Self-Defining Time

1 Feb

Said’s examination of imperialism, Fabian’s history of the conception of time, and Heart of Darkness all draw attention to the human habit/desire to define ourselves in opposition (and superiority) to an Other. One overall theme that all of these pieces contribute to is the notion that these conceptions of self (from the individual to the cultural level) are not static, they are influenced by past, and by self-interpretation of those past events.

What Said is able to note is that everyone in the world is now a product of the colonial past (and in his eyes, ongoing imperialist present). People from former colonies have moved to the imperial capitols, bringing their culture with them. No former colony can return to its cultural roots untouched by the language, culture, and practices of the former colonizers. As much as we may all try to define ourselves in opposition to an Other, we have all shared aspects of our cultures too closely for the lines to be clearly drawn. Of course, this phenomenon is not new- there have been empires in the past, and cultures have borrowed and integrated ideas from neighboring people.

What seems to separate the era of European global colonialism from any past time is the vehemence with which the idea of their cultural uniqueness and superiority was held. Said notes that there were records of Christians engaging in cannibalism during the Crusades, but that these records were suppressed when Europe began to explore farther than it had ever gone before. The obsession with non-Europeans as being savage, often represented in shorthand by having them be cannibalistic, is shown heavily in Heart of Darkness. Cannibalism is used to show the breaking of fundamental human taboos as a way to dehumanize the Other, yet every culture has stories or traditions of cannibalism at some point in their history. It is the ability to ignore or rewrite one’s past to ignore this fact that gives the sense of superiority necessary to subjugate the Other.

Fabian demonstrated the power inherent in defining history. How someone views their own history (both the stories within it and its relation to the larger scope of time in which they did not exist) is such a significant part of self-identity. What is striking about how time has often been conceived is the notion of destiny that is entangled within it- for sacred time, the goal is salvation, while for secular time, the goal is more nebulous. The goal is more- to see more, to explore further, to be faster, more efficient, more powerful. The goal is progress, however it is being defined. It seems time cannot be defined with progress, and progress cannot be defined without past times to compare itself favorably to. How could a people who define their time on Earth in such a way not find it necessary to expand and conquer?

Attempting to disentangle colonialism and the European attitudes that existed concurrently seems to be impossible. Did Europe’s view of itself and its place in history cause it to expand, or did a natural territorial expansion lead to the sense of identity that lead to world conquest as had never been seen before? It seems impossible to say, when these ideas and history are still being lived and still being interpreted by the various people that are a product of this time.

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One Response to “Self-Defining Time”

  1. zack196 February 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    Your idea on the need for a sense of progress in time is quite interesting. I think the dominant Western conception of time is secular, with a goal towards progress (e.g. more wealth, more democracy, more Western values, etc…), but I don’t think that the goal of secular time necessarily has to be progress, but instead purpose. All people need some sort of purpose in their lives to give meaning to time, and progress is just one, albeit dominant, form of this purpose.

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