Time out of Joint

Article excerpt

Time Out of Joint WAR TIME: AN IDEA, ITS HISTORY, ITS CONSEQUENCES. By Mary L. Dudziak. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 221 pages. $24.95.

The eminent legal historian Mary L. Dudziak has written a book on the meaning of time in war. The separation of the words as found in the title, War and Time, appears to be deliberate.1 Dudziak's essay proposes to isolate and identify the effects of time as it passes during war-particularly when it is a long and indefinite time-upon a society and ultimately upon a culture. Time in the course of war is, in this telling, both jaws and tail of the dragon. It is both cause and effect, within and upon culture and society.2

This plays out in a special way for Americans, however. The American cultural conception of "time" in "war" seeks to confine war to a presumably temporary emergency.3 Policies that would otherwise be legally, politically, socially, and culturally unacceptable-encroachments upon civil rights and liberties, most prominently, but also encroachments upon property rights, and regulatory changes of many kinds from taxation to price controls-become accepted as legitimate, extraordinary measures "for the duration." An uncertain duration, perhaps, but a duration nonetheless assumed in a culturally deep way to be temporary.4 The legitimacy of these war measures is accepted not just because they are claimed to be "necessary" in exceptional circumstances. They are also accepted because-independently-American cultural assumptions about the nature of war define them as not merely necessary exceptions, but as temporally confined.5 War in the American historical imagination is temporary.6

Necessity in war, then, is the hard master pressing exceptional measures upon society.7 Time, and the assumed temporary nature of war as a state of exception, however, soothes their acceptance and helps establish their legitimacy by contrasting them with "normal" times.8 Peace is defined as normality; it is defined as "normal" time.9 And yet the rub: the passage of time in war, when it goes on and on (and particularly when it goes on without discernible end or even a way to define an end) tends to harden effects that were supposed to be temporary, confined to the emergency of war, into permanent changes in society and culture.10 Time in war-the passage of time in war-is an independent social cause with its own social and cultural effects. We should therefore not be comforted quite so much as Americans are by the culturally reinforced belief that war, or at any rate, war's effects upon the ordinary life of peacetime, is temporary.

In war, Dudziak writes, "regular time" is thought to be "interrupted, and time is out of order." 11 The distinction between time "out of order," established by the social condition of war, and regular time, leads to the category of "wartime," which functions as both a passive historical descriptor and a causal cultural actor.12 If the book's title initially deliberately separates the two categories, this is in order to see that their subsequent combination in the text signals a distinct social category of its own, one that is established by the fact of war and the social perception of time, and which has independent effects upon society. At the large historical level, Dudziak notes, war slices "human experience into eras, creating a before and an after"-for example, antebellum and postbellum Civil War America, or the "postwar" after World War II. 13 Yet beyond merely being a way of descriptively periodizing history-a series of convenient before and after signposts-wartime also functions as an "abstract historical actor, moving and changing society and creating particular conditions of governance."14

War Time is a fine and excellent book, an ambitious exercise in the genres of cultural critique and the history of ideas. The genre of cultural criticism is often characterized by the use of cultural materials that range across literature and the arts, high and pop culture, tropes of culture offered and interpreted to reveal some deeper perception of culture and society. …

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