Typically, the structures of consciousness in how we experience time—or the broader phenomenological question of temporality—divide said experience into past, present, and future. These distinctions are not self-evident; rather, they are shaped by politics, institutions, society, economy, and so forth. Indeed, in his expressed engagement with historical materialism, Walter Benjamin claims that history—as one such structuring of temporality—is neither ideal nor causal, discrete nor universal, determined by the past nor exclusive to the future. Rather, it is a living process of present-future-pasts folding in on themselves. And a “real state of emergency”—recall that he wrote Theses on the Philosophy of History in early 1940 in France, where he was living in exile, having escaped Hitler’s Nazi regime—lays bare this fold of history, for its temporality is one that disrupts the anticipatory relation to the future as a type of progress and with it also the normalization of injustice as a necessity in history.
The critical temporality Benjamin proposes resists the notion that the past can be understood exclusively in the precise moment in which it is recognized (frozen as an eternal image). In other words, historical moments are often naturalized, petrified as objective elements of our reality, and this reification—or estrangement from the totality—mirrors the logics of commodity fetishism. The task, in turn, is to illuminate how history is not a congealed “thing” and thus release its existence as process so that we may see ourselves in the totality of history rather than merely as its reified products. This critical temporality is an imperative that makes clear our agentive relation in creating the possible. This active sensing of the temporal, as it were, is where I turn my attention. I offer this meditation on presentness as an epistemological horizon, drawing on my work on both the ephemerality of performance and its politicized relationship to the US-Mexico border.
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