Colonial Capital and Imperialist Time: Harry Harootunian on the Ontology of the Historical Present

Harry Harootunian’s fascinating article ‘Remembering the Historical Present’ (2007) is a blistering critique of the banalities of modernization theory; the poverty of spatial configurations for understanding the global world order; and the problems of national borders and methodologies in historical and area studies. Reading the article, I was struck by the way in which Harootunian places temporality at the centre of understandings of colonialism, modernity, and capitalism.

Harootunian sees the (often violent) encounters between indigenous and European populations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries primarily as encounters between ‘representatives personifying capital and the demands of the world market’, on the one hand, and ‘local population(s) brought into the market’s widening orbit’, on the other (Harootunian 2007: 473). Because imperialist strategies encouraged ‘a normative path to the realization of “modernity”, exemplified by Euro-America, much of the world was cast in its shadow, destined to endless delay and the distant prospect of catch-up’ (474). Global capitalist time, which situated the global at the level of the everyday ‘unsettling and segregating it into heterogenous units’ (473), therefore increasingly displaced ‘the uncanny temporal figure to the world outside Euro-America and put its societies under the sign of underdevelopment’ (486).

As Harootunian goes on to point out, what this normative path to modernity managed to veil was the ‘collision of temporalities’ occasioned by an ‘exported world-standard time demanded by capital and its overseas expansion’ (what he calls ‘a new imperialization of time’) and ‘diverse local times and modes of existence’ (474). This enabled Euro-America to map unevenness in the form of ‘delay’ or ‘arrest’ onto Africa and Asia, while concealing the uneven ‘discordant temporalities’ within their own societies and making it appear a temporal problem of the ‘non-modern’ (474). Thus, what Reinhart Koselleck calls ‘our time’ and Hans Robert Jauss ‘our modernity’ in fact marginalizes societies outside of the industrial centres of Euro-America (Koselleck 1985: 246).

As Hartoonunian points out in a particularly insightful critique of the developmental structure underpinning Koselleck’s argument in Futures Past (1985), ‘[m]odernity, now a write-over of capitalism, constitutes a global historic phenomenon proclaiming the advent of new time’ (481). Capitalism is ‘the name Koselleck never dares to mention’ (481), but capitalism’s ‘chronologically uniform time’ and ‘relentless desire to transform plural histories into a single one’ (481, 482) is what bolsters our own ‘self-valorizing and self-referring modernity and its superiority over both its antecedents and others’ (438).

As Marx reminds us, however, capitalism has always been suffused with remainders of other, prior modes of production and existence (Marx 1973: 105-6). Moreover, capitalism as a practice inevitably produces ‘different temporalities in the various operations of production, circulation and distribution’ (Hartoonunian 2007: 484). Unevenness, it seems, is not a temporary condition but rather a functional outcome of capitalist accumulation. As Harootunian puts it, ‘[a] historical present filled with mixed temporalities has always been a condition of capitalist modernization, even as its copresent uncanniness was suppressed by both the authority of the future perfect and the expectations of progress that vowed to raise all societies to the same level’ (486).

Harootunian ultimately recommends a return to the perspective of the historical present (‘now time’ or Jetztzeit, as Walter Benjamin called it, to distinguish it from ‘homogenous empty time’ (Benjamin 1983: 261)), one ‘teeming with competing temporalities’, mixed temporalities, and ‘transtemporal’ memories (490-91, 492), as well as ‘the reinstatement of the historical uncanny that had been written over by a familiarizing strategy of the socialization of national history’ (492). In so doing, he seeks nothing less than

a discourse on modernity that speaks to the world, one centered principally in understanding the history of our present as the unity of uneven temporalizations differentiating global geopolitical space, rather than merely affirming or cheering on a globalizing project that sees the world only as the true space of the commodity relation (493).

Any such model of the durational present must, for Harootunian, be more about mixed temporalizations than about spatial configurations, which he sees as inadequate to the task of capturing the uneven power dynamics of the global world order.

As this brief overview of his article suggests, Harootunian dislikes the overuse of modernization theory as a way of thinking about history. In his latest book, Marx after Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism (2015), he deprovincializes a Western version of Marx which offers a purely European explanation of capitalism by turning to Marx’s own earlier explanations of capital’s origins and development. These explanations show how local circumstances, times, and cultures intervened to shape capital’s systems of production in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I look forward to reading this book over the coming weeks as a way of thinking about the temporalities of colonial encounters and the natural of colonial modernity more generally.

Works Cited

 Benjamin, Walter. ‘Thesis on the Philosophy of History’. In Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968. pp. 253-264.

Harootunian, Harry. ‘Remembering the Historical Present’. Critical Inquiry 33.3 (2007): 471-494.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Trans. Keith Tribe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). 1857-61. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. New York: Penguin, 1973.

Porscha Fermanis is Professor of Romantic Literature at University College Dublin. Her research interests include global Romanticisms and colonial book history; Romantic historicism and the philosophy of history; the relationship between Enlightenment and Romanticism; and the work of John Keats. Her current research for the SouthHem project focuses on literary appreciation and the history of reading in the Straits Settlements. 


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