Research Questions and Objectives

Lifetimes proceeds from a simple research question:

How are scales of time and scales of life entangled in human societies? How and under what circumstances do they come together to form new temporal arrangements and how do these arrangements change?

To answer this question, which in itself holds the possibility of ground-breaking results, the project will proceed according to a set of objectives, developed to ensure scientific innovation:

The primary objective of this project is to show how “lifetimes” form through the entanglement and synchronization of different time scales and life scales, and how they change our experiences, our practices and our orders of knowledge. More specifically, we want to investigate how biological, geological, and cosmological time scales combine with social and political concepts to form temporal arrangements governing human life, how these arrangements converge and come in conflict with each other.

From this primary objectives follows a set of secondary objectives, which are more specifically designed to help us achieve the primary objective:

Historical: Until now, the study of the temporal order of global history in the last three centuries has focused rather one-sidedly on the idea of “modernity”, delimiting the new and progressive era from the static world of the Middle Ages, imposing a linear, homogenous and singular concept of time, in terms of clock-time or historical time (cf. Koselleck 1979; Rosa 2005; important criticism of this position can be found in criticized by Kathleen Davis 2008, Bhabha 1994, Chakrabarty 2000). In this project we intend to refute this claim by showing that the temporal order of this period was always one of competing and conflicting temporal arrangements, which we call “lifetimes”, based on a set of nature-based chronologies, which impose themselves across fields of knowledge and practice as well as cultural and geographical borders. Furthermore, we intend to explore how “old” or “pre-modern” ways of conceptualizing time, inherent in genres like natural history or in ruling practices based on the life-span of the king or the dynasty, are still with us, and exist alongside chronologies labelled as “modern”.

Theoretical: The project intends to produce new and ground-breaking theory on ‘times in the plural’. During the last years and as part of projects performed by many of the same scholars involved here, Jordheim has published a series of widely read articles, in which he has developed concepts and theoretical tools for mapping and understanding the multiplicity of times and temporalities, in terms of a field of diverse and conflicting temporal arrangements as well as processes of synchronization (Jordheim 2012, 2014, 2017a). In these studies, discussing historical and theoretical work by Koselleck, Hartog, Hunt and others, it has become clear that the ubiquitous dichotomy between social, historical, and phenomenological time, on the one hand, and natural, scientific, and universal time, on the other – “the time of our lives” and “the time of the universe”, as the philosopher David C. Hoy recently called them (Hoy 2012) – is really untenable. The envisaged theoretical break-through of the project consists in expanding the theory of multiple temporalities to also include non-phenomenological times. The project will study conflicting temporal arrangements at the intersection between natural sciences, humanities scholarship and social practice. Heuristically, we distinguish between chronologies and temporal arrangements. Whereas chronologies are linked to scientific disciplines, mainly to natural sciences like biology, geology, and cosmology, temporal arrangements emerge when objects and concepts are brought together – arranged – across disciplinary institutional borders. In combining different forms of knowledge, these arrangements have definitive social and political effects.

Strategic: An important objective of the Lifetimes project is to build a both solid and innovative scholarly platform, from which connections can be made and convergences brought about between humanities and social sciences, on the one hand, and natural sciences and medicine on the other, at the University of Oslo, but also in the broader international network of the project. Not least, it will enable scholars in the humanities and social sciences to address central questions in the life sciences (antibiotic resistance, ageing) as well as in climate and sustainability research.


To write a natural history of the present means to enter into a critical dialogue with forms of historiography, which have been termed both “modernist” (Assmann 2013) and “Eurocentric” (Bhabha 1994; Chakrabarty 2000; Landwehr 2012). In this sense the theoretical and historical framework for the project is developed in response to works by Koselleck (1979), Hartog (2003), Assmann (2013) and others, in which “the modern temporal regime” have emerged as a stable, homogenous, and unified whole, originating in 18th century Europe, then spreading across the globe. The project will move beyond this paradigm in three ways: by going back to the “pre-modern” genre of natural history, by rediscovering the role of nature-based chronologies and time scales, and by investigating the cultural and linguistic refractions of temporal arrangements outside and inside Europe. In this way we will be able to replace the temporal framework of “modernity” with a multiplicity of competing and conflicting temporal arrangements, which differ both in their structures and in their social and political effects.

