Babur [right] and Humayun with Courtiers (Detail), Late Shahjahan Period, ca. 1650.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rethinking the "Time".

While we discuss and reconsider the periodisation prevalent in history as a discipline, we can take a step back and look at the origins of the concept of periodisation itself. Why does history need to be periodised? Essentially and quintessentially because it deals with time. We in the present practice of history writing, given to us in the 'glorious lineage' of the European modernist ideas, crystallized by Kant, Hegel, Ranke or Marx write an essentially 'progressive' history where we move from the distant past to the 'proxima'-present. This practice treats time as a flat, linear sequence that takes no twists, turns or somersaults and it also takes for granted that the history unfolds a positive human history, which has at its telos the 'greatest point' of human history -be it the Kantian Cosmopolitan state or the Marxian Scientific communism. But if we could for a second assume the absence of a linear time, if we could think of the various time frames available to us, as Rossamond Mckitterick would argue that in the prehistory of the linear time there were the cyclical time, the monastic time, astronomical time etc. which necessarily were not linear as understood today. The linearity as Mckitterick suggests was a monarchic-political contribution and not a social-economic one.
The question that comes next is so what if the linear time was political and not social economic? The answer is that it opens up possibilities. Possibilities if we consider the writing of history as an outcome of a heightened social memory, an agreed version of the past of a community, then we can consider the concept of time as also a phenomenon of consensus, a controlled-manipulative unit, that can be exploited by various histories of various consensus and various legitimacy. Also assuming at this point that each consensus understands history in its own way which may or may not be understood similarly by other parallel consensuses.
Therefore considering the straight line time scheme(liner sequence of temporality) to be just one of the 'legitimate forms', let us look at a time scheme prevalent among a group of writers in early modern South India, the Karanams. Velcheru Narayan Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam in Textures of Time writes of the use of Kala-Jnana(knowledge of time) as a form of time scheme among the Karanams where the historical relation is presented as prediction, the time in this form doesnot move in one single direction but travels to and fro. The authors also identify parallel time frames with cyclical sequence(that repeat at intervals) interspersed with events presented in linear sequential mode(for example the life of a king). Surprisingly this reminds us of the Annales' three fold time frame (the longe duree or the long term, the conjunctures or the cyclical occurences and the event or the immediate unique occurrence )! The (high sounding) proposal is therefore to look at the various possible ways of understanding time, in various spacial, temporal or communitarian(among various groups) consensuses to seek possibilities of newer modes of periodisation.

Santanu Sengupta


Olive Oyl said...

Santanu da, that post was truly enlightening. Could you please elaborate on the concept of kala-jnana?

-sohini chattopadhyay, second year.

Pratyay said...

Santanu has signaled a new direction of discussion in the Club. A few points, however, need a bit more explication. The following lines may serve as a footnote.
The Annales school of history writing began with the goal of writing 'total history' of human societies, incorporating the tools of the different social sciences. It was begun in the inter-war period in France by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. Their histories focused mainly on the exploration of the mental realm of individuals as well as collective societies. Between the 1950s and 1970s, this tradition of history-writing was led by Fernand Braudel. In his 'The Medieterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II', Braudel introduced the notion of three types of temporalities: a very fast moving time of political and military affairs [événementielle], a very slow-moving time of structures that changed extremely slowly, like geography [longue durée], and between these two, a socio-economic time, changing at a moderate rate [conjuncture]. Among these, Braudel was most interested in the longue durée. From the late-1960s onwards, a new generation of historians began to write the history of collective mentalities. This tradition within Annales is known as history of mentalities [histoire des mentalités]. The tripartite division of time is one of the greatest theoretical contributions of the Annales school of history-writing.

santanu sengupta said...

Thanks Sohini, as Pratyay da has already suggested me, i will have to elaborate on a few things.
Let me begin with your question. Kala-Jnana as I have already said, if broken up etymologically gives the Knowledge (Jnana) of Time (Kala).Originally an art of prediction i.e. astrology in some sense. This was used as a form of time scheme in 17th century by Karanam historians in South India. Here the historian weaves his/her narrative in the form of prediction. It suggests that the concept of past among the Karanam historians was that of holding a wisdom in it, which unfolds itself in a given time frame but (unlike the modern European historical frame where we begin at point of past and move forward) in the narrative the historian keeps visiting the past from various points of present and future and keeps cycling between several points of time. Given this use, the past-present-future are actually used as interchangeable categories. Moreover there is also a larger time frame in which this predicted time frame is placed, that is of a cyclic frame where events may occur and recur (for example the cycle of birth and death.) Therefore look at the multiple time schemes in one single narrative- there is a to & fro movement between past-present-future, there is a linear sequence of implicit movement forward and also a repetitive cycle. Such uses of multiple time frames problematise entirely the present notions of periodisation and push us to think newer ways of understanding history itself.
Reading some translated quotes of Karanam writers will prove helpful in trying to understand this complex notion as I can understand my inability of becoming enough lucid as the concept is also very complex for my sensibilities used to the modern history writing! You can try to get hold of “TEXTURES OF TIME: writing history in South India 1600-1800” by Velcheru Narayan Rao/David Shulman/Sanjay Subrahmanyam and take a look at the chapters 3 and 5(if unavailable let me know I will try and take a copy of those two chapters in one of the club sessions.)

Siddhartha Mukherjee said...

Santanu Da,I find your post very very interesting.Can you please elucidate on this in one of the next sessions of medieval history club?