Crisis, Chronology, and Change: The Politics of Time

Jieun Kim
Japanese Studies
University of Leeds

“Crisis” has become a common term today applied to various challenges society faces, whether they be attributed to geopolitical conflicts, to sovereign defaults, or to climate change. This also means that many academics find themselves involved in scholarly and public engagement amidst the ethos of crisis, as well as being called upon to offer their analyses of crisis situations. Critically examining the epistemological assumptions and political implications underpinning invocations of “crisis,” we might as well take a step back to ask what such a diagnosis of a given moment reveals about our conceptions of time. Crisis narratives come with a sense of urgency and gravity grounded in particular ideas about the shape, direction, and pace of time, which afford specific modes of staying above, looking back, or moving forward.

CSSH has published a wealth of articles capturing how people became acutely aware of time in the face of violent intrusions, destructions and losses on a massive scale or abrupt changes brought forth by introductions of new systems and technologies. Many articles have also delved into how intentions to control time were built into various imperialist and modernist projects, and how aspirations for subversion incorporated alternative tactics and visions of time. This syllabus navigates several main analytics of time through CSSH articles that transport the readers to different times and places, ranging from the Mayan anti-Spain revolts to the Arab Spring. In the vivid accounts drawn from archival materials and ethnographic data, the readers may find recurrent themes around a set of axes (linear/circular, forward/backward, continuous/punctuated, singular/multiple, etc.), and examples of how different authors handle the difficult task of grasping the enmeshment of temporal consciousness, representations, actions, and events.

Crisis and Liminality

As an entry into the topic, the readers may start with the most recent publications dealing with the political and economic turmoil of our time. The readers will see how financial crises, whether it be in Greece (2007-2008) or Argentina (2001-2002), deeply impinge on people’s daily lives, affecting how they position themselves in the world and find orientation in time (Kalatzis 2015; Muir 2016). The readers will also find the limits of crisis narratives in explaining a phenomenon as complicated as suicide, whose temporal and discursive scope often goes beyond that of the crisis (Davis 2015). Meanwhile, on the other side of despair and resentment are aspirations for change, which may erupt into uprisings and protests. Corporeal experiences of solidarity, such as building and maintaining barricades (Dzenovska and Arenas 2012) or of confronting the police (Ismail 2013), generate lasting memories and new imaginations for the future. Yet, it is also such liminal times that give rise to ambivalent figures, or “tricksters,” who change the course of events into an unpredictable direction (Armbrust 2013).

Armbrust, Walter. 2013. “The Trickster in Egypt’s January 25th Revolution.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55 (4): 834–64.

Davis, Elizabeth. 2015. “‘We’ve Toiled without End’: Publicity, Crisis, and the Suicide ‘Epidemic’ in Greece.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57 (4): 1007–36.

Dzenovska, Dace, and Iván Arenas. 2012. “Don’t Fence Me In: Barricade Sociality and Political Struggles in Mexico and Latvia.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54 (3). 644–78.

Kalantzis, Konstantinos. 2015. “‘Fak Germani’: Materialities of Nationhood and Transgression in the Greek Crisis.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57 (4): 1037–69.

Ismail, Salwa. 2013. “Urban Subalterns in the Arab Revolutions: Cairo and Damascus in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55 (4).865–94.

Muir, Sarah. 2016. “On Historical Exhaustion: Argentine Critique in an Era of ‘Total Corruption.’” Comparative Studies in Society and History 58 (1): 129–58.

The End of Time

However, how do we know where people locate the moment of crisis in the passage of time? Or does time pass at all during crises? Maybe the quality of time is different, so much so that it comes to a halt, or even, to an end? How time’s end is conceived has been a central question grappled by anthropologists in the classical studies on millennial movements, such as the Melanesian cargo cults and the Native American ghost dances. CSSH’s earlier publications provide a good overview of comparative analyses of millennial thinking in these movements (Mair 1959; Mead 1959; Wilson 1963), as well as in other religious and historical contexts (Kitzinger 1966; Kuhn 1977; Malalgoda 1970; Sharot 1980). Paul Greenough’s article (1986) would make an interesting read to complement the recent publications on crisis, as it leads us to question the etymological associations carried by the English term. Situated in early twentieth-century Bengal, the article discusses how the popular distress evoked by the death of a charismatic Indian politician (C. R. Das) cannot be explained without understanding the Bengali view of crisis as an epochal punctuation [FIGURE 1]. We could further ask how conceptions of time inform political actions during periods of crises, whether they be taking preventative or proactive measures for changes or accepting inevitable transitions between different epochs.

