The essays collected in this special issue of Social Anthropology ask questions about thxe status of claims to urgency. Such claims are a way of indexing a state of affairs; they qualify the ongoing stream of phenomena that we observe and take part in. They are, therefore, and as noted by the various contributions to this special issue, not self-evident. Such claims constitute the significance of events. The question for an anthropology of claims to urgency is: How and to what extent do such claims stabilise as truth claims? Or not.
By some accounts, claims to urgency are instantiations of states of ‘permanent emergency’ (Laurence McFalls and Mariella Pandolfi, this issue) and ‘chronic crisis’ (Vigh 2008; Daniel M. Knight, this issue; Joseph Webster, this issue). Claims to urgency are subsumed by what observers take to be protracted experiences. This raises the question of how we, observers, ‘know’ another individual's or community's experience.
This is a longstanding epistemological question. Experts and observers claim to represent people's experiences (of urgency, of loss, of emergency, of crisis) without reflecting on the status of experience itself as an object of knowledge. They fail to ask: To what extent can I know your experience?1 Of course, one can take note of an account of an experience – that is, your account of your experience of a war or your account of your experience of losing all your money or your account of your experience of forest fires. But I am observing your account, and that is a second-order observation. Moreover, my account of your account is a stylised narrative account, which includes a beginning and an end, an argument, claims to causality and, for academic scholars, the terms of social theory.
This epistemological dilemma is also an intractable problem of representation – a problem that has been noted repeatedly (among many others, by Clifford and Marcus 1986; Fabian 1983; Said 1979). Nevertheless, even though for many decades the vexed problem of representation – not only of the Other, but also of alterity and experience – has been a central topic of epistemology and the principal subject of critique in the social sciences and humanities, today most anthropologists pursue and give credence to a mode of ethnography that takes representation to be unproblematic (on this point, cf. Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2019: 2; Roitman 2021a, 2021b). Practices of representation must be problematised.2
By problematising the practice of claims to urgency as well as representations of those claims, we see how the notion of urgency cannot be taken as a trans-historical, universalist or even universalising category. This point is highlighted in the Introduction to this special issue and is made perhaps most starkly by Charlotte Al-Khalili in her essay on the Syrian revolution and the act of martyrdom. She asks: ‘How is the urgency to act oriented towards imminent individual and collective endings?’ In a profoundly anthropological manner, she notes that a response to this question requires an approach to the concepts of freedom, agency and history not as abstractions but rather as practised concepts. In a similar spirit, Jan Jensen (this issue) examines the concept of Hell and the impetus to spread the Gospel among a community of Christians as not just a matter of eschatology. Instead, he asks: ‘What happens when we take Christians at their word when they say that when they die, they will be going to either Heaven or Hell?’ The answers to his question (‘What happens?’) is that we encounter truth claims and representations of those claims that partake in particular forms of knowledge (This ‘is heaven’; This ‘is hell’; This ‘is’ the form of agency that instantiates heaven, etc.).
Problematisation, as a practice of inquiry, is concerned with how something ‘enters into the play of true and false’ such that it is constituted as an object of thought (see Foucault 1994: 670; Rabinow 2003). In other words, the object of anthropological inquiry is not just a problematic situation, or the study of how calamities unsettle human certainties. Instead, objects of inquiry are the modalities through which problems are constituted. Anthropological inquiry generates insights into the fault lines of problematisation: the emergence of forms and constellations of truth claims related to those forms.
From that point of view, we can ask: What is the play of true and false with respect to urgency, as an object of thought? This is a guiding research question. Or we can ask: Is urgency a symptom of a ‘presentist era’? Or, to rephrase the question in the spirit of François Hartog (2015 ): Do claims to urgency partake of a ‘regime of historicity’ that is characterised by a presentist relation to time? In his work on regimes of historicity, Hartog joins Reinhart Koselleck's account of the emergence of historical consciousness, or the representation of history as entailing the supersession of a pre-modern regime of historicity, which took the past as the point of reference for positing present and future, by a future-oriented (‘modern’) regime of historicity. Without delving into exhaustive discussion, for now we can note that Koselleck's oeuvre on the emergence of a modern notion of history (historical consciousness) is an example of – and indeed contributes to – the failure to recognise, much less account for, relations and events that defy preconceived notions of religion, secularism, democracy, politics, and so forth. As Andreas Bandak and Paul Anderson state in the Introduction to this special issue, this account is founded in a particular mode of periodisation (see Davis 2008; Roitman 2014).
As Bandak and Anderson also note (and see Mikkel Bille and Mikkel Thelle, this issue), a regime of historicity, as posited by Hartog, is a heuristic device; it is devoid of content and enables comparative analysis of the experience of time. There are regimes, in the plural. So we could travel, with Hartog, to Marshall Sahlin's Islands of History to consider the ways in which a regime of historicity is not a Western, European construct, but rather illuminates how a society ‘views and deals with its past’ as well as ‘the modality of the understanding of the self by a living community’ (to use Hartog's terms). This of course raises the questions posed above regarding the problem of representation, or the impracticable task of delimiting a community that can be characterised by a prevailing modality, or producing history and self-understanding in the same, seamless manner. Edward Said and Johannes Fabian helped us to see the mirage of this island, but we maintain our hope of catching a glimpse of it on the horizon.
That chimera aside, there seems to be general agreement about the alleged end of philosophies of history and ideologies of progress. Per Hartog, a future-oriented perspective (modern historical consciousness) no longer holds, thus ushering in a presentist regime of historicity. It might be true that, the world over, ‘progress’ has been replaced by ‘change’. But we still think our national economies in terms of growth in GDP. We practise insurance against risk. Cryonics and bio-banking are vastly expanding realms of ‘life’. Thus the distinction between progress and change, as modalities of apprehending the future, seems not all that clear. And as certain contributions to the present issue illustrate, the secular/religious divide is likewise not clearly delineated in contemporary claims to urgency.
