there would have been no room for me.”35Enigma repeatedly displays the mechanism whereby Naipaul's writing self fills in his earlier self's no-place in England by an accordion-like pleating of time. By a weir below his garden cottage, Naipaul recalls the visual history of the place. “The water meadows had the effect (in one corner of the mind) of abolishing the distance between Constable and the present: the painter, the man with his colors and brushes and boards, seemed as near and contemporary as what he made us now see . . . this glimpse of the painter's view, made the past ordinary. The past was like something one could stretch out and reach; it was like something physically before one, like something one could walk in.”36 The “abolishing” of distance is the regular rhythm of Enigma, its answer to the imperial metronome of “West first, Rest last.” Closing the gap between some present moment where Naipaul is (Amesbury, Wiltshire, the Edwardian country manor) and some past where he could not have been (imperial greatness), Enigma creates a place for Naipaul to occupy, a place inhabitable only because it exists folded in on itself, simultaneously past and present, trough and plateau. Like some wave's swelling or some flag's furling and unfurling, Enigma also dispels the permanence of the medium (water, air, empire, narrative) it announces itself to be the product of. Naipaul's inhabiting of imperial spacetime thus can be read not only as imitative incorporation but also as a (self-)cutting exposure of the sleight of hand that lets empire perform its magical making of mean time. Now you see it, now you don't, now you are “it,” now you aren't. Contrast this with Fanon's response to mean time, incensed and enlivened by the violence of being “it” before empire.
Recall the searing apprehension in Black Skin, White Masks of how the interpellation “Look, a Negro!” unleashes colonial racism's regressive apparatus: “I existed in triple: I was taking up room. I approached the Other . . . and the Other, evasive, hostile, but not opaque, transparent and absent, vanished. . . . I was responsible not only for my body, but also for my race, for my ancestors.”37 Striving to be here and now, Fanon's black subject finds himself repatriated back to a body indistinguishable from the racial past. Fanon yokes the racial imaginary to the dislocating cracks in the colonized's space and time, zones where the colonized is not, is made not to be. Deeper here is the lancing suggestion that there is inequality in time-maps and that it is the work of liberation to reclaim space and reclock time. Fully a generation ago, Homi Bhabha in “The Commitment to Theory” defined Fanon's “time of liberation” as a “time of cultural uncertainty, and most crucially, of significatory or representational undecidability.”38 So if the time of the political is to be not only read and critiqued but also lived, it must take its pulse from poetry, narrative, photography, performance, and the visual and auditory cultures of political memory.
Entanglements and Aftermaths: A National/Regional Memoryscape
Texts dealing with violence's aftermath entail a strong measure of what Mbembe calls entanglement, the condition of the past, present, and future's overlay, interlocking, and coincidence. Such entanglement invites consideration from various critical standpoints, including (1) what Marianne Hirsch has so evocatively called “the unforgiving time of trauma and catastrophe, the inexorable repetition of the past in the present and future in which injury cannot be healed or repaired but lives on, shattering the world in its wake”;39 (2) the time of memory, itself an entangled, knotted, woven, pleated fabric of time; (3) the time of narrative, with its Bildung plotlines of progress and melancholic entombments of the past; and, finally, (4) the time of affect, that category of preserved traces and eruptive presences. In this last section, I consider the possibility of time-maps informed by all of these entangled conditions, time-maps that capture the breaks and disjunctures of time, its opening out and opening up. Such time is rendered better as network than line or circle. Imagine a vectored, nonlinear structure, heterogeneously composed of connecting, intersecting, departing, and returning lines, animated more by Benjaminian flashes of condensation and displacement than by any sequential accumulation proceeding from traumatic hole to recovered whole. Some of this entails the topography of affect. In the Deleuzean model voiced by Brian Massumi, affect refers to an intensity of experience that operates “in excess of any narrative or functional line.”40 Affect is more flatline than plotline; it marks a zone of corporeal sensibility, vulnerability, porosity, the undeniable fact that the body is in the world and that the world acts upon it all the time. Affects have more to do with instants, punctures, breaks than with long sequences of time. In this sense, the political time of affective life pops up, like some groundhog, gopher, or the South African dassie, all over the ground of the colonial grid of mean time, centered time, progressive linear time. Just because affects puncture history doesn't mean that they cannot be themselves historical. Massumi notes that affect “infolds contexts . . . the trace of past actions including a trace of their contexts” even as it opens to a virtual realm of potentiality where “past and future brush shoulders with no mediating present.”41
