Lifetimes: A Natural History of the Present

Challenge, Background, and Relevance

Among the most recent and well-known examples of the entanglement of time scales and life scales is the introduction of “the Anthropocene” as a new geological epoch (Anthropocene Working Group Report, Oslo, August 2016), based on the claim that humans have become “geological agents”, transforming the planet beyond the point of no return and thus demanding a revision of the geological time scale (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011). Another example, which equally disrupts present temporal arrangements are the rapidly changing biological times of human life. On a global scale the average life expectancy at birth has more than doubled during the last two centuries and in Europe the proportion of people older than 65 is approaching 25% (Oeppen and Vaupel, 2002). These two radical transformations in the history of mankind belong to different time scales, but are linked by the fact that they cannot be contained within our existing temporal frameworks, regimes or arrangements. Neither historical time, organized around periodizations like “modernity” or “post-war” and temporal concepts like “growth”, “recession”, or “crisis”, nor clock-time, which serves to synchronize our daily lives and practices across the globe, can really account for what it means to be a “geological agent” or what it means that mankind is growing incessantly older, on a collective scale (Bastian 2012).

Another way to describe the same situation would be to point out that increasingly mankind appears to be “out of sync” with itself, inscribed as an agent into a geological time scale, encompassing millions of years, and at the same time “outliving” the cultural and social structures that have been put in place to care for a much younger population, in many Western countries as well as in Japan, where the average life expectancy of women is now 86,5 years, the highest in the world (Christensen et al. 2009). Again on a different scale, another example is the emergent radically transdiciplinary genre of big history, in which both geological and biological chronologies are dwarfed by cosmological chronology (Christian 2005; Christian et al. 2014), manifest in time maps like Chronozoom (University of California, Berkeley 2016). Although geological chronology is now inscribed with human agency through the concept of Anthropocene, exerting human agency upon processes taking place on a cosmological scale remains primarily a feature of science fiction. Furthermore, time at the quantum level is becoming relevant for a number of technical innovations we use in our everyday lives, but has yet to be given social meaning outside natural science disciplines and brought into temporal arrangements of political and social significance (Palmer 2017).

This project is set up to understand these entanglements in a historical perspective (Werner and Zimmermann 2006). Entanglements of different times occur when humans in their social and political practices engage different time scales and temporal experiences and arrange them in new ways in order to navigate the world by means of decisions, plans and actions. Often these temporal arrangements emerge in response to individual and collective experiences of being “out of sync” with the self as well as with the surroundings (Koselleck 1972; Fabian 1983, Landwehr 2012), which again means that the synchronizing measures, which hold society together, like for Western modernity, the clock, the newspaper, the nation-state, and the idea of progress (Anderson 1983; Jordheim 2017a), have lost some of their power. In this project we want to understand these regime changes in the temporal arrangement of the world, how they change our experiences, our practices and our self-understandings.

As a systematizing move, we divide time scales into three main orders: biological (bio-), geological (geo-) and cosmological (cosmo-). In addition, we engage with the emerging time scale of the quantum. These are the time scales which we will trace through recent global history. In this way we pick up an Early Modern matrix for ordering the universe, scaling up from the life on the planet, to the life of the planet, and to the life of the universe (Jardine et al. 1996). In this matrix time is still something which exists in the plural, depending on forms of knowledge and experience. Returning to the matrix of natural history, this project sets out to develop an alternative view of the temporal order of global society, in which the linear, homogenous times of modernization is challenged by a multiplicity of rhythms, speeds, and durations, in various historical and geographical contexts, emerging from lives unfolding on and in the planet, as well as in the universe. To assume the existence of multiple time scales enables us to move beyond the ubiquitous claims about the “crisis of time” or “the end of the modern temporal regime” (Hartog 2003; Assmann 2013). In order to do this we need to work both diachronically and synchronically, and address entanglements both across fields of knowledge and across cultural and linguistic borders: on the one hand, we investigate the changing roles of biological, geological, and cosmological time scales, simply “lifetimes”, in the processes of modernization and globalization unfolding in the last three centuries; on the other hand, we study the transfers, translations and entanglements of temporal arrangements, historical times, clock-times and lifetimes, between different cultures and languages across the globe.

Finally, the Lifetimes project is taking its cues from the experience that the order of knowledge, the structure of disciplines, which was established at the end of 18th and the beginning of the 19th century in framework of the modern research university, is proving increasingly incapable of responding to the challenges of the present. In the work of the project the history of disciplines as well as the possible shift into another order of knowledge is both a topic of research and built into our research design.