A Response to Tom Griffiths from Paul Gillen

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In his brilliant essay Tom Griffiths is positive about the relevance of ‘deep time’ for Australian History. But it seems to me that deep time has a darker side. The nineteenth century’s discovery of the immense age of the earth and living creatures, along with the even more unsettling discovery of relativity, is surely linked to what Lyotard long ago (well, 20 years) called incredulity about ‘the grand narratives’. And while, as Lyotard argued, we can surely ditch the grand narratives and keep our humanity, I am not so sure that we can ditch them and keep the redemptive history to which many of us are attached – including Griffiths himself, when he claims that ‘deep time’ provides a ‘deep perspective on contemporary debates over population, ecological purity, environmental limits, multiculturalism, and the legitimacy of modern Australian settlement.’

Deep time makes it impossible to imagine historical beginning and ending. If we know that human history is a minute and indeterminate slice of temporal realms too large and mysterious to comprehend, a blurry patch of light in a vast darkness, then how can it have more than shifting, evanescent meanings? As Bertolt Brecht put it in the poem ‘Poor BB’ (1925):

‘Of these cities will remain what passed through them: the wind! … We know that we are temporary, and that after us will come – nothing very important.’

Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremescan serve as an example of grand narrative history – perhaps one of the last grand examples. Observing the chaos and injustice of our world, Hobsbawm affirms the faith that ‘We know, or at least it is reasonable to suppose, that it cannot go on ad infinitum.’

Jean Baudrillard on the other hand knows that it MUST go on ad infinitum. His theme in some recent texts is the endlessness of history: our unsatisfactory and chaotic world has no purpose and no conclusion. There is no such thing as progress, since there is no end towards which to progress. (‘The End of the Millennium or the Countdown’ Theory Culture and Society 15 (1) 1998, p 1-10; The illusion of the End,Polity Press, Cambridge 1994; ‘Hystericising the Millennium’: http://www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/hystericizing.html)

Non-progressive conceptions of time are profoundly at odds with modern Western thought. They signify the end of ‘politics’ as it has frequently been understood since the Enlightenment – ie not politics in the Aristotelian sense, but as struggle to create an enduringly better world, or resist a worse one. Played out against the abyss of deep time, politics becomes once more no more than the clash of interests and loyalties and moralities. As a character says in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing.

Need one say he was a man without politics? He was simply a messenger. He had no faith in the power of men to act wisely in their behalf. It was his view rather that every act soon eluded the grasp of its propagator to be swept away in a clamorous tide of unforeseen consequence.

The acceptance of deep time also means the end of history as a narrative of the struggle for a better world. History ceases to be a story, and disintegrates into myriad stories with no unifying centre. In this situation, historians can be bards or statisticians, elegists or satirists, lyricists or moralists, but they cannot pretend that their discipline is able to confer meaning on the past and hope for the future in the grand ways that were once taken for granted.

Paul Gillen
Faculty of Humanities
UTS, Broadway 2007
Sydney NSW Australia

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