Flights on a verbal trapeze

The Politics of Time
January 31, 1997

The theme of this book is important and central to any adequate understanding of the politics of modernity. We tend to think of the categories of modernity, the avant-garde, tradition, etc, as classifications of discrete periods and styles. In doing this we engage in just the kind of totalising of time that Peter Osborne sees as characteristic of modernity. Modernity is, he claims, a way of thinking of our history that "valorises the new as the product of a constantly self-regulating temporal dynamic". What he means is that modernity's conception of time privileges the new only because it denies the real narrative historicality of things, culture and politics.

I think this assessment of modernity's misconception of time is right. It allows Osborne to capture accurately the problematic character of modernity's conception of history that produces "traditionalism" - the reactionary tendency to pluck a tradition out of its history and enforce it upon the present. This is a philosophical error as much as a political one, for it is indicative of a failure to understand the narrative dynamic of the present's emergence from tradition, a tradition whose place is resolutely behind us no matter how we may re-interpret it in our ongoing reorientation to both past and future.

Modernity's appropriation of tradition as something that ends up abstracted from its historicality is Osborne's central example of what he means by historical totalisation. Osborne's purpose in studying the politics of time is to defend historical totalisation and to articulate a dialectic of modernity, eternity and tradition.

The early parts of Osborne's work, in which he sets up the issues, are the most enlightening. My doubts about the book's development are largely methodological. Despite some interesting insights along the way, Osborne's approach is not so much to produce a philosophy of time as a cultural commentary deeply embedded in the categorisations of a few narrowly chosen texts. We are all guilty of privileging our favoured authors and traditions, but to do so is compatible with formulating our theses in a way that communicates effectively with other approaches.

Osborne's book will be enthusiastically received by those already enmeshed in Heidegger's and Benjamin's cultural theory. Even with such a background it is not an easy read and its audience will probably reach no further than fellow academics. The 802 endnotes run to over 40 pages and the language, which inherits some of the verbal gymnastics of Osborne's heroes, severely impairs comprehension. For example, Osborne says that for Benjamin fascism was an "aestheticisation of politics" and then immediately flips this round to "a political management of aesthetics". Furthermore, the same grammatical somersault is performed with the claim that Heidegger's analysis of temporality is "'effectively an aestheticisation of ontology or ontologisation of transcendental aesthetics"! Flights on the verbal trapeze can be entertaining, but without a safety net of a more rigorous expression too much is placed at risk.

This is a pity. The topic is important and deserves a wide audience that would include the much wider band of philosophers now working on time and narrative. Osborne might complain that philosophy itself, as much as our conception of history, can only be undertaken with a close attention to its texts and traditions. All right, but we also need a distinction between attention and total immersion, for it is only by avoiding a total immersion that our orientation to philosophy's past leaves a future that is, at least partially, open.

Michael Luntley is senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Warwick.

The Politics of Time: Modernity and the Avant-Garde

Author - Peter Osborne
ISBN - 0 86091 482 8 and 652 9
Publisher - Verso
Price - £39.95 and £14.95
Pages - 2

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