The Epochal Fallacy

by zunguzungu


“Historical analysis can point to moments of uncertainty-when stabilizing institutions were weakened and expectations of change heightened-and to moments of stability, and it can point to change. But to see history as a succession of epochs is to assume a coherence that complex interactions rarely produce. Whatever makes an era distinct should not only be present but be its defining feature; otherwise, the identification of an epoch says little . . . Historical temporality, as Williams Sewell puts it, is “lumpy”: the tendency for innovations and breaks to be reabsorbed into ongoing discursive and organizational structures is sometimes broken by a cascade of events that reconfigures the imaginable and the conceivable. Historical time is lumpy in another sense—across different conceptions of temporality held by different people at the same moment. But if time is plural, it is not divided into self-contained compartments. One circles back to the problem that in order to understand how ideas of history were shaped by colonialism, one has to understand colonization and challenges to it over time. The critical insistence that historians examine their own concepts of time is valuable, but so too is the historian’s insistence on attention to process, on how what happens at one moment in time configures possibilities and constraints on what can happen the next.”

–Frederick Cooper, “Colonial Questions, Historical Trajectories,” from Colonialism in Question