What We Talked About At ISA: Rhythm, Time and History

With thanks to Elisabetta Brighi and Xavier Guillaume for putting together the Rhythms of the International roundtable and their inspiring contributions, to Robbie Shilliam for his song, and Kyle Grayson for his spirited and thoughtful engagement. And by no means least, to the pleasingly sizeable and lively crowd who gave the last panel of the last day such a buzz.

Below is a write-up of my contribution to the roundtable, in which I reflected on the relationship of rhythm and history, and drew out some of the potential disruptions that a different rhythmic sensibility might have on our conception of history.

What is rhythm?

To my shame, colleagues, and partly out of curiosity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Shame, because if you are looking something up in a dictionary before giving a talk on it, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk on it. Curiosity, because I wanted to know how they would define ‘rhythm’ in words rather than in noises.

The dictionary answers were not particularly edifying. One definition spoke of ‘repeated, regular beats’, another of a ‘regulated succession’ of beats. Thud, thud, thud. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, thud, boom, thud. These definitions felt flat, and rather forbidding. But I suppose this is because they were the generic definitions of all kinds of ‘rhythm’, and not just the samba playing in my head.

Using some thinking developed earlier in some work on music and politics, I started again, with a different question:

What is the relationship of rhythm and time?

This yielded a much more direct answer: it is the production of rhythm that makes time itself knowable. In the making of music, rhythm generates movement and flow, and makes it possible for sounds to synchronise and arrange themselves.

It performs a similar kind of function for ‘we moderns’, to borrow Sanjay Seth’s phrase. The ‘regular, repeated beats’ or ‘divisions’ in time allow us to conceive it as measurable and cumulative, even progressive. It is the capacity to organise and partition time that makes it comprehensible, liveable and of course governable – by seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia. As I had the pleasure of learning from Joey Ansorge earlier in the conference, the year in which time was internationally standardised to the Greenwich meridian was the same that European powers gathered in Berlin to fix African territorial possessions via cartography – 1884.[1]

International Meridian Conference

So, these are not simply times but the rhythms of the modern world; industrial, countable, knowable, demandable. These rhythms are not ‘arbitrary’ human creations but correspond with aspects of astronomic change which to human minds are fixed –sunrise and sunset, seasons, moon cycles, the orbit of the earth around the sun. To human experience these earthly cycles are deeply stable, but of course in the life of the universe such elements are unstable, temporary and mobile; inevitable changes in the temperature of the sun during its own life cycle will render human life impossible, and the sun will eventually die. Until then however, the rhythms of the planet make it literally possible for us to exist, like the rhythm of our own beating hearts which keeps us alive.

Other cosmologies point to different conceptions of time which are not thus divided, and not thus rendered transparent in the same way; assume that gods and ancestors existed before and outside, as well as concurrently and inside the world of contemporaneous human beings. We might think of the Dreamtime of indigenous Australians, or the time before the first Om, timescapes which are not to be apprehended as linear and organized but something simultaneously inside and outside the life of the perceivable universe.

And even in the seemingly ordered structure of industrial capitalist life time does not always correspond to its modern rhythms in experience; those times when minutes feel like hours, perhaps especially at conferences, other times when years feel like a blink of an eye; those rare, rare moments when our hyperlinked and regulated minds might forget time altogether. These are moments when the rhythm of time is disrupted, or displaced, or suspended. And this seems to be at moments of intensified experience: pain, fear, enjoyment, divine ecstasy, surprise, love, hate, enlightenment, excitement. As much as we try to discipline our experience of time and secure our sense of self through particular kinds of ordered and transparent rhythm, we also discover that time is elastic, fragile and polymorphous.

So time is constituted by rhythm in an important sense. But if history is constituted by different constructions of time, what can we add by understanding it not only as time but actually rhythm? And what can be added by thinking of historians as makers of historical rhythm by drumming out its beats?