These are dizzyingly circular time-maps, ones in which we quickly lose our way, perhaps even also our temper, as the language of critique threatens to bury what is most at stake in the study of the aftermath of historical violence. So, bring up the bodies, yes. But also let us pause to think how a philosophy of political time is necessary to, in the words of Derek Walcott musing on the chain-bound ankles of his ancestors, “give those feet a voice.”42
With Walcott in my ears, I turn finally to a personal time-map, grounded in Durban, the city of my birth. Cities, writes the affect theorist Nigel Thrift, are “roiling maelstroms of affect” in which “anger, fear, happiness, and joy are continually on the boil, rising here, subsiding there.”43 This metaphorically liquid wake describes the affective trace of aftermath's condition. When, every year, I visit Durban I traverse geographies of history and memory. I feel still the still-raw anger—partly mine, partly inherited from my parents—that pinpricks my skin when I drive past the beachfront amusement park and I remember the “Whites Only” sign from my childhood and teenage years. I feel, again, and in me, my father's sad-sweet recall, as we cross the bridge over the old Grey Street market, of the long walk carrying home his mother's vegetables, the mother whose seamstress work supported their family while my grandfather studied at Fort Hare, the grandmother who made the cross-stitched smock dress that my mother remembered me wearing for my first birthday portrait in the Japanese gardens. And I feel the disappointment, my mother's (not my own) at the sight of Aryan Cultural Hall, now dilapidated, where she and my father married (disappointing her family even then, for it had never been posh). I feel the proxy fear (our relatives', not our own) when they heard we walked (walked!) from the hall to the relatively new 1860 South African Indian Museum, and I feel the deep grief as we looked at the archival pictures of laborers and read the ships' manifest records of the first indentured generation. I feel the sharp pride, too, for the world made after the sugarcane plantations, for the cross-ethnic solidarities undertaken by some of our own—Ahmed Kathrada, Mac Maharaj, Fatima Meer—in the freedom struggle. Figure 5's museum display recalls the marching counting of colonial records, 1, 2, 3, 343, and then with the second boat's landing, 344. In an affecting and strictly speaking affective instant, I thought as I gazed, I am here now because they, the “Nameless Numbers,” were there then. Future touches the past and not as some eschatological fulfilment, prophecy, or causal line of development (though it turns out that my aunty by marriage's great-grandfather was the second migrant to disembark from the first boat, the Truro, on November 16, 1860). All of this was there in the city, “rising here, subsiding there,” as the waves rolled in, the waves that are always Durban for me, bright blue in my eyes, heavy moist on my skin, somewhere deep back in time. If Durban is the city of memory in my own personal time map, the Indian Ocean is its larger world.
Marked by flows, exchanges, linkages, layerings, breaks, and disjunctures, striated by the trauma and memory of slavery, colonization, indenture, and both modern and early modern globalization, the Indian Ocean World (IOW) reveals a rich play of connection, intensification, and dispersal. Isabel Hofmeyer reminds us that “at every turn the Indian Ocean complicates binaries, moving us away from the simplicities of the resistant local and the dominating global and toward a historically deep archive of competing universalism.”44 Françoise Vergès evocatively figures the IOW as a region composed of “writing on water, the layers of texts, narratives, and imagined worlds.”45 This is a way to posit the sea not only as history, to paraphrase Walcott's phrase about the Caribbean, but also as archive, and beyond that as a particular kind of map. “If we look at the ocean as a cultural space,” writes Vergès, “we observe layers on layers of maps of power and resistance, which have created and still create identities, narratives, and territories. . . . Maps of friendship, of love, of family history, of political solidarity, of connections with people we will neither know nor wish to know, reified maps, dreamed maps, maps of memories.” The Indian Ocean has deep field shadows: Fernand Braudel's Mediterranean, with its tracking of a medieval world system structured by journeys, economic exchanges, and cultural flows; and Paul Gilroy's Black Atlantic world, a memoryscape marked by the “rhizomorphic, fractal structure of the transcultural, international formation.”46 Oceanic regions create models attuned to memory and history, connection and entanglement, exchange, inheritance, and transformation. In this, they have something to tell us about how to rethink political time.