The readers might find some of these explanations rather static or “culturalistic,” as if matching different conceptions of time with different religions and traditions. One might also notice variations of the structuralist binary of linear and circular time. In this binary, linear time is closely associated with literacy and the Judeo-Christian tradition, which adheres to the notion of time passing through irreversible sequences of unique events until the end that recedes into eternity. Circular time is associated with oral traditions, where “the myth of the eternal return” compels ritual reenactments of the creational events to re-establish the cosmic order. In later CSSH publications, this theme is explored further with a variety of nuanced analyses showing the dynamic intertwinement of linear and circular times in various contexts (Eiss 2002; Farriss 1987; Robbins 2001). These studies reveal how these two times are not exclusive to each other and how their articulations shift according to historical contingencies and structural changes.

Eiss, Paul K. 2002. “Redemptions Archive: Remembering the Future in a Revolutionary Past.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44 (1): 106–36.

Farriss, Nancy M. 1987. “Remembering the Future, Anticipating the Past: History, Time, and Cosmology among the Maya of Yucatan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 29 (3): 566–93.

Greenough, Paul. 1986. “The Death of an Uncrowned King—C. R. Das and Political Crisis in Twentieth-Century Bengal.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 28 (3): 414–41.

Kitzinger, Sheila. 1966. “The Rastafarian Brethren of Jamaica.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 9 (1): 33–39.

Kuhn, Philip A. 1977. “Origins of the Taiping Vision: Cross-Cultural Dimensions of a Chinese Rebellion.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 19 (3): 350–66.

Malalgoda, Kitsiri. 1970. “Millennialism in Relation to Buddhism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 12 (4): 424–41.

Mead, Margaret. 1959. “Independent Religious Movements.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 1 (4): 324–29.

Robbins, Joel. 2001. “Secrecy and the Sense of an Ending: Narrative, Time, and Everyday Millenarianism in Papua New Guinea and in Christian Fundamentalism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (3): 525–51.

Sharot, Stephen. 1980. “Jewish Millenarianism: A Comparison of Medieval Communities.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 22 (3): 394–415.

Wilson, Bryan. 1963. “Millennialism in Comparative Perspective.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 6 (1): 93–114.

Genealogy, Oral History, and Chronotope

This section brings the readers to consider how historical time is configured through mediums of record and practices of re-enactment. Benedict Anderson had famously stated in Imagined Community (1991) that modern nationhood emerged along with the consciousness of simultaneity prompted by the spread of mass media. According to Anderson, the idea of a nation marching through a homogenous empty time went hand in hand with the construction an official national history. Many CSSH articles provide vivid accounts showing how the actual process might have involved a more complicated politics of memory in many places. The readers will find the knowledge of patrilineal genealogy remaining decisive in claims for a privileged position in larger national, transregional, or cosmic orders, especially for men of traditional authorities (Birchok 2015; Shryock 1995). Meanwhile, the narratives of women and ethnic minorities were often fractured, as they were denied of their role in historic events and consigned to the place of “backwardness” (Makley 2005; McGranahan 2010; Wilce 2002). However, memories are unruly and resilient, escaping the state’s official historical narrative (Neyzi 2002) as well as the academic analytic frames (Stoler and Strasser 2000). A number of CCSH authors have also explored Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of chronotope, i.e., specific configurations of time-space that make stories come alive (Bakhtin 1984). According to these studies, careful alignment of multiple chronotopes is a prerequisite to making the past – realistic or mythic – tangible, whether it be through “good acting” (Lemon 2009) or pilgrimage (Alatas 2016).

Alatas, Ismail Fajrie. 2016. “The Poetics of Pilgrimage: Assembling Contemporary Indonesian Pilgrimage to Ḥaḍramawt, Yemen.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 58 (3): 607–35.

Birchok, Daniel Andrew. 2015. “Putting Habib Abdurrahim in His Place: Genealogy, Scale, and Islamization in Seunagan, Indonesia.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57 (2): 497–527.

Lemon, Alaina. 2009. “Sympathy for the Weary State?: Cold War Chronotopes and Moscow Others.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51 (4): 832–64.

Makley, Charlene. 2005. “‘Speaking Bitterness’: Autobiography, History, and Mnemonic Politics on the Sino-Tibetan Frontier.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 47 (1): 40–78.

McGranahan, Carole. 2010. “Narrative Dispossession: Tibet and the Gendered Logics of Historical Possibility.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (4): 768–97.

Neyzi, Leyla. 2002. “Remembering to Forget: Sabbateanism, National Identity, and Subjectivity in Turkey.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44 (1): 137–58.