The last time scales, rhythms, and durations of time found themselves at the center of attention for Western scholars trying to understand the human was in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Christian time-reckoning, computus, collapsed and the modern forms of clock-time and historical time were not yet in place (Colliot-Thélène 2003; Jordheim 2017a). By returning to the late 18th century, the project seeks to create a historic counterpoint to the theory of the homogenous modern time, as a starting point for writing a natural history of the present. In his Metakritik of the new “critical philosophy”, published in 1799, the German theologian and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder offers a paradigmatic formulation of the multiplicity of natural and historical times: In reality every mutable thing has its own inherent standard of time; this exists even if nothing else is there; no two things in the world have the same standard of time. My pulse, my step or the flight of my thoughts is not a temporal standard for others; the flow of a river, the growth of a tree is not a temporal standard for all rivers, trees and plants. Life times of elephants and of the most ephemeral are very different from each other, and how different are not the temporal standards on all planets? In other words, there are (one can say it earnestly and courageously) in the universe at any time innumerable different times (Herder [1799] 1998, 360).

For Herder, the existence of a plurality of times is linked to the existence of a plurality of life forms, multiple times seems to imply multiple realities, or, in a more current idiom, “multiple ontologies” (Mol 2002). Similarly, in this project, the scales of time are linked to the scales of life, centering on the human, even though other life forms equally well could have been put at the center of the investigation. Different from Herder in this quote, however, we are not only interested in how these different times exist alongside each other, in parallel, but also how they become entangled in the life of human societies, and how they combine to form temporal arrangments, which have social and political effects, for instance in the fields of medicine, engineering, and government. As our engagement with Herder in WP1 will show, this was also his intention in writing natural history, for example in his Ideen, published 1784-1791.

How we understand human actions and events, human behavior in general, is entirely based on the temporal horizons or frameworks that we apply to them (Zerubavel 1981). On an individual level, the meaning of a decision or an action depends on the time-span in which the action is performed or the decision is made. An action might have one meaning in the short term, and a very different one in the long term. The same can be said on a collective or social level, in the fields of politics, science, or technology (Abbott 2001). Every human, every society is located at a crossroads between different temporal frameworks, times or temporalities, which have durations, speeds, and rhythms of their own, and which evoke pasts and futures that vary greatly both in extension and content (Fabian 1983). An illustrative example is offered by the much discussed notion of “environmental impact”, which depends almost entirely on the choice of time-frame or periodization: a product which might be fine in the short term, like nuclear energy, might be disastrous in the long term. From 1800 onwards the nexus of clock-time and historical time called “modern”, spreading across the globe on the back of capitalism and imperialism, has made up the temporal framework within which human actions and events have been understood (Ogle 2015). At present, this seems to about to change: on the one hand, “the modern temporal regime”, or in short, “progress”, is losing much of its explanatory value, because it is no longer able to synchronize all the different aspects of human life into a progressive narrative (Hartog 2003; Assmann 2013; Jordheim 2017); on the other hand, other chronologies are returning to the scene, bio-, geo-, and cosmo-chronologies, which have in common that they subject humans to the scales, rhythms, and durations of nature – not original nature, but nature as it has been produced by scholars and scientists during the last three hundred years. Not only is chronology, the question of time-reckoning and time-organization returning to the study of the human, but “nature”, in the form of the biological body of man, the geological body of the earth, or the cosmological body of the universe, is imposing itself onto the temporal configuration of global society (Tanaka 2016). To understand the modern world, Koselleck has claimed, “historical time” needs to be distinguished from “natural” time (Koselleck 2000, 304). Modern time is a product of what he calls a “denaturalization” (303) and a “destruction of natural chronology” (306), which in Western history took place at the end of the eighteenth century. Prior to this, Koselleck argues, the process of history had been organized according to “natural” categories: the rise and setting of the sun and the moon, the change of seasons as well as the birth and death of the members of the ruling dynasties. But from the late eighteenth century onwards other concepts take over, obtained directly from history itself: “progress, decline, acceleration or delay, the not-yet and the not-anymore, the before and the after, the too-early and the too-late, the situation and the duration” (1979, 133). To describe the change Koselleck paraphrases Kant: “So far history has conformed to chronology. Now it is about making chronology conform to history” (2000, 323).

