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  • The Time of the Political
  • Wendy Brown (bio)

Sheldon Wolin’s argument that “political time is out of synch with the temporalities, rhythms, and pace governing economy and culture” recalls the ruminations of a Clinton aide during the final weeks of the 1996 presidential race. Discussing the rapidity with which positions taken in a speech by one candidate were responded to in speeches or press conferences by the other—sometimes a matter of minutes, never more than hours—he remarked that this media-driven pace made for “terrific politics but lousy democracy.” The voters for whom these volleys were being performed were indeed more like an audience at a sports match than a citizenry deliberating about either issues or candidates. But the notion that there is a distinction between politics and democracy, and especially between the temporality each requires, suggests that the distinction Wolin himself often presses between politics and the political might be usefully rendered as a Rousseauian paradox: democracy cannot afford to be too politicized, to partake too much of politics, without being sacrificed to politics. Thus democracy as the ultimate political expression of homo politicus is, practically, impossible.

This impossibility, however, does not vitiate greater and lesser degrees of democracy in a polity. Rather, it may serve to establish a set of cautions about what injures and what succors democracy. Consider, in this vein, the call to political theorists to respond to contemporary events, a call most recently sounded by Jeffrey Isaac in Political Theory and occasioning Wolin’s reflections on political time. The late twentieth century could be said to be “a time of events.” Not the time of The Event—as in the French Revolution or Munich, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution or even the Dreyfus affair—but of relatively banal events, of events that acquire their status not by being part of a larger historical force or movement but precisely by erupting out of the everyday. These are the events most often signalled by individual names: Hill-Thomas, Jennifer Flowers, Tawana Brawley, Rodney King, O.J., even Alan Sokal.

This domination of contemporary left and liberal political discourse by events is the consequence of more than the oft-noted pace of late modernity. It represents more, too, than the trivialization of politics by the increasingly tabloid character of all media and more than an intellectual and political preoccupation with the domain of the cultural in recent years. Rather, it suggests among other things an absence of other political formations to which such discourse might respond. Contrast, for example, the contemporary Left and liberal attention to events in the U.S. with the emphasis on movements in past decades— the Civil Rights Movement, the Free Speech Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Anti-Nuclear Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, the Ecology Movement, and later of course, the movement of the New Right. There were, of course, significant events within these movements—Little Rock, Stonewall, Three Mile Island, Roe v. Wade, the Pentagon Papers—and there were also events punctuating them—the assassinations of King, Malcolm X, and the Kennedys, the Kent State murders, the Christmas bombings of Cambodia. But it was the movements themselves, the conditions out of which they emerged and the powers against which they moved, that constituted both a significant political story and a story appropriate for theorizing.

Recall, in this regard, Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic, a set of reflections on these times that treated events such as the Pentagon Papers in terms of a politically corrupting imperial war, or particular incidents of civil protest in terms of relations between citizens and law in modern constitutional states. By way of contrast, consider the contemporary intellectual industry devoted to what has come to be called reading events. Valuable as many of these readings are—Toni Morrison’s edited volume on the Hill-Thomas hearings is a rich example—there is a world of difference between reading events and theorizing the conditions and possibilities of political life in a particular time. Indeed, understanding what the conditions of certain events means for political possibilities may entail precisely decentering the event, political possibilities may entail precisely decentering the event, working...

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