Author’s Roundtable: Stefan Helgesson, “The Writing of Colonial Time”
Guest Writer: John Moore

Thursday, April 11, 2013

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
[On April 8, 2013 the Unit of Criticism and Interpretive Theory in collaboration with INSPIRE and the Trowbridge Office on American Literature, Culture, and Societyheld an Author’s Roundtablet hosting Stefan Helgesson (Stockholm University) to discuss a chapter of his current book project on temporality and postcolonialism, with responses from Dara Goldman (Spanish, Italian & Portuguese, Latino/Latina Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, Director of Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies) Ken Salo (Urban and Regional Planning), and Matthew Nelson (Comparative & World Literature). Below is a reflection on the event written by John Moore, a graduate student in English.]

Entangled Temporalities: Stefan Helgesson’s The Writing of Time

Written by John Moore (English)

“But the past is made of more than words, dearie. We married old men, you see? These bumps”—Alsana pats them both—“they will always have daddy-long-legs for fathers. One leg in the present, one in the past. No talking will change this. Their roots will always be tangled. And roots get dug up.”
--Zadie Smith, White Teeth

At Monday’s Author’s Roundtable, Stefan Helgesson discussed a draft of his current book project, The Writing of Colonial Time. This project is part of “Time, Memory, and Representation: A Multidisciplinary Program on Transformation in Historical Consciousness”, an interdisciplinary project funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Donation and organized by Södertörn University.

Euclides da Cunha
Helgesson opened his talk with a disclaimer. He would not try to provide a definitive account of time in postcolonial studies but, rather, would attempt to “unlearn” Western assumptions about time, modernity, and the legacies of empire. He outlined a set of three related questions he seeks to address in his new project, the first one being“how should we characterize the time of the postcolony?” Post-colonial theorists sometimes embrace and sometimes disavow the idea that the postcolony exists in “another time.” Some scholars denounce the idea of a postcolonial “other time” because it replicates the terms of a Western or “modernist” time, placing the postcolony perpetually out of step or somehow behind the rest of the world. Other scholars, such as Achille Mbembe, suggest that the postcolony is characterized by a set of entangled temporalities. Helgesson argued that this debate, though foundational to post-colonial studies, is rarely framed as a debate. Part of the work of “unlearning,” then, involves unpacking the terms of this debate.

The second question Helgesson addressed is “how are we, as scholars working in the humanities, influenced by disciplinary conceptions of time and historiography?” Building upon the work of Berber Bevernage, Helgesson identified four conceptions of time at work in humanistic inquiry: (a) the absolute or “empty” modern time as described in Benedict Anderson’s and Walter Benjamin’s work, characterized by a flat simultaneity; (b) a form of historicism that emphasizes the singularity of every historical moment; (c) a modernist conception of time as rupture from the past; and (d) a temporal secularism characterized by horizontal progression and the absence of transcendental intervention.

The third and last question that Helgesson raised was, “how might literary narrative not only articulate but also disrupt hegemonic conceptions of time?” Reading fiction, in any political context, involves negotiating a competing set of readerly temporal commitments: the time(s) of the novel’s plot(s), the time of reading the novel, and the time in which the novel was written (historical context). Indeed, it would be fair to say that in reading fiction, we learn to read and negotiate time as well. Postcolonial fiction, Helgesson suggested, enacts a particular version of this negotiation. The entangled and othered times of the postcolony become a set of “temporal rhythms” in postcolonial fiction, rhythms that do not merely register historical events but instead “open up time” as something like fictional possibility. Helgesson closed his talk by suggesting that we might read post-colonial fiction in terms of these temporal rhythms.

Helgesson’s final suggestion offers an implicit answer to one of the major questions facing literary scholarship: what does the act of reading novels do for us as readers? When Helgesson asks us to “unlearn” our understanding of temporality in the postcolony, he also asks us to “unlearn” certain assumptions we have about the relationship between text and context. In Helgesson’s model, novels are not merely embedded in a historical context, reflecting the time(s) of their composition. Instead, they offer us fictional possibility as an event, a way of engaging with the entangled times of the postcolony as what he termed a “textual problem.”

Each of the respondents on the panel further developed Helgesson’s exploratory tone by offering a set of conceptual extensions of Helgesson’s model. Dara Goldman suggested that recent work on queer theories of time would provide a useful addition to the theoretical framework of Helgesson’s project as might a novel such as Alejo Carpentier’s Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps) . She also noted that positivism was an important philosophical obsession shared by the Brazilian novelist Euclides da Cunha discussed in Helgesson’s work. Ken Salo, on the other hand, proposed reframing Helgesson’s temporal entanglements as dissonances. Doing so, Salo argued, would allow scholars working on temporality in the postcolony to recognize an alternative set of discordant temporal forms—bureaucratic time, the time of daily existence and everyday resistance, and the time of violent rupture or intervention.

Matthew Nelson offered three questions to further Helgesson’s argument. Noting that fictional genres are marked not only by plot but also by the “generically non-narrative,” he asked how narrative style might fit into Helgesson’s discussion of the event of reading. Nelson also emphasized Helgesson’s brief discussion of the temporalization of landscape by noting that place is the coincidence of space and time. Finally, Nelson noted that while novels may enact temporal entanglements throughout the novel, we still read them (for the most part) linearly.

This author’s roundtable was both suggestive and engaging. Helgesson opened up a set of questions about time that are important not only for post-colonial studies but also for any field in which the event of aesthetic experience enacts temporal dissonance. Perhaps most suggestively, his project noted that these aesthetic events involve us—as readers, film audiences, museum visitors—in the temporal entanglements of the text as well. That is to say, as readers of novels we become entangled in textual problems that exceed the text.


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Lauren said...

A very helpful and concise summary, John--thanks so mcuh! We look forward to publishing more responses from this roundtable but you've providing us with an excellent framing devices.

Stefan Helgesson said...

I would first like to commend John for providing such an accurate and incisive summary of the roundtable. My thanks extend also to Lauren and all three of the respondents, who engaged so generously with my work. I don't have time (sic) to go into the issues at hand at length but I could add a comment on a term that I'm working on currently: polyrhythm. At the roundtable, I mentioned briefly Henri Lefebvre's "Rhythmanalysis" as offering one possible inroad to the temporal paradox of the postcolony. If time is thought of as rhythm, the simultaneity and clashing of different rhythms becomes easier to conceptualise. Life is always polyrhythmic: we move along in the moment, in memories of the past and in anticipation of the future, all at the same time. A literary narrative has of course its own pacing and media-specific temporality - let's not conflate life and literature too easily - but here, too, different rhythms are mobilised or textually constructed. Euclides da Cunha - a positivist, as Dara points out, but less dogmatic than he seems at first sight - constructs a number of such contrasting rhythms in Os sertões. The infinitely slow rhythm of geology, the "forward march" of progress, the "public time" of Rio daily press, the cinematic instant-by-instant of combat, but also the domestic rhythms of Cunha's "others", the sertanejos, are all present in the narrative. It is perhaps this kind of an approach to multiple temporalities, rather than a simplified binary of "western" and "indigenous" time, that can provide a way out of the aporia that I addressed in my paper. It need not, for that matter, be understood as falsely redemptive. Polyrhythm can also be conflictual and jarring. It is the culturalising binary of time that I want to evade.