When we look at an object or at another person we necessarily apprehend them in space. There they stand before us, alongside other things, in three-dimensional space. This phenomenological presentation of persons and objects thus gives the impression that those things are in space together, that they are side by side in space, but also, under the order of temporality, that they are simultaneous. Before my apprehending gaze I encounter the entities there, together, as being “at the same time”. Perhaps this would be one of the basic premises of structural approaches to social formations, for the structuralist tells us to approach the social formation in its synchrony, as a set of interdependent relations that are simultaneous with one another.
Perhaps the problem with this view is that social formations are accompanied by archives, whether in the form of texts or in stories, such that they do not follow a trajectory of simultaneity, but rather are punctuated, like staves of a musical score, at a variety of different temporal levels, interacting in highly complex ways. Here it is worthwhile to recall Freud’s famous description of the topology of the mind in Civilization and Its Discontents. There Freud writes,
…[L]et us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past– an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine and that the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beaitufl statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths, and so on. But more than this. In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand– without the Palazzo having to be removed –the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terra-cotta antefixes. Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House. On the Piazza of the Pantheon we would find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view or the other.
Where in space one thing can only occupy one place at a single time, mind, claims Freud, is such that all these different periods or strata co-exist together exactly as they were, continuing their processes just as they did in the past. Thus, in the present, I can simultaneously be frustrated with my boss for perfectly legitimately work related and administrative reasons, while also reliving a childhood drama with my father for which he is an effigy, stand-in, or surrogate. It is not that one meaning of the strata is the true meaning of the other meaning (the past version being the truth or the real meaning of the first version), but rather that these two temporalities are tangled together, intertwined, unfolding together simultaneously in this present.
The case would be the same with social formations. Rather than a space of simultaneously structure that overdetermines all social relations, perhaps instead we have different levels of temporality, different temporal rhythms, that form a temporalized structure playing itself out at different levels. This point can be illustrated with reference to the current democratic primary elections in the United States. As has often been noted, older and middle aged women have disproportionately broken for Clinton, while younger women seem to be breaking for Obama. It is not unusual to hear these older women complain, claiming that these younger women are betraying sisterhood and the feminist cause. Indeed, it is not at all unusual for younger women to abjure or reject the title “feminist” (much to my dismay) altogether.
Could it be that the explanation of this difference has to do with different rhythms of intertwined temporality governed by very different problematic spaces? On the one hand, the feminism of the older women seems to revolve around gender inequality, victimhood, and a pressing desire to break or undermine certain boundaries. Yet on the other hand, when we look at popular culture, we see a very different image of the feminine that speaks to an entirely different set of issues. Battlestar Gallactica depicts women as commanders and fighter pilots that bunk with the men, compete with them vigorously in sports, and who seem to recognize no marked difference between masculine and female characteristics. Quentin Tarantino’s recent films (Kill Bill and Death Proof, as well as Rodriguez’s Planet Terror) depict women as entirely capable of handling themselves, or depict women who shift from positions of dependence on men (Planet Terror) to leadership and confidence. We have had an entire slew of female super-heroes such as Electra and Lara Croft.
A recent series of Cadillac commercials depicts Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy) sardonically repeating a variation of Julie Andrew’s list of her favorite things from The Sound of Music. On the one hand, Julie Andrews’ character in The Sound of Music is an iconic image of woman as caregiver, while on the other hand, Walsh’s character on Grey’s Anatomy is an intelligent, attractive woman in command of her own career and who does not draw her identity primarily from caring for children or men. The slogan of the commercial asks “when you turn your car on, does it turn you on?” When she arrives at a stop light she looks over and sees a couple of men driving a sports car. A satisfied smile crosses her face, she hits the gas, and she leaves them in the dust. She competes directly with men, rather than being a victim of men or subordinate to men.
Perhaps, within this universe of symbols and meanings, something like the presidential race is no longer conceived as a gender issue or as a gender struggle. Yet nonetheless, these different problematic fields or spaces, these different temporalities, co-exist together in the present and weave themselves in a variety of ways, forming something like a temporalized structure or a structure composed of different time-space vectors (“space-time worms”). Paradoxically, they are both present and past, preventing us from arguing that they are strictly synchronous. An adequate social theory would have to think these complex forms of temporality, their structures of meaning production, and their tangled interrelations.