Let us begin with a question: when, precisely, did literature’s well know deployment of non-linear time begin? We know the point at which we are waist deep in the mire: sometime in the 1960s, sometime in the era of postmodernism. A novel like Gregor von Rezzori’s Death of my Brother Abel which is non-linear and deeply out of joint, is published in 1967 amidst he flourishing of non-linear narratives and techniques associated with postmodernism. Non-linearity certainly sounds like a postmodern technique. Bad news from the future, however: in 1998 Perry Anderson will show us in The Origins of Postmodernity that this term postmodernity is not only nebulous but that it can be traced back to the 1930s. As for non-linearity specifically? The obvious reference for such an approach is James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922. Yet we can go even further back, to Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, first appearing in 1759, a book cited as the first example of a postmodern text with a non-linear narrative. Except, that, of course, something odd happens with time in Daniel Defoe’s Diary of a Plague year from 1722, in which the passage of time itself is distorted under the conditions of isolation and infestation.
Worn down from this brief history with which we have just been bombarded, it will be not be a surprise to realize non -linearity is as old as narrative itself: it can be traced back to ancient cultures and their literature. To find the point in time when we abolished time in literature is itself an impossible task. At best it appears as something the emerges at and with the origins of literature itself. It is endemic to not only the novel: it happens in poetry, in film, on the stage. Non-linearity, where we begin in the middle of a text, recount through flashbacks or simply retell events in a non-chronological order, destroys the distinction between past, present and future. Without this distinction the concept of time loses its analytic meaning: it is tantamount to the abolishment of time itself.
What unites these artistic objects, what is it that means they are all able to abolish time? An easy answer is that they are all fictive. Since they are fictive, they can play with time as they wish. There is something compelling in this idea; after all the bound on this abolishment of time is in some sense reality itself. The length of a film, the bindings of book, the hours of an evening all bound the narrative of these works. Even if we were to expand our circle of artistic objects or nuance our view – can’t we reread a novel, rewatch a film, replay a game? – there still appears to be a bound by our own life and the number of times we can do such a thing. Indeed, our lives themselves are woefully linear: birth, school, work, death. Such an approach offers an easy solution to the problem we are confronting. With it we can triumphantly declare that we should not be surprised that art and literature can abolish time for time belongs to reality and art works belong to the realm of the fictive.
This misses something important about art and literature, about what it does and what it can do. For the idea of abolishing time does not just belong to the realm of literature and literary theory. It also occurs in a context that concerns reality, that of politics and political theory. The abolishment of time is key to the work of Sylvain Lazarus. Lazarus writes, in his 1996 book Anthropology of the Name, that politics requires the abolishment of time. What is at stake in this? For Lazarus the abolishment of time makes room for the possible.
Lazarus’ thought is complex, and the full details of his thought and his vast terminology need not concern us now. It is sufficient to say that Lazarus is interested in it what constitutes the activity of politics and in the fact that people think. This becomes the object of Anthropology of the Name. In order to demonstrate that people think he offers a vision of politics fundamentally connected with the notion of the possible. In his 2001 essay Workers Anthropology and Factory Inquiry, he writes:
“An anthropology of people’s thought such as I have conceived finds itself confronted with the following: the category “possible” is the category through which thought constitutes itself. For a situation to be understood by its possibles is a reversal compared to historicist or scientific thought, for which it is the precise investigation of what is, in terms of determinism, cause or law, that makes it possible to respond to the question of what could be.” (Lazarus, 2019)
In order for there to be politics, people must think. People’s thought is fundamentally connected to the idea of the possible. The idea of the possible, in order to break with what Lazarus calls ‘historicist’ thought, must abolish time.
Let us spend a little while longer with Lazarus before returning to literature. Lazarus takes seriously the work of French historian Marc Bloch, who argues in his 1949 book The Historians Craft, that the past is given and the future contingent. Lazarus demonstrates that for Bloch the past and the present are fundamentally linked, and this linkage means that the present becomes a given as well. In doing so Bloch’s thought closes off the present from the possible. Yet to say that only the future contains the possible is in fact to say that the possible will never arrive. The future is always to come, and when it comes it is the present, which is then given as it is fundamentally linked with the past.
Lazarus finds no way through these problems as long as we maintain a conception of time. In order to preserve the idea of the possible for politics, he must either abolish time or make the present the realm of the possible. Yet if the present becomes the realm of the possible, then so too does the past and all three tenses of time – past, present, future – lose their analytic distinction. To attach the notion of the possible to the present, then, is to abolish time. Making room for the possible requires the abolishment of time itself.
Why this dense and rather complicated detour? Because there is more at stake in art and literature’s abolishment of time then just a contrast between reality and the fictive. The abolishment of time is what allows the occurrence of the possible, allows one to break with what is. The history of political movements is a history in which the possible is demonstrated. A demonstration of the powerless gaining power, of the thoughtless thinking, of the dispossessed repossessing what has been lost, however briefly.
Literature too is about the possible. Not always and not necessarily. It does not always exploit this potential. Yet the ease with which literature does away with the conventions of time, the ease with which it demonstrates different forms of life and different worlds shows that more than being about unreality, being about the fictive, it is about the possible. It is about fashioning a different reality. Likewise, there is always the potential for politics and the abolition of time, but this does not necessarily happen. Reality, or at the very least political and social reality, is always primed with its own conditions of dissolution and abolishment.
To say that literature can abolish time because it is fictive is to say that it is fundamentally an exercise in daydreaming. To say that it can abolish time because it is concerned with the possible is to reimbue it with political and radical potential. If there is one thing I know about this world – past, future and present – it is that another world is possible.
Anderson, P. (1998) The Origins of Postmodernity. London: Verso Books.
Bloch, M. (1953) The Historian’s Craft. Trans.Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage Books.
Lazarus, S. (2015) Anthropology of the Name. trans. Gila Walker. New York: Seagull Books.
Lazarus, S. (2019). Workers Anthropology and Factory Inquiry. trans. Asad Haider and Patrick King. Viewpoint Magazine.