Time, presence, and historical injustice

The relationship between history and justice traditionally has been dominated by the idea of the past as distant or absent (and with that, irreversible). This ambiguous ontological status makes it very difficult to situate the often-felt "duty to remember" or obligation to "do justice to the past" in that past itself, and this has led philosophers from Friedrich Nietzsche to Keith Jenkins to plead against an "obsession" with history in favor of an ethics aimed at the present. History's ability to contribute to the quest for justice, as a result, often seems very restricted or even nonexistent. The introduction of the "presence"-paradigm in historiography can potentially alter this relation between history and justice. However, to do so it should be conceived in such a way that it offers a fundamental critique of the metaphysical dichotomy between the present and the absent and the underlying concept of time (chronosophy) that supports this dichotomy. The "presence"-paradigm can be emancipatory and productive only if presence and absence are not perceived as absolute dichotomies. In the first part of this article I elaborate on the influence that the present/absent dichotomy has on the notion of justice by introducing a conceptual contrast between what I will call the "time of jurisdiction" and the "time of history." The second part of the article focuses on the way certain aspects of the dominant Western chronosophy reinforce the present/absent dichotomy and thereby prevent us from thoroughly exploring the ambiguous but often very problematic presence of the past. Throughout the article I refer to the relatively recent phenomenon of truth commissions and the context of transitional justice to discuss some challenges for the "presence"-paradigm.