Tuesday, January 6, 2009

War, Time, and Law

This post is part of a project that seeks to unpack the concept of "wartime," and to illuminate the impact of assumptions about war’s temporality on our thinking about law and war. I began this thread last summer. Here are some additional thoughts about war, time, and law.

"Wartime" is important to American law, but as with other ways of categorizing time, we don’t tend to inquire about it. Wartime is treated as if it were a natural feature of our world. The impact of this way of categorizing time on our thinking goes unexamined.

In scholarship on law and war, time is seen as linear and episodic. There are two different kinds of time: wartime and peacetime. Historical progression consists of moving from one kind of time to another (from wartime to peacetime to wartime, etc.). Law is thought to vary depending on what time it is. The relationship between citizen and state, the scope of rights, the extent of government power depend on whether it is wartime or peacetime.

The idea that time is linear is often thought to be a natural and inevitable feature of time. Anthropologist Carol Greenhouse suggests that scholars tend to think of non-linear time as embedded in other cultures. Forms of time that are thought to flow from particular cultural contexts are often referred to as "social time." Social time is thought to be culturally constructed, as compared with linear time that is thought to exist in nature.

But even the linear time we think of as "natural" time has a history, and is understood within a cultural context. Linear time is also social time, Greenhouse argues. "The idea of time that has dominated public life in the West since the thirteenth century...came to Europe with Christianity," she writes. It included two ideas that "had long roots in Jewish and...Christian tradition: first, the origin of time in creation and, second, the end of time in a day of judgment. The linearity of time derives from the geometric connection between these two end points." Modern, secular understandings of time are often hazy about the nature of origins and endpoint, but retain this linearity. Once time is thought of as a progression from one point to another, other assumptions follow. "To speak of ‘linear time’ is to refer to the image of time as an irreversible progression of moments, yielding ordinal conceptions of past, present, and future as well as duration."

Emile Durkheim noted the difficulty in seeing the cultural nature of time. "We cannot conceive of time," he wrote, "except on condition of distinguishing its different moments." If we "try to represent what the notion of time would be without the processes by which we divide it, measure it or express it with objective signs, a time which is not a succession of years, months, weeks, days and hours! This is something nearly unthinkable." Yet, for Durkheim, Greenhouse explains, these "categories of thought are born in social, or collective, experience."
If linear time, like cyclical time, is social time, it does not follow that particular constructions of time have an absolute hold in discreet cultures. Instead, Greenhouse argues, competing conceptions of time overlap and compete for ascendancy. Initially, in the West, a linear understanding of time competed with indigenous European ideas that time was a pendulum, moving between binary oppositions (day/night, summer/winter). "If linear time dominates public life in the West, then, it is because its primary efficacy is in the construction and management of dominant social institutions, not because it is the only ‘kind’ of time that is culturally available. The meanings of linear time are inseparable from its cultural history of use."
The expansion of "clock time" and the introduction of the telegraph have been thought to introduce simultaneity. Benedict Anderson argues that once time was viewed as uniform and governed by the clock, time helped knit together a common sense of national identity. As Thomas M. Allen describes Anderson’s intervention, clock time "created a shared ‘simultaneity’ of experience that linked individuals together in an ‘imagined community’ moving together through time." The clock’s rationality drove other conceptions of time.
A newer literature on the history of time, however, comports with Greenhouse’s argument that the experience of time is heterogeneous. In new scholarship, as Allen describes it, social historians "have demonstrated empirically that changes in time consciousness cannot be explained as a story of progress from a more primitive to a more rational organization of time." This literature shows that

the homogeneity of time that supposedly results from the centrality of such instruments as clocks, watches, and calendars to modern life is only possible if technologies produce time by themselves....Once we begin to ask what people did with technologies of time, and why they wanted such technologies, the homogeneity of modern national time begins to shatter into myriad fragments of heterogeneous, local, and transient temporal cultures.
Heterogeneous temporalities do not drive people apart, Allen argues, but instead "are themselves the threads out of which the fabric of national belonging has long been woven."
The heterogeneity of time helps us to see that, in Allen’s words, time is not "a transhistorical phenomenon, an aspect of nature or product of technology existing outside of human society," but is "an historical artifact produced by human beings acting within specific historical circumstances." Allen argues for new scholarship on the relationship between time and the nation that "attend[s] to the recursive and dynamic interactions between these two terms."

Similarly, the relationship between war and time is complex. A more satisfactory understanding of war, time, and law must bring a cultural history of time into the history of law and war. This is the aim of my new project.
Update: There's a discussion of this post in the comments over at Balkinization.

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