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  • Spectral History, Untimely Theory
  • Samuel A. Chambers (bio)

Major political transformations have occurred so quickly during the last decade of the twentieth century that it almost appears as if democratic politics—much like those programmers working around the clock to fix the Y2K bug—has been hurried into the new millennium. In the midst of this rush, a number of commentators have questioned the ability of political theory to keep up with the fast pace of the times. Many theorists have demanded from the field a greater emphasis on real, concrete, historical and political events in the world, and have therefore castigated their colleagues for always arriving on the scene of such real politics too late. When Jeffrey Isaac labels the failure of political theorists to address the revolutions of 1989 a “missed opportunity” he effectively accuses them of tardiness.1 This sort of critique cries for theories of politics to become and remain more “timely,” to respond to political change as it happens. Thus a certain sort of “untimeliness”—a being either out of step or a step behind—comes under attack in these criticisms.

This essay will challenge the notion that political theory must be a timely endeavor, and it will offer an alternative conception of untimely theory, one that I think can better serve to achieve even the ends sought by those who demand timeliness. An untimely political theory may also have the distinct advantage of augmenting our very political possibilities, of allowing us to see different or new political ends and other political dimensions. The implications of an untimely politics thus greatly exceed the narrow vision of “timely” theorists, a vision that often focuses solely upon a restricted set of problems to be solved. When considered in a new light, however, untimeliness can move beyond problem-solving toward a richer and less confining understanding of politics and history. The conception of untimeliness that I wish to fortify will emerge within this essay, but it must first be placed and viewed in stark contrast to the “too late” (or even “too early”) that recent commentators have criticized. This distinction between, on the one hand, untimeliness as falling on the wrong point along a linear model of time, and, on the other, untimeliness in the sense that time is “out of joint” depends upon thinking of history in the sense of historicity. Historicity, as an understanding of history that both rejects a Hegelian philosophy of history and rejects the thesis that history has come to an end, undergirds the untimely theory of politics that I wish to defend.

As a way of explicating the notions of historicity and untimeliness, I begin this essay by looking closely at Jeffrey Isaac’s recent demand for an attention to history that will produce timely theory. Isaac’s particular arguments are not so much my concern, but they exemplify the tendencies that I have alluded to above. When he admonishes political theorists for their utter neglect, and indeed “avoidance,” of the revolutionary events of 1989 Isaac broaches the fundamental question of what “‘political theory’ is and should be.”2 I see no reason to rehash the debate over that essential question, but I do want to take as my point of departure Isaac’s call for political theory to turn toward “concrete, empirical, historical work.”3 In calling for a shift in the direction of “first-order inquiry,”4 Isaac makes a number of significant assumptions about the very nature of theory and of history, and he goes on to specify a certain conception of their appropriate relation. Along the way, I will argue, Isaac partially articulates and partially presupposes a theory/history relation that proves debilitating to political theorists because it forcibly locates them on one side or another of such sterile oppositions as that between “first-order” and “second-order” inquiry. To lever the political theorist out of such oppositions requires the articulation of a more subtle and sophisticated understanding of history than that which Isaac rests upon. By explicating and building upon Derrida’s thinking of “historicity” I hope to lay the groundwork needed to develop an understanding of political theory as an untimely endeavor.

I. Demanding History: Timely...

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