The Lifetimes project aims at proving Koselleck wrong in this statement, which since the 1970s have guided so much of historiographical research into the last three centuries. Instead of clear-cut distinctions between natural and historical times we find a field of multiple times and time scales, in which concepts, experiences and technologies keep crossing the disciplinary borders between the natural and the historical. At the end of the 18th century Herder’s conceptualization of the multiplicity of times was displaced from the academic world by the new order of knowledge, in which the lifetimes of human actors were separated from the lifetimes of species, minerals, and planets. The all-encompassing genres of natural history and natural philosophy broke down, giving way to the modern order of disciplines, in which geology, biology, and cosmology broke loose from the study of man. At the center of this process of reordering knowledge were the convergence of time scales and life scales. Each of these new disciplinary lifetimes, with their own finitude, redefined the older relation between macrocosm and microcosm in order to craft a naturalistic chain of being, and did so by invoking new epistemologies as well as new objects of knowledge. However, that the lifetimes were disentangled into separate homogenous chronologies on a disciplinary and institutional level, did not mean that the same happened in the societies at large. In this project we will follow the rise and fall, the emergence and transformation of these complex and multifarious temporal arrangements, in which different scales of time and different scales of life are coordinated.

State of the Art

The project places itself at the forefront of an on-going reorientation of humanities and social sciences, moving beyond the long-standing emphasis on language and representation as well as the protracted “spatial turn” to a re-examintation of time and temporality – “a new metaphysics of time”, as the editor, Ethan Kleinberg, called it, in his introduction to the first virtual issue of History and Theory, republishing essays by Jordheim and Zammito (Kleinberg 2012, 1-2; also Zammito 2004, Jordheim 2012). Rather than embracing this metaphysics, however, this projects sets out to explore the various empirical and historical manifestations, as well as the materialities, of temporal experience, assembled to chronologies or temporal arrangements. Other versions of the same re-engagement with time across the humanities and social sciences can be found in the works by Lorenz and Bevernage (2013), Hölscher (2017), Rosa (2003) and others.

A common feature of all these works, however, is that they continue to treat historical time, which includes the time of social processes, political events, individual descisions etc., as something singular and self-contained, separate from other temporal forms, which do not emerge from history, in this specific modern sense, but from life. However, in order to understand the temporal configuration, the network of times that emerged at the end of the 18th century and that we are still part of, but which in the present seem to find itself in a kind of “crisis” (Hartog 2003), historical times can no longer be seen as separate from the times of nature. Both times of human events and actions and transformations taking place on the level of microbes, rock layers, or planets must be reconnected and explored as parallel, converging and diverging temporal arrangements. From inside the modern historical paradigm there is especially one historian who has attempted to achieve a similar reconfiguration of temporal arrangements: the French historian of the Annales school, Fernand Braudel, who in 1958 argued that history should not concern itself just with high-speed time of events, but also with the slower rhythm of social and economic structures and cycles, and not least, the longue durée of landscapes, geography, and climate (Braudel 1958). But whereas Braudel wanted to analyze these deeper, more hidden levels, in order to change history from an ideographic to a nomothetic science, this project will latch on to his attempt to reconnect history with nature, and with natural rhythms and durations. In recent years two interventions into the field of historiography have been successful, or at least highly visible, in trying to change this, to re-connect history with other forms time, more specifically natural times: Chakrabarty’s already mentioned “The Climate of History” from 2009, and later Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto from 2014, in which our present condition of global warming and climate change is taken as point of departure for reintergrating various time-scales. Both of them do this, however, rather in order to renegotiate the role of the historian in the present situation than to understand the multiple times of historical processes, which is the task we are taking on here. In this project the multiple times of global history is not primarily an encouragement to historians to work differently, but a fact of history itself, which we intend to explore empirically across periods and spaces. In the richness of the material we are investigating and the global scope of the project, not just theoretically, but empirically, we will move well beyond the present state of the art in the field.