Critical Methods: The Chronotope (contcult)

This is how the Soviet literary critic, M.M. Bakhtin, described the chronotope:

“We will give the name chronotope [literally, ‘time space’] to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature….we are borrowing it for literary criticism almost as a metaphor [almost but not entirely]. What counts for us is the fact that it expresses the inseparability of space and time [time as the fourth dimension of space].

“In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.”

Anthropologist James Clifford, picking up this thread for his own purposes, writes:

“The chronotope is a fictional setting where historically specific relations of power become visible and certain stories can ‘take place’ (the bourgeois salon in nineteenth-century social novels, the merchant ship in Conrad’s tales of adventure and empire).”

To understand these remarks we need to acknowledge that there can be neither space without time nor time without space. Consider time-space in a fashion similar to the way we think of the Sign. The Sign, as Belsey taught us, consists of a signifier (image-sound) and a signified (concept) in a manner like the front and back of a sheet of paper; they cannot be split apart.

Now push it further: conceive of space not as abstract, as in geometry, nor as dead and endless as in the expanse of the universe. Space, in the sense we will be using that term, is social; it is produced by human activity. The space of the dance floor, for instance, is created by the rhythmic motion of the dancers’ bodies. The road as a space is constructed by the movement of vehicles.

But we have to tweak Bakhtin’s definition of the chronotope just a bit more: the chronotope, for our purposes, will be a time-space that symbolizes, embodies or stands in for the power relations which define the contemporary period– that is, the very moment we are studying in this course.

During class we discussed chronotopes in terms of “zones”: the border, the green zone (gated community), the strip mall, the detention center. Regarding the first of these we said that if the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall are chronotopes for the Ancient and Cold War worlds respectively, then the border chronotope of our location in history is El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, the Sunni/Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, Israel/Palestine. All three border zones are militarized. The first, EP/CJ, seems to possess an economic and cultural function while the second, the walls dividing the communities of Iraq’s capital, is represented as serving the purpose of separating what we are told are “warring factions.” In each of these cases the flow of people is limited, controlled and channeled. Remember what we said? One primary characteristic of the contemporary world is that even as capital has been liberated to course through the major nodes of a globalized economy demographic movement has increasingly been constrained. Legal efforts by States to regulate migration have even led to the creation of a new class, what the French call “sans papiers” and some in the US deem “illegals”.

It’s crucial that we imagine these chronotopes as alive rather than as inert. What is the space-time of border-crossing or border-keeping? What does it look like? How does it smell? To that end, experiment with formulating a list of contemporary chronotopes and their defining features. We’ll discuss what you’ve come up with in class.

3 thoughts on “Critical Methods: The Chronotope (contcult)

  1. Pingback: Heteroglossia and Dialogism (HUM470) « analepsis

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