- Lispector, the Time of the Veil
There was gauze or a kind of veil in front of my eyes . . . but in fact I was more awake than ever.—Roberto Bolaño, Amulet, 31
And they said to them: do you still resist?—I Maccabees 2:331
On January 18, 2011, the Public Broadcasting Service Newshour ran a compelling photo in its coverage of the Tunisian uprising. The photo’s background shows a large crowd, presumably of protesters, while in the foreground, we see a young man raising his right arm high in the air, and gazing intently at something outside the frame of the image. But what is most compelling about this young man is the garment he is wearing. It is a plain white t-shirt, on which he appears to have drawn, with a black marker, a clock, its hands indicating exactly 3 o’clock. And above this clock, he has written, in capital letters, the word “TIREZ” [SHOOT].
Readers of Benjamin will immediately recognize the image, and the allusion. Toward the end of his famous late essay “On the Concept of History,” [End Page 245] Benjamin distinguishes between two concepts of time, those proper, respectively, to a clock and a calendar. The former, he writes, in contrast to the latter, measures time in a mode completely inadequate to the revolutionary concept of time with which he is concerned in his essay; and to underscore this point, he cites an event from the July Revolution, in which a certain consciousness of revolutionary time, he argues, “came into its own. On the first evening of fighting, it so happened that the dials on the clocktowers were being fired at simultaneously and independently from several locations in Paris” (2004, 395). Benjamin then makes an oblique reference to “an eyewitness,” who jotted down a rhyme (which Benjamin transcribes in French) to commemorate this event:
Who would believe it! It is said that, incensed at the hour, Latter-day Joshuas, at the foot of every clocktower, Were firing on clock faces [Tiraient sur les cadrans] to make the day stand still(395)
Like Benjamin, the young Tunisian protester would seem to be harking back to this event from almost two centuries ago and insisting upon a concept of time necessary to the experience of revolution, one described by Benjamin in the very next paragraph of his essay: “[t]he historical materialist,” he writes, “cannot do without the concept of a present which is not a transition, but in which time takes a stand and has come to a standstill” (396, translation modified). In opposition to the “bordello” of historicism, the historical materialist, armed with this concept, remains “man enough [Manns genug] to blast open the continuum of history” (396).
At this point I want to make two observations. The first concerns the last words quoted from Benjamin: “man enough to blast open the continuum of history.” This turn of phrase might seem curious. What Benjamin is speaking about, after all, is the necessity, for any revolutionary action, of a concept of time that would stand outside of—or, to use his term, “blast open” [aufsprengen]—everyday, commonplace notions of time. But such alternative conceptions of time have most often been associated not with men but with women. The references here are numerous, but for the sake of time, let me simply refer [End Page 246] to Kristeva’s famous essay, “Women’s Time,” in which she writes that “female subjectivity would seem to provide a specific measure that essentially retains repetition and eternity from among the multiple modalities of time known through the history of civilizations” (1981, 16). At the very least, it would seem that in order to find alternative conceptions of time to benefit the cause of revolution or resistance, one would look not to man but to woman.
Second, let us recall the manner in which the protester’s “message” reaches us. The young man is not interviewed; he has not written an essay or a tract in which he would detail his thoughts about the relations between time and revolution. All we know of this man is what...