Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Toil and Trouble: On the Materiality of Time

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Toil and Trouble: On the Materiality of Time

Article excerpt

For Kane Race and Meaghan Morris, without whom...


There's an interesting essay by Roger Chartier, in which he shows that European universities, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, began to take in more students than the Church, with its monopoly on classical knowledge, could absorb.1 There began to be a surplus of educated men for whom there were insufficient positions as priests, curates and schoolmasters; and thus the modern category of the intellectual began to emerge, which in turn made a major contribution to the Enlightenment movement, and with it to the social disturbances that finally brought about the end of the ancien regime and the emergence out of revolution of the modern world. Out of such small disorders in the best-regulated systems-that is to say, out of the vulnerability of social conventions to the entropy that inevitably and parasitically inhabits them-large social transformations can emerge, only to be subject in due course to more disorder, and to further changes.

The form of study we call 'history', then, is an after-the-event 'investigation' or 'story' (Greek: 'istoria'), of the changes in the material world of 'nature', on the one hand, and in the human or social world of 'culture', on the other-changes that we also call history. In this latter sense, of change in both the natural world and the social world of the human, history, then, is the name we give to the material, and hence perceptible, effects of time; those outcomes that make time available to the examination of the scholars we call historians. The pursuit we call 'history' both examines and records the materiality of time-that is, the changing character of the natural and social worlds as such changes arise from the toil of negentropy pitting itself, in the form of work, against the disordering 'trouble' that arises from the parasitic presence of entropy.

But also, and finally, the mode of our perceptions of temporal processes varies accordingly as these are perceived as 'events'-disturbing the supposed tranquility of ordinary life-or alternatively as 'everyday' life itself: the tranquility of apparent eventlessness that we nevertheless know to be subject to the eventual incursion of events that range in kind from the minor happenings of personal and interpersonal life to the social and the planetary. On the one hand there are wars, revolutions, parliamentary debates and elections (but also earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, thunderstorms and cyclones, for weather is also a material manifestation of time); and on the other births, deaths, marriages, affections, memorable dreams, intellectual breakthroughs, the first day of sunny weather after a period of rain, and the like. But what counts as everyday and what counts as history is in the end only a matter of scale and of relativity, since we know that, ultimately, the process of change arising from the constant interaction of entropy and negentropy is permanent, and that events-be they the small events of the everyday or the large events of sociopolitical history-arise only as a consequence of an unperceived build-up of micro-changes that is always going on, whether under cover of the perceived stability of everyday life (what a famous definition sums up as 'what is happening when nothing is happening') or in the form of social revolution and natural disaster.

That's why cultural studies, for example, can be described as a history-in the word's etymological sense of an investigation-but a history of everyday life, leaving the 'big' events that punctuate the everyday, but also emerge out of it, to the domain of history 'proper'. Such is the case even though we know very well that such a difference is anything but a distinction, since the existence of Chartier's and others' practice of 'cultural history' demonstrates that history too has an interest in the everyday and the cultural.

In information theory, the name that is given to the parasitic presence of entropy (or 'trouble') in linguistic and other modes of communication is 'noise' (or sometimes 'static'). …

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