Recapping the Reinvention of Time

A couple weeks ago, while I was in the Bay Area for archival research, I ran into our very own Joanna on Berkeley’s campus. She was there to participate in a two-day conference called “The Reinvention of Time: Articulations of the Past and Future in the Scientific Present,” and invited me to tag along for her paper and a keynote (and the reception, naturally).

We decided, when we parted ways, that it might be fun to write up a few of the many tantalizing threads from the weekend’s conversation. So, what follows is a continuation of our “interview” series, wherein Hank (a relative outsider who saw a fraction of the proceedings) poses questions to Joanna (a relative insider and a participant-observer over the weekend) about what made the event so exciting.

The conversation recaps the conference, goes into detail on some of its thematic highlights, and goes on to address temporality, periodization, interdisciplinarity, and other topics of interest to readers of this blog.


Let’s start with a softball: what was up with “The Reinvention of Time”? How’d it come together, who was there, how’d you get involved?

The conference was the brainchild of four amazing graduate students at Berkeley and UCSF: Theresa MacPhail, Martine Lappe, James Battle, and Jade Sasser. Their call for a forum on “The Reinvention of Time” was inspired by shared interest in a paper titled “Anticipation: Technoscience, Life, Affect, Temporality” co-authored by Vincanne Adams (UCSF), Adele Clarke (UCSF), and Michelle Murphy (U of Toronto) and published in 2009 in the journal Subjectivity.

These grad students decided that the most efficient way to figure out “the essence” of a recent focus on time [bad pun!] was to get scholars from a range of relevant disciplines (e.g., history, anthro, sociology, etc) into the same room to consider their work in terms of issues of temporality. The program read like a who’s who of West Coast science studies and I’ll list it for our readers’ edification: Vincanne Adams, Andrew Lakoff, Rosemary Joyce, Cathryn Carson, Thomas Laqueur, Larwence Cohen, Timothy Choi, Kimberly Tallbear, Paul Rabinow, Cori Hayden, Charis Thompson, Joseph Dumit, Sharon Kaufman, Adele Clarke, and Michelle Murphy.

The organizers also sent out a CFP for junior scholars interested in work-shopping their own projects the following day, which is how I got involved. My current research deals with how technologies (e.g., freezers) and ideologies of preservation combined in the 1950s to produce repositories of frozen human tissue for studies of evolution, migration, and variation. I think a lot about the consequences of that endeavor and the ways in which freezers lead body parts to become temporally out of joint with social and cultural circumstances. It was exciting to have the opportunity to present my historical work to this interdisciplinary audience.


Can you give a specific example of what it means to work out issues of temporality in a group of scholars from different disciplines? How does being a historian lead you to approach these issues, and how’s that different from an anthropologist (if at all)?

Ok, that’s a big question. Let me start by making some gross generalizations about how historians regard their relationship to temporality: we think about the past (including what people in the past thought about the future). At the same time — sensitive to matters of contingency — we are cautious about using our knowledge of the past to make ‘predictions’ about future events.

Perhaps for this reason, many of us resist engagement with the communities or we study or with their descendents (though I think this is an open issue for discussion). Time is seen as linear: first past, then present, then future.Now, many at the symposium pointed out that, as historians, anthropologists, and sociologists of science, technology, and medicine, our very subjects of study challenge us to reconsider or “reinvent” our linear notions of time. In turn, our own roles as experts are being reinvented.

A powerful example came through during historian Michelle Murphy’s keynote talk, “Time in the Data of Cholera” She made a reflexive — and, I think, fundamentally anthropological — move that I found deeply satisfying. She took the archive (in this case, the archive of public health data about cholera in Bangladesh) not as an unproblematic resource for information about the past — but as a historical subject. Murphy considered this archive not as a simple repository for what has already happened (the past), but a resource that becomes available to be mined for the future. This resonated with my own attention to how old anthropological blood samples are being mined for new components as they pass through novel experimental systems.

For Murphy, the effort to historicize the past and future as relational effects required taking time itself as a category to be probed. Where I think she most strongly drew from anthropological approaches in her task as a historian was to be explicit in acknowledging her own participation in the refiguration of the archive. In other words, she cannot claim to stand ‘outside’ of efforts to produce data about cholera. By working in the archive she is changing the archive and this insight becomes central to her ethical and intellectual positioning.