The problem of the status of history is a vexing one. One approach to that problem is to inquire into how historical events are constituted as such (i.e. as ‘historical’). Inspired by Hayden White (1973), this entails the rigorous examination of selection criteria that govern which events and phenomena achieve status as ‘historical’ in secular narrative. What gets to count as ‘an event’?
That query assumes, of course, that secular history is just one way of accounting for human life. And it has real political import. For instance, to take an urgent example, if a tree falls silently in the forest, how and when does it qualify as an indicator of climate change? How and when does a tree falling in the forest without a witness become an indicator and evidence of environmental crisis? If there is no witness, the tree falling silently in the forest is not inscribed in the annals of secular history (History); it is not accounted for as a signifier, as an index, as an event. Trees falling silently in forests for decades were not taken to be indicators of environmental crisis. But, of course, there were witnesses: indigenous residents and indigenous communities and custodians of lands, who, while not necessarily claiming ‘environmental crisis’, articulated propositions and explanations for the dying trees and changing ecosystems. Their terms are salient. There is much to learn from their terms and modes of reasoning, which give insight into alternative manners of apprehending ecosystems and socio-ecological transformation. We increasingly now narrate secular history in terms of environmental crisis (the Anthropocene) despite decades, if not a century, of warming atmospheric and ocean temperatures, trees falling silently in forests and millions of witnesses speaking on their terms.
Rendering the modalities by which phenomena are constituted as events (as ‘historical’ or as ‘History’) visible starts with inquiry into claims to knowledge about those phenomena. As Limor Samimian-Darash illustrates in her study of the actualisation of scenario planning (this issue), the temporality of urgency, which she contrasts with the temporality of preparedness planning, generates a particular definition and manifestation of an event. The COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) was constituted as a pandemic through the enactment of technologies of scenario planning, as well as through departures from scenario-planning protocols and modes of speculation and reasoning – or producing knowledge claims about a virus. The COVID-19 virus was likewise constituted as an object of knowledge through statistical visualisations made of curves and waves that served as persuasive techniques and gave concrete form to a sense of urgency (Jones and Helmreich 2020). Moreover, as Warwick Anderson has shown quite forcefully (2021a, 2021b), statistical modelling has proved a reductive method for making decisive judgements under conditions of uncertainty. As he demonstrates, reliance on the reproduction number of the COVID-19 virus as the definitive representation of a complex socio-epidemiological unfolding foreclosed its representation in more heterogeneous terms – or in terms of a disease ecology, a complex, mutually constituted epidemiological and socio-economic phenomenon, a matter of human welfare and not only biological security (Roitman 2022).
Events are constituted as such through claims that engender various temporal dispositions and temporal orientations. These are best illuminated through an anthropology of temporalities as opposed to an anthropology of time (Samimian-Darash, this issue; and see Bear 2016; Gell 1992; Guyer 2007; Munn 1992). Through this practice of anthropology, we gain insight into how the near future becomes an object of thought.
I would like to extend my thanks to Andreas Bandak and Paul Anderson for inviting me to participate in this special issue; and to Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov for his comments. And my debts to the late Paul Rabinow are outstanding.
It should be noted that, in general, the critique of phenomenology raises these significant questions.
Rabinow's consistent pursuit of problematization took many experimental forms (genealogy, chronicle, collaboration), always problematizing practices of representation not as a matter of empirical observation, but rather through modes of inquiry that were deemed adequate to emergent forms and the necessarily heterogeneous truths that constitute our worlds and selves.
Al-Khalili, C. 2022. ‘Martyrdom and destiny in time of revolution: urgent actions and imminent endings in Syria’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 70–89.
Anderson, W. 2021a. ‘Think like a virus’, Public Books 7 January (https://www.publicbooks.org/think-like-a-virus/) Accessed August 2022.
Anderson, W. 2021b. ‘The model crisis, or how to have critical promiscuity in the time of Covid-19’, Social Studies of Science 51: 167–188.
Bandak, A. and P. Anderson 2022. ‘Urgency and imminence: the politics of the very near future’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 1–17.
Bille, M. and M. Thelle 2022. ‘Engaged lingering: urban contingency in the pandemic present with COVID-19 in Denmark’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 110–125.
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Davis, K. 2008. Periodization and sovereignty. How ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Guyer, J. 2007. ‘Prophecy and the near future: Thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time’, American Ethnologist 34(3): 409–421.
Jones, D. and S. Helmreich 2020. ‘The shape of epidemics’, The Boston Review 26 June. (https://bostonreview.net/articles/david-shumway-jones-stefan-helmreich-epidemic-waves/) Accessed August 2022.
McFalls, L. and M. Pandolfi 2022. ‘Waiting for the inevitable: permanent emergency, therapeutic domination and homo pandemicus’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 126–142.
Roitman, J. 2021a. ‘Adjacency and succession’, Feschschrift: Paul Rabinow. Special Issue of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 11: 762–766.
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Samimian-Darash, L. 2022. ‘Scenarios in a time of urgency: shifting temporality and technology’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 90–109.
Vigh, H. 2008. ‘Crisis and Chronicity: Anthropological Perspectives on Continuous Conflict and Decline’, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 73(1): 5–24.
Webster, J. 2022. ‘From Scottish Independence, to Brexit, and back again: Orange Order ethno-religion and the awkward urgency of British Unionism’, Social Anthropology 30(4): 18–36.
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