Tales of pastness and contemporaneity: on the politics of time in history and anthropology

In this article I address the political use of discourses, symbols and logics of time in historiography and anthropology. For a major part of the article, I focus on the anthropologist Johannes Fabian whose writings offer a strong criticism of the politics of time and also have great relevance for historians and philosophers of history. Fabian criticizes anthropology for treating the Other as if living in another time, and he proposes to counter these ‘politics of time’ by stressing the contemporaneity of humanity and the coevalness of anthropologists and their research objects. I follow Fabian’s analysis of the political (ab)use of spatiotemporal ‘distancing’ but argue that this (ab)use cannot successfully be addressed by stressing the notions of coevalness and contemporaneity. Rather, I radically embrace the idea of non-coevalness and non-contemporaneity. I argue that allochronism results not necessarily from a ‘denial of coevalness’ but, rather, from a specific notion of historical contemporaneity. Drawing on arguments by Jacques Derrida I claim that parts of Fabian’s thinking are dependent on a problematic ‘metaphysics of presence.’ Drawing on the work of Louis Althusser and Peter Osborne I argue for a more emancipatory analysis of the politics of time.