- Afterword:States of Time
"We know no time when we were not as now," Satan raises his proud boast to Abdiel in book 5 of John Milton's Paradise Lost, "Know none before us, self-begot, self rais'd / By our own quick'ning power . . ." (859–61). Thus at one end of the spectrum of the modern drama of the subject and the state, a rebellious claim to the priority of the time of nonsubordinated collective life (the life of the "we," the life of "us") over and before and simultaneous with the time of sovereignty: a claim that the Hobbesian political theory beginning to assert its hegemony at the moment of Milton's writing can be understood—then, as now—to have charged itself with rendering not merely "outlaw" but, in a term Rita Barnard's superb contribution to this collection renders newly resonant, "unimaginable." As Barnard, citing J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, notes: "[I]t is characteristic of the novelist that the temporality—the plot structure, if you will—of our subjection should be of interest. When exactly did we voluntarily accede to the rule of the state? Can we imagine an alternative to it? The safest answer is to say that we cannot: we are, as Coetzee declares, 'born subject.'" If, as Barnard thus indicates, the capacity to render "the origins of the state . . . sensu stricto unimaginable" may be taken as integral to the grammar of that Hobbesian political theory whose enduring power Coetzee's narrator unhappily acknowledges, then so too should the corollary imperative be taken as crucial to the state's arcana imperii: the imperative to hold equally unimaginable and equally outlaw what Satan asserts to be true—that in the contest with the sovereignty of the state, there is a time outside sovereignty, and that that time is, and always has been, "now." [End Page 712]
I begin with Satan's boast and its Hobbesian rejoinder because it strikes me that between the bad angel's assertion of a self-begetting, self-raising, quickening time (a time, perhaps, in Walter Benjamin's terms, of "constituting power"), temporally coincident with the time of sovereignty (the time of "constituted power"), and the Hobbesian will to figure such an order of time dually unlawful and unimaginable—to outlaw it as epistemologically ungraspable and historically catastrophic—lie many of the issues raised in this special issue. We are accustomed to thinking of the nation, and to posing questions regarding the relation between literature and nation, in temporal terms. Nationalism—following Benedict Anderson, Benjamin, Frantz Fanon, Ernest Renan, and countless others—has become legible as a phenomenon of (at least) two distinct and overlapping registers of time: the time of the simultaneous and the time of the messianic, the time of the meanwhile and the time of a looming anteriority, the time of the performative and the time of the pedagogical. As such, the relations of the literary (and the aesthetic more broadly) to the nation, nationalism, and national culture are, in a certain sense, broadly evident (while in all of their particulars endlessly complex). Time finds meaning as narrative or in the lyric moment, through gothic haunting, along the grid-works of epic, or through countless other stylized forms. Whatever the case, time has its genres, and the nation, as a figure of time, thus also possesses its generic codes of interpretation and critique. The state, however, has yielded a thinner grammar of time, in significant part because it has seemed to succeed in putting the question of time outside itself or, at most, in producing a simple binary code of before and after. There was an "unimaginable" time before the state and then there was the state, which may progress through its various Hegelian, or Kantian, or Scottish Enlightenment "stadial" phases, but which inevitably marks its advent as coincident with the advent of true historical time—before which is the time of myth; time, in Hobbes's words of "no account" (76); time "unimaginable."
Or almost so. For as the rhetorical ambivalence of the "unimaginable" suggests, the time that cannot be imagined is also a time one would not wish...