Global Temporalities (Winter 2018)

Co-led by Sudipta Sen and James Smith, this proseminar will encourage students to explore the ways in which both systems and subjects produce divergent realities and outcomes by "digesting" and "metabolizing" the experience of planetary time.

ISS Fellows: Sudipta Sen (History) and James Smith (Anthropology).


Winter 2018 | Wednesdays, 3:10 - 5:00 p.m. | 273 SS&H | ANT 298 / HIS 298 | CRN 42365 (ANT) & 58003 (HIS) | FlyerSyllabus


Note: Registration opens November 2017. Each CRN offers 10 slots, for a total of 20. If one is full, please try the other. You do not need to be affiliated with Anthropology or History to register.

The Big History project pioneered by historian David Christian and sponsored by Bill Gates wants to reach out to children in every classroom in North America and take them on a journey lasting 13.8 billion years. This "big picture", their website says, “is the attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity." This is much more than a colorful, panoramic retelling of human history for schoolchildren. Rather, it is yet another example of a tectonic shift that has been taking place in our thinking about the history of time in both public discourse and academia over the last two decades.

This upheaval can be seen in the flood of books over the last two decades on the collective destiny of humankind, from Fred Spier's The Structure of Big History from the Big Bang until Today (1996) to David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2005). Christian predicts that in another fifty years a new, universal history will transcend all disciplinary boundaries, lift the artificial barrier between the study of nature and society, and "blur the borderline between history and the natural sciences". In his magisterial survey of the history of computers, Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (2012), Dyson argues that time is racing away from all known human experience so quickly because it is no longer based on the idea of clock-time but on the sequence of bits and order codes that only keep track of events in a program. A similar climatic clock governs the idea of the "Anthropocene", a term coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer and adopted by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, which fuses human and geological time in tracing the point forward from which human activities began to exert an irreversible impact on the environment.

The urgency of this proseminar comes from a mounting concern that these new and related approaches to the study of timescales and temporality challenge the division of intellectual labor across disciplines within and beyond the social sciences. What kind of time-frames and critical thresholds have led us to the doorsteps of irreversible climate change, genomes, stem cells, nanotechnology and network society? How have these new questions of temporality affected the debates around globalization and our understanding of the postindustrial, late capitalist or postmodern global order? To what extent have such questions arisen from anxieties about the anthropocene, planetary crisis, or futurity?

Focusing on temporalities as frames of experience as well as critical practice, the proseminar will encourage students to explore the ways in which both systems and subjects produce divergent realities and outcomes by "digesting" and "metabolizing" the experience of planetary time. It will not only provide an overview of the main theories of temporality across disciplines, but also provide an interdisciplinary forum to address questions of time and temporality pertinent to their research projects and might not fall easily within the purview of their disciplines.

While globalization and global studies now are well-established interdisciplinary fields of study bridging disciplines within the social sciences, the burgeoning field of temporality studies is even more eclectic in its disciplinary borrowings, straddling areas of interest as diverse as theories of affect in literature and notions of temporal duration in the cognitive sciences. The task of this proseminar is to bring these typically disconnected sets of debate under one rubric, engaging a strategically diverse mix of students and select faculty and scholars.

Even more compelling from our standpoint is the urgency of the theme outlined in this proposal. Current controversies over the entwined destinies of global capital, sustainability and climate change beg the reconsideration of planetary scales of temporality that now command our attention not only in academia, but also in popular media and society at large. This workshop will introduce graduate students to these larger cross-disciplinary questions so that they can retool and sharpen their research agendas, and also enrich their undergraduate teaching portfolios.

The proseminar will meet weekly throughout Winter Quarter 2018. A bulk of the discussions will be dedicated to both foundational and cutting-edge work. There will be three sessions devoted to outside guests whose work is part of the syllabus.