A similar expression of the fruits of this kind of reflexivity could be seen in historian Cathryn Carson’s talk “Past Futures of Nuclear Waste,” on the relation between historical knowledge and conceptualizations of the appropriate modes of disposal for nuclear waste. She tracked changes in efforts to account for the huge timescales over which such materials need to be sequestered. Carson highlighted shifts from modeling to simulation in officials’ efforts to ‘produce control over the future.’

Like Murphy, Carson found herself compelled to accept her own complicity in this enterprise. She was called to testify for a blue ribbon committee on nuclear waste about what it means to project a possible future. In other words, her historical expertise in how people in the past have thought about the future became a resource for those in the present tasked with forecasting the future. No one used this exact phrase, but there was a general sense that ‘social construction’ having run its very productive course, the ‘temporal construction’ of things might be the next wave of science studies.


Let me ask about periodization: the projects you’re talking about tend to be on very recent topics. What does reflexivity and/or “temporal construction” look like for folks who work on earlier periods (admittedly uncommon for historians of American science, but maybe worth thinking about anyway)?

Good question. While the topics addressed in this conference were overwhelmingly late 20th/early 21st century ones, I don’t think that the consequences of these insights are irrelevant or difficult to extrapolate to those working in earlier periods. Much as the move to ‘social construction’ was taken up and most persuasively illustrated by those concerned with knowledge in the 17th century (e.g., Leviathan and the Air Pump), ‘temporal construction’ — as you so nicely phrase it — is actively being pursued by historians like Thomas Laqueur, whose work on sexed and gendered bodies reaches back to the earliest glimmers of the Enlightenment.

Laqueur also participated in the symposium with a talk he called “The Deep Time of the Dead.” His engagement with matters of temporality, as applied to corpses, provided him with a justification for backing away from a self-described hard-core commitment to social construction. The dead body, he suggested, does work quite independently of cultural views. In other words, thinking about the new kinds of things that dead bodies do after the beginning of the Enlightenment (e.g., encourage nation building by reburial in new territories) shifts our focus to problems of time *and* to the materiality of the body.

Different bodies have their own times — and one thinks of Jakob von Uexkull as invoked at the confernece by M. Mather George. She is an anthropologist who is thinking about intersecting lifecycles of dogs, parasites, and humans in the context of Indian public health campaigns. That said, the reinvention of time doesn’t escape from social construction — for the ways in which we measure and account for time (even biological time) are profoundly social. However, it does inspire a call to action . . . in terms of the question of ‘relevance’ for academics.

If our work can engage with how notions of time mediate and saturate our experiences, then we may succeed in provoking a new awareness of the consequences and possibilities inherent in the ways people have oriented themselves towards the past, present, and future. To me, this is a means for historians of science working across sub-fields and time periods to provide resources for making sense of a present that fetishizes the past even as it direct our gaze towards the unknown future.

I also want to add that there are many paths towards reflexivity, not just via conversations with anthropologists. It would be exciting to see what a reflexivity born out of sustained conversations within history of science would look like — I suspect it would have its own distinct flavor. However, the conversations taking place across history and anthropology provide some very useful articulations to work with and against.


So, is the lesson I should take away that I should be engaging with time in subtler ways (“temporal construction”), or that I should be engaging in more cross-disciplinary dialogues about all sorts of things, time included?

I definitely think we can expect to see more work — across time periods — engaging with nuanced and non-linear conceptions of temporality. That said, I don’t want to be prescriptive. I do find it invigorating to engage with people from different disciplinary backgrounds around common concepts. Even if one rejects what is being offered, the encounter may stand to sharpen one’s own commitments and sense of purpose.

My training in history and sociology of science has particularly sensitized me to the ways in which disciplines cut up knowledge. Meetings like these can provide a space for therapeutic ‘suturing,’ be it through sharing ideas and tools or for getting traction on a issue of global concern. To wit, prior to this meeting, Cathryn Carson and anthropologist Rosemary Joyce did not realize they were both investigating issues of nuclear waste. It was a shared recognition of the question of temporality that brought them to this symposium and I am eager to see how this experience impacts their respective endeavors.


2 thoughts on “Recapping the Reinvention of Time

  1. Anonymous

    The journal title is Subjectivity, not the plural cited here. You many want to fix it in the text. Thanks for the article.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s