The Rhythms of Modern Histories

I will follow a thread of thought here that I worked on in that previous paper, using Charles Tilly as an exemplar of a kind of relational historical sociology that worked through musical metaphors of performance and improvisation. However, as his collaborator Sidney Tarrow notes in the article ‘The People’s Two Rhythms”, he also explicitly called on the idea of rhythm to explain the organisation of historical time:

People have two rhythms of collective action, he argues: ” a jagged short-term rhythm depending heavily on shifts in the relative strategic positions, shared understandings, and resources of connected actors” and “a smoother long-term rhythm depending more heavily on the incremental transformation of social relations in the course of such processes as proletarianization and state formation (1995:23)

What is Tilly doing here with rhythm, and why does he need it? On one level, he’s making an interesting and provocative claim here. Whilst it is straightforward enough to see rituals and rhythms in the organization of social life – festivals and food cycles and so forth, there is a distinctive commitment which is made when we talk about rhythms of historical social and political change; what we might understand as human eventfulness.

For Tilly as with many other historical sociologists, however, the underlying ‘tune’ is about the emergence of ‘modernity’ i.e. patterns of authority, production and coercion based on capitalism, the sovereign state and the national army etc. I suspect, with Tilly, he may have really meant that there are real rhythms in modern historical time –that events were clustered and patterned in non-random and repeated ways which reflected multiple organising logics –in this case longer-term modernisation processes underpinning shorter-term eventfulness.

Colliery Band

Of course this move represents important departures from the cruder forms of modernisation theory that much sociology was invested in earlier on, and those narratives of more nationalist histories. I won’t belabour the point except to allege that these perhaps had a rather more linear and more idealised sense of historical rhythm; often without international dimensions, and often focused on choosing between rhythms than suggesting that they could be plural as Tilly does.

In Tilly on the other hand (at least, in Tarrow’s assessment of his broad oeuvre), we get a sense of ordered richness and depth to historical rhythm in this juxtaposition of the slower march of grand processes and the rapid staccato of historical eventfulness. And in bringing rhythm to historical time, Tilly is doing what historical sociologists do: bringing order, transparency, knowability and measurability to historical time, as well as to social and political institutions. And helpfully, it is not a simple boom and thud kind of rhythm, but one which permits of a kind of layering and clustering of noise and events.

What I think Tilly does here is provide an important opening to the question of multiple rhythms of historical time, but one which bears much more reflection and interrogation, particularly if we are concerned (as I am) with the limits that historical sociology has traditionally put on our conceptions of time, space and meaning. But how can we take this further?

A Critique of Pure Rhythm (with apologies to the LSE Philosophy Department Band)

We may as well begin with a reminder of long-standing and well-known critiques of modernist historiography: in the rhythmic organisation of history we are making claims about what matters in history and in historical relations. The events and processes that we choose as our ‘beats’ in the scheme of human eventfulness as we know from longer critiques of history are selective, and generally unevenly so – Eurocentric, androcentric, elite-centric, plutocentric, even. But perhaps it is the character of rhythm itself perhaps to be necessarily inadequate, even as it must drive time forward and render it transparent.

The Subaltern Studies response to this problem was to recover alternative histories, histories ‘from below’, or Chakrabarty’s ‘History 2’ composed of lifeworlds which could not be subsumed under processes of capitalist production and reproduction. However, even for them, the rhythms of organising history on more Eurocentric terms are not fully critiqued as such –rathermany of the analyses can be understood to sing a different tune (narrative of the lifeworld) over the same beat (modernity). Even Said’s celebration of contrapuntal histories I don’t think confronts the fact that contrapuntal compositions only work because they have a common timeframe, ruthlessly pushing along the independent but juxtaposed melodies.

We can see this kind of pattern in recent trends in global history as ‘connected histories’: everything now is about the interconnectedness that confronts the racist disavowal of coevalness between Europe and its others; about trends of mutual constitution. Uneven and combined development theories seem to allow for more tempo changes and differentiations, but on all these readings we are dealing with a world which, in modernity especially, forces human social and political relations into a particular rhythm or synchronicity.


Breaking the Beat

I think many in the academy would stand by this basic point: that modernity forces human relations, and the eventfulness of human social and political relations, into a kind of global rhythm, even if we can comprehend tonal, melodic and tempo differentiations across time, space and places in political orders. Whilst I have my sympathies with this point, I also think it is important to continually explore the limits of this sense of a global historical rhythm; particularly in the seeming age of ‘globalisation’.