To break with the Eurochronological time-map that makes peripheral places and times subsidiary to, shadowed by, and simply after core places and times is to undertake the work Dipesh Chakrabarty has termed “provincializing Europe.” Provincializing means seeking multiple centers, not one; moving beyond the topographical markers of cities, nation-states, and regions to intimate habitations such as the placed, and placeless, conditions of subjects who are not fully or not yet citizens, and beyond that, entertaining a host of identity formations that cannot be fully encompassed by the logic of the nation-state.47 These include gender, race, sexuality, class, caste, religion, culture. When we think at the microlevels of subjectivity, identity, and the histories of political feeling, as well as through the macrolevels of the geopolitics of shifting centers, rising peripheries, and new affiliative multiplicities, we are “provincializing.” What would it mean then to provincialize political time? Certainly, it is to imagine a history that is not singular, hegemonic, and progressive (in the style of empire itself), but rather multiple, subaltern, and heterochronic. It is also to imagine that history without the philosophical armature of the Cartesian subject, and beyond the narratives that take that subject as main character in the plots of nation, Enlightenment, revolution. I am not calling for an evacuation of the language of the subject in the making and reading of time-maps (my own recourse to my Durban memoryscape attests otherwise). But I am arguing, in the shadow of Kentridge's dictum that “memory must not vanish,” for political time's provincialization, for attention to its multiple mappings in subject and state, ethnic inheritance and elected affinity, bodily doings and political becomings.
As the temporal continuum for this reconsideration, I propose not mean time but soft time, time cut across and striated by lateral connections, by roiling waves of forward and backward movement, time marked by the lapping of ocean on sand, water on stone, and the ongoing making of new creolized identities. I am interested in how such a concept of oceanic soft time in turn demands that we provincialize trauma as the marker of the political condition of aftermath. Analyses focused on trauma alone often confine themselves to plotting the stages of belatedness, repetition, working-through, and moving on. Trauma is more than the line of mourning's cure or the circle of melancholia's symptom. And it is not easy, or even wise, to try simply to scale up from the individual psychosexual subject of trauma to traumatized groups, nations, eras, including the now-Trump or the post-Zuma. There are multiple temporalities and subjectivities to trauma, as we can see by attending more closely to the time-maps of affects, to the undecidable work of representation, and to the critical practice of entanglement as thought.
Let me turn lastly to a particular danger of the mourning-melancholic chronicity of the traumatic event, namely, its narrowing of our ability to compare aftermaths. Trauma has been clocked in two ways: first in the tick-tock of an inevitable coming back around, the belated return of the original instance of loss; and secondly by a metronome that regularly regulates trauma as it measures one traumatic history against the mark of some other, more foundational one. This metronomic mode regularizes so as to mark difference, assigning some traumatic histories the place of origin while consigning others to a perpetual coming after and coming short, such that they are narrated in the mode of “however terrible, at least this was not that.” Which is worst? Slavery, colonialism, apartheid, the Holocaust? Which is first? To avoid the fatal logic of origin and priority, a logic through which Eurochronology can never be dismantled, I have found it instructive to think these things together.
As much as the consideration of entanglement and aftermath excavates deep local microhistories of particular places, times, events, histories, it equally invites us to think the entanglement of aftermaths. The collision of traumatic histories is disquieting and uneven, yet also affiliative and eruptive. This includes the momentary rubbing up of one history against others, their collective layering on top of and below, inside and outside, of one another, intersecting and interpenetrating. Such images invite a different model of political temporality, one less captured by clock-time, with its implicit imperial center of Greenwich mean time, and more imaginable in the scales of time that are fractal (or infinitely resonating), geologically sedimented (or perpetually accumulating), spectral (or undyingly haunted), or perhaps, in the metaphor I have used in my final invocation of soft time, liquid. And with that range of political temporalities comes a flowing archive, a range of genres encompassing postcolonial theory and philosophy, novels and poems, moving images and images that move us, theory-speak and memoir-moments, a whole heterogeneric ensemble that itself maps the time of becoming. Time in the postcolony is not only “all sharp breaks, sudden and abrupt outbursts of volatility,” as Mbembe says,48 but also soft slides, slow approximations, steps counted forward within others counted before, the inheritance of the past as some (but not all) of what we owe ourselves to.
Putting political aftermaths into entanglement with one another is one way to resist the notion that there are fixed, knowable, measurable contents to events and thus correct, sufficient, equivalent modes for their memory and memorialization. This work is of course indispensable to the consolidation, reproduction, and remaking of national cultures. But I am pointing to a cosmopolitan practice of entanglement. Perhaps entanglement, with its multiple pathways and vectors, its crossings, crosshatchings, cross-stitchings, is by its nature non-particularist, multiply rooted, in a word, cosmopolitan. The entangled method I am describing is one in which traumatic histories' linkages matter more than their lineages. Thus, the task of memory politics shifts from tracing origins and redressing original wounds (call this the circle of national commemoration in a national mode). Instead, we can perhaps start to imagine the possibility not of doing justice to the past, but rather of committing to justice in the present: practicing what it means not just to live on/live after but to live with, with others, in solidarity, in an affinity that is not a sameness, in an aftermath consciousness that recognizes multiple, interlinked, and layered histories of dispossession, violence, and loss.