Shryock, Andrew J. 1995. “Popular Genealogical Nationalism: History Writing and Identity among the Balga Tribes of Jordan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (2): 325–57.

Stoler, Ann Laura, and Karen Strassler. 2000. “Castings for the Colonial: Memory Work in ‘New Order’ Java.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 42 (1): 4–48.

Wilce, James. 2002. “Genres of Memory and the Memory of Genres: ‘Forgetting’ Lament in Bangladesh.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44 (1): 159–85.

* Related Readings
Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso.

Bakhtin, M. M., and Michael Holquist. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Voprosy Literatury I ėstetiki.English, xxxiv, 444 p. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Refracted Time

If the previous section draws attention to the ways in which people claim their place in historical time, the articles in this section bring to focus how traces of the past refract the modernist pursuit of progress. In some cases, it is the memories of past violence that continue to afflict the present, as for the Lolop’o minority in Southwest China in the 1990s. Ghost stories and exorcism rituals enacted paths of spiral movement for them, subverting the linear path for development promoted by the Chinese state (Mueggler 1999). In other cases, material remnants are retrieved and refurbished in an attempt to resurrect the idealized sociality of the (imagined) past, as revealed in the boom of collective hunting for Roman pottery relics in a fishing village in Mediterranean France during the 1970s (Hodges 2013), as in the transformation of abandoned factories into “cathedrals of labor” in the postindustrial town in north Italia today (Muehlebach 2017). These seemingly backward-oriented practices, however, express aspirations to create a new path into the future, which are generated from insightful grasp of the present moment in the changing political economy (Hann 2015).

Hann, Chris. 2015. “Backwardness Revisited: Time, Space, and Civilization in Rural Eastern Europe.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57 (4): 881–911.

Hodges, Matt. 2013. “Illuminating Vestige: Amateur Archaeology and the Emergence of Historical Consciousness in Rural France.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55 (2): 474–504.

Mueggler, Erik. 1999. “Spectral Subversions: Rival Tactics of Time and Agency in Southwest China.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41 (3): 458–81.

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2017. “The Body of Solidarity: Heritage, Memory, and Materiality in Post-Industrial Italy.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59 (1): 96–126.

The Promises of Progress

This last section of the syllabus invites the readers to consider how promises of progress underpin massive aspirational projects as well as daily conducts and consumption. An appeal to a miraculous future can attract enthusiasts amidst uncertainties, as seen in the boom of pyramid schemes in Romania in the early 1990s (Verdery 1995), as well as in the recent state-led developmental projects in the Special Zones of the China-Lao borders (Nyiri 2012). Several CSSH articles also point out how certain emblematic material forms fulfill or betray promises of progress, from the Socialist modern-style goods and buildings in state-socialist Hungary (Fehervary 2009) to the half-built villas in Dakar funded by Senegalese migrants working abroad in the 2000s (Melly 2010). Meanwhile, the impetus of progress evokes a sense of “being left behind,” as experienced by the unemployed young men in North India, whose daily struggles were fraught with various attempts to “fix the future” (Jeffrey 2009).

Fehérváry, Krisztina. 2009. “Goods and States: The Political Logic of State-Socialist Material Culture.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51 (2): 426–59.

Jeffrey, Craig. 2009. “Fixing Futures: Educated Unemployment through a North Indian Lens.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51 (1): 182–211.

Melly, Caroline. 2010. “Inside-Out Houses: Urban Belonging and Imagined Futures in Dakar, Senegal.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (1): 37–65.

Nyíri, Pál. 2012. “Enclaves of Improvement: Sovereignty and Developmentalism in the Special Zones of the China-Lao Borderlands.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54 (3): 533–62.

Reid, Richard J. 2014. “Ghosts in the Academy: Historians and Historical Consciousness in the Making of Modern Uganda.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56 (2): 351–80.

Verdery, Katherine. 1995. “Faith, Hope, and Caritas in the Land of the Pyramids: Romania, 1990 to 1994.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (4): 625–69.

Figure 1. The diagram in Paul Greenough’s article





Figure 1 The leader’s death in two traditions, from Paul Greenough (1986:438)


Figure 2. Images of clocks in Krisztina Fehervary’s article





Figure 2 Full-page advertisement for clocks in the home of décor magazine, Lakáskultúra (1967,1) from Krisztina Fehervary (2009: 439)

Jieun Kim is a Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Leeds. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist focusing on the study of social marginalization in the context of contemporary Japan and South Korea. Her research examines the daily power dynamics that define certain groups as “others” or as lesser members of society based on perceptions of social and bodily differences. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Asian Anthropology, and New Genetics and Society. She was CSSH’s editorial assistant from 2013 to 2014.