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boundary 2 27.3 (2000) 215-248
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The Race of Time:
Du Bois and Reconstruction
Dedicated with love to my firstborn, Matthew (1970–2000), who chose to leave the time of this life in the midst of my mediations on the time of race.
Presentism is the fault of holding persons native to an earlier time accountable to the standards of a present time. Those blamed in the first place are usually dead, or otherwise indisposed. They cannot defend themselves. Yet they are accused. There are many instances. One could say, for example, that by today’s standards, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was at best a feminist essentialist, at worst a racist. Or, it is possible to blame Anna Julia Cooper, one of her generation’s most brilliantly timeless thinkers, for her failure to touch on sex. Even W. E. B. Du Bois, than whom none among those in his several time zones was more prescient, could be accused of insufficiency with regard to women. He was a feminist in his way, but by present standards he was not a good enough one.
The thing about presentism is that it turns complaint upon the complainer. The deficiency of the one held to standards not of his or her time is converted into a criticism of the critic for his own failure to keep historical [End Page 215] time in order. Yet presentism is not an entirely silly complaint. People do have to watch out for mistakes made in respect to rules they could not possibly have understood. There is a vast body of civil and criminal law of which I know nothing whatever. Yet if caught in violation of some part of it, I could be held in contempt by the agents of enforcement. Take, for specific example, income taxes. Except for sleeping, eating, and perhaps reading, there are few duties of ordinary life that consume more of my time. I certainly spend more time dealing with tax-related duties than I do enjoying sex of all kinds. Still, I could not begin to know more than a few of the rules in the tax codes, the breaking of which could land me in trouble of some indefinite kind. Here, fortunately, there is a safeguard. When it comes to codes of this sort, I am able to pay experts—notably, lawyers and accountants—to watch the rules on my behalf. But when it comes to presentism, there is no expert who can perform such a service on my behalf (though this could be an excellent, and potentially profitable, sideline business for social theorists).
Presentism is not the only problem of this kind. There must be a fallacy associated with failures of a correlative but opposite kind. There ought to be one, if there isn’t. Here’s the logic of it: If presentism is the fault of holding the long, recently, or soon-to-be dead responsible for the manners of present company; then “X” is the error of failing to grant the real or virtually dead credit for having understood present manners better than present company. What could “X” be called? (Let’s hope not “pastism.”) The difference between “X” and presentism turns on an interesting prior distinction—one made with delicacy in the Book of Common Prayer—between sins of omission and those of commission. Presentism, thereby, is the sin of committing a faulty attribution of omission to the dead who, at the time they were living, could not have known the rules they failed to obey. By contrast, “X” would be an active neglect by the living of the achievements of the dead—a commission exercised upon the refusal to grant that others knew the rules before they did. Within full-bodied analytic culture, one might expect the “X” to be filled with something like “culpably feasible ignorance of the present-promise of past deeds.” Since this won’t do, let us call it “X.”
As it turns out, “X” is quite a good term. It was the “X” in Jacques Derrida’s early writings on erasure...