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  • What Time Is It?
  • Sheldon Wolin (bio)

The impetus for this brief commentary came from Jeffrey Isaac’s essay, “The Strange Silence of Political Theory.” Political Theory, Nov., 1995) Professor Isaac’s principal claim was that the failure of American political theorists to theorize about the significance of the overthrow of Soviet-style regimes and of the Central European dissident movement that had helped to bring it about was symptomatic of a more general failing to respond to “the possibility of new forms of democratic citizenship and new forms of authoritarian reaction.” (p.649) Although I might disagree with Isaac’s understanding of the significance of the events of 1989 and agree in principle that it is important for political theorists to engage the ideas spawned by Solidarity and Charter 77, I am not persuaded that he has explained the reasons for “the strange silence.” He points to the professionalization of theory, the overemphasis on canonical texts, and an aesthetic aversion to “practical political problems located in space and time, in particular places, with particular histories” (p. 643). Again, there may be something to be said for each of these considerations, but taken as a whole they do not seem to account for the virtually blanket-indictment levelled against political theorists.

Let me attempt to reformulate Isaac’s indictment and reframe the question: let us call the problem a failure of political sensibility. By that I mean an inability or refusal to articulate a conception of the political in the midst of wildly differing claims about it, some of them issuing from nontraditional claimants. What can account for that dissociation of sensibility? By that question I mean to shift discussion from the question, “What is wrong with political theory today?” to the question, “Why is political theory so difficult today?”

Let me begin to attempt an answer by quoting a phrase which Isaac uses with reference to Central Europe, “the dramatic experience of our time.” The word “dramatic” is, I would suggest, a way of conceding that political theory is a difficult undertaking these days, and precisely in reaction to that uncertainty 1989 acquires an unambiguousness that then relieves our difficulties. But a different sensibility, while acknowledging the “dramatic” character of 1989, might object to the formulation “our time,” with its implication of a homogeneous, shared time. The objection is in part that there is no single shared “political time,” only culturally constituted different times. Their self-conscious character produces the equivalent of a different time zone that contributes to a disruption and undermines the possibility of a common narrative structure and, along with it, a common identity — formerly a staple element in conceptions of the political. These diverse time zones help to promote (what can be called) “the instability of political time” and to expose a broader political problem, one which I can best approach through the language of temporality. I am referring to a pervasive temporal disjunction that has contributed to serious political difficulties and helped to make the task of the theorist daunting.

Starkly put, political time is out of synch with the temporalities, rhythms, and pace governing economy and culture. Political time, especially in societies with pretensions to democracy, requires an element of leisure, not in the sense of a leisure class (which is the form in which the ancient writers conceived it), but in the sense, say, of a leisurely pace. This is owing to the needs of political action to be preceded by deliberation and deliberation, as its “deliberate” part suggests, takes time because, typically, it occurs in a setting of competing or conflicting but legitimate considerations. Political time is conditioned by the presence of differences and the attempt to negotiate them. The results of negotiations, whether successful or not, preserve time: consider the times preserved in the various failed attempts to deal with the secession crises prior to the Civil War. Thus time is “taken” in deliberation yet “saved.” That political time has a preservative function. is not surprising. Since time immemorial political authorities have been charged with preserving bodies, goods, souls, practices, and circumscribed ways of life.

Political theory might also be said to be governed by political time. It has its...

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