Naeem Inayatullah and Phil Weinrobe have written about the political potentialities in Fela Kuti’s poly-rhythms as utopian soundscapes; in contradistinction to the often martial regularisation of classical and popular Western music. I like this as a potential platform for thinking about historical time with other rhythmic structures –there is much more emphasis on human existence as a more open kind of heterotopia, interrupted and responsive, constituted of and constituting multiple patterns simultaneously. This doesn’t solve the problem of rhythm in general as driving time forward, as there are indeed beats and measures parcelling up the time, but it helps us to begin to imagine an alternative and plural sense of the eventfulness of time. Yet, perhaps this too might be sublated into more fluid and dynamic versions of connected histories and uneven and combined development.

There is something that bothers me beyond this; which is that in our excitement for rhythms and synchronicity we (and I definitely include myself in this category) do two things.

The first is that time always reveals itself to us in historical thinking as effectively progressive and regulated, and we still prioritise or fetishise those moments where synchronicity or rhythm can be revealed, even if in a less Eurocentric way than previous scholarship. This is a problem to the extent that if the ‘global’ or the ‘international’ becomes indistinguishable from the ‘interconnected’, the ‘circulatory’ or the ‘universal’. Much of our attention even within postcolonial circles is around the retrieval of alternative universalisms from different canons, and of multiple modernities.

I would like to preserve the space for radical historical distinctiveness and non-synchronicity within our conceptions of the ‘global’ or ‘international’. I was reminded of this point very lucidly on a roundtable I participated on earlier in the conference on Settler Colonialism and Indigenous IR, most particularly by an intervention by Hayden King on the relations between indigenous intellectuals and the academy in Canada.[2] There is an important point of existential protection in the preservation of how historical time unfolds and is experienced that we wipe out if we continually focus on the ‘global’ as the ‘interconnected’.

The second is that in our eagerness to recover a sense of global rhythm or timeliness in response to earlier denials of human coevalness, we forget to problematise the idea of timeliness itself as a parameter for evaluating human political life; we do not explore the intellectual possibilities for suspending or refusing the beat altogether. Partly this is necessary for a hermeneutic strategy which is sensitive to the elasticity of time in human experience; particularly the temporal dimensions of human suffering.

However, it is also necessary as a deeper critique of political progress as temporal progress, much of which remains entangled in the messes of notions of ‘development’. Can we think of political ‘progress’ not only as the march of a historical drum but as the result of set of mobile, fragile and reversible contestations and accretions of power, not defined by temporality or timeliness but by active political struggle and organisation? A sense of the fluidity of political ‘progress’ within and across time would help us be less complacent and more sensitive to the broader continuities and reversals in political relations. We would have to look at political situations on terms not already defined by their temporal location, and evaluate them politically based on their actual distributive effects. Such a strategy – the possible refusal of timeliness as a political value – is critical to the resistance of specifically neoliberal transformations that persistently paint themselves as timely, in contradistinction to the voices that seek their own ‘untimely’ justice.

[1] This was in a pre-conference workshop on Spaces of Humanitarian Aid – in which the groundbreaking work of Lisa Smirl was discussed. Her work is highly recommended.

[2] There were an excellent set of seven panels co-organised by Emily Merson and Kole Kilibarda on questions of Settler Colonialism and indigeneity in IR – a problem which should be foundational to the discipline as it remakes itself.


2 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: Rhythm, Time and History

  1. Very enlightning article. I am living in Egypt now and the political change and turmoil sweeping the country resonates beautifully with the conception of political progress as a set of different rhtyms.


  2. I suspect, with Tilly, he may have really meant that there are real rhythms in modern historical time … in this case longer-term modernisation processes underpinning shorter-term eventfulness.

    Cf. Braudel on longue duree vs ‘conjuncture’ vs histoire evenmentielle (sorry, no accents). (Tilly was critical of Braudel in at least one place that I’m aware of, but there’s prob. some similarity here.)


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