Just in time?
Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh
Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2013) ‘Just in time?’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/news-and-blog/blog/just-in-time-8-jan-2013/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.
1. The Whites Writing Whiteness team members are me (Liz Stanley), Andrea Salter and Sue Wise, and we had our first team research meeting on Wednesday 12 December 2012. This day was of course the memorable date of 12.12.12, and we stopped our discussions to mark time, at 12.12 on 12.12.12.
2. More accurately, this was actually a pre-meeting, as the project doesn’t officially start until January 2013. However, there has been much to do to enable us to start in full flood in January, so we all thought a meeting would be handy. The things we’ve been doing have included writing a website, setting up the project’s Advisory Board, discussing the pilot projects that were carried out as part of the funding application and how to develop these – and even celebrating getting the proofs of the first project publication, based on research data from one of these pilot projects! We discussed many things, one of which was to decide we would build a blog into the website and use it to regularly comment on things we’re doing, interesting reading, problems encountered and so on.
3. This blog – ‘Just in time?’ – comes out of our conversation about three connected things: (i) how we will use the Virtual Research Environment (VRE), which developed as part of the research on Olive Schreiner’s letters and which eventuated in publication of the Olive Schreiner Letters Online (www.oliveschreiner.org), so as to support Whites Writing Whiteness; (ii) what the ‘case’ or unit of analysis is that we will record information about and in particular whether this is a piece of writing that forms a whole (like a letter, but perhaps also a diary or a memoir), or something that exists under a particular date (like a diary entry for 4 January, or 19 March, or 12 December, each having their own appearance, rather than this being a 2012 diary); and (iii) if the case is the date (which we agreed it should be, for practical operational reasons, although later thoughts have focused on some of the equally practical issues with this), and what the consequences are of giving primacy to the conventions of clock time and calendar date, when these may not have been prime, or even significant, or relevant, or even discernible, for the writers or any reader/s. How, and if, people use, relate to and otherwise engage with time and temporality will be one of our most important concerns.
4. So the backcloth here is that time is, or it might be, or perhaps it might not be, central to the whole Whites Writing Whiteness project, and we cannot know this in advance, but we do know that this is important for us to attend to. The Project Overview http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/project-overview/ page sets out the range of things we’re interested in researching. Focusing on the time aspect highlights four aspects for particular attention:
- The project is centrally concerned with what social change is, how it is experienced ‘on the ground’ in small everyday things and in comparison with big events and how social science can best investigate it. In order to investigate whether, how, and in what ways small things and big events are connected, an ‘over time’ approach is necessary in order to be able to tease out the dynamics of the longue duree of change over time.
- The period from the 1770s to the 1970s is a kind of container, but one which has permeable beginning and end points that are when the first materials date from in the particular archive collections we will be working on, and in the long aftermath of the big event that was the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. This gives an around two hundred year time-frame for the project, a suitable stretch of time for an investigation of social change.
- South Africa is a crucible for investigating change, as the epicentre of the so-called ‘scramble for Africa’ by the imperial autocracies and the locus of rapid change and transitions, and around this ‘race’ and ‘whiteness’ have taken particularly resonant form. The changes concerned involve increasing racialisation and the emergence of a particularly rigid kind of racial order, its peaks and troughs, enforcements and challenges to this, and eventually the signs of its transition and change. Whites Writing Whiteness focuses on how the people living through these times represented such things in the small ways of ordinary everyday communications with each other in letter-writing, and so not grand pronouncements about race in set-piece speeches and so on, but instead mundane ways of representing people’s lives and other people in them. This provides a plethora of successive ‘in time’ occurrences around which to concentrate such investigations of change, a focus on the emergent – over time – racial order as represented in everyday ways by those most responsible for constructing and enforcing it, and an appropriate form of data – letter-writing and letter-exchanges – which has the succession of times and longitudinality built into it.
- ‘The past’ as we now know and understand it is an artefact of what remains, the tiny remaining amount of flotsam and jetsam that finds its way into archives, museums and collections and so on. Whites Writing Whiteness is concerned with how whites in South Africa have represented whiteness and its Others over the two hundred year period it is investigating social change, and its particular flotsam and jetsam are letters. Letter-writing in a South African context of course largely gives focus onto its small minority white population, with the project being concerned with the hierarchies and exclusions of the emergent racial order as represented by whites in their letter-writing. Letter-writing has occurred in extended family contexts over the entirety of the period that European migrants have lived there, and in the context of the country having a rich heritage of archiving such collections. Letter-writing presumes a response – letter-exchanges occur in a dialogical relationship in which the parties involved take loose turns in being writer, then reader, then writer again and so on. These exchanges are consequently strongly temporal – there is a delay and time passes between a letter being written and sent, and then it being received and read. The now-existing convention of dating a letter plays on this, implying (not always accurately) that a letter was written at just one time-delineated point. However, the convention is both fairly recent and also culturally specific, as is that of providing a specific address that a letter is written from at its head. The changing conventions of letter-writing, including dating and placing, as engaged in by ‘ordinary people’ among white colonialists are indeed among the exemplars of change which will be investigated.
5. These ways (and there are of course others) in which time is important to the Whites Writing Whiteness project will give some indication of our engagement with the issues and problematics that a serious attention to temporality raises. That is, it isn’t just a matter of deciding that every piece of data we record will be dated, and that is that. The substance of our discussion in the December pre-meeting was to bring the necessity of using dating as the basis of the VRE, and what is to be the case or unit of analysis, together while also recognising the limitations or even fallacies of doing this and so to explore in a preliminary way some of the problematics arising. There are six such issues which our discussion touched on, each of which we know we will need to respond to analytically as the research unfolds. They are outlined here in a preliminary way; the responses of present readers to any of them is welcomed.
6. Firstly, the case or unit of analysis needs to be a piece of writing etc for which information (variously, notes, short verbatim extract, complete transcription) recorded under a specific date, for this is how the complex and flexible piece of purpose-designed software known as the VRE will enable us to track events, persons, ideas and themes over time, over that 200 year period of time we are interested in. But, immediately, issues arise. This is a very specific notion of time as ‘real time’ as measured by clock and calendar notions of time, as something ‘objective’ and external to anything else going on in the letters and related documents we’re researching. However, in a good few of the letters we’ve looked at so far (with some collections researched previously as part of the Schreiner Letters Project), people struggle to perceive this way of comprehending the passing of time. Travelling long distances in the 1850s by the slow measure of an ox-cart, the missionaries Roger and Bessie Price, for example, make a mark in a notebook each night for the day just gone, but while such travel could feature momentous occurrences it ordinarily did not and brought just plain exhaustion, so they sometimes forgot and struggled to remember just how many passing days had been forgotten. Also they recorded in the time-honoured way of fives – four vertical strokes, then crossed through horizontally – and this added to the complications of relating their times to the external conventions of days, dates, months and so on. As well as the complications of one way of life meeting another which was very different in its rhythms and significances, there were also resistances and sometimes downright refusals on their part.
7. One of these is that a requirement which the non-denominational London Missionary Society (LMS) made of its missionaries was that they must write a diary, a diary expected to record everyday trials and tribulations as well as successes and achievements connected with their missionary labours. This was an accounting machinery, the recording of successes and failures, to be later assessed by an external judging eye. Many failed to comply and completed documentation that was minimally ‘diary-like’ retrospectively and generally, rather than specifically and day by day or week by week; while a few, like David Livingstone, married to Bessie Price’s sister Mary, point blank refused. Detailed accounts of reasons are rarely found, but from the comments that exist it seems that the necessity and possibility of contemplation and recollection was presumed by the LMS, but in practice the lives these missionaries lived were full of mundane gruelling activities that left little space – time – fabric of material life – for such things.
8. Secondly, there is the time of a letter. Recording a single date for a letter, in the form of when it was written, presumes that it was written at just one time, that this time was that given in the date, and that the date and the time of writing is the most important temporal feature of it, and also that this is the most pertinent way of reading its content. But none of this may in fact be true, or rather something much more complicated in temporal terms can be masked by a bald date. Giving a date to a letter is a convention of fairly recent origin – when letters might take months or years to arrive, the date they were written on had long faded into insignificance, while that they gave signs of the living status and presence of the writer was prime (so much so, when recipients paid postal charges it was not unknown that a letter itself would be refused once sight of hand-writing had confirmed who its writer was). Also a date, where given, is just a beginning convention for a letter, while its actual writing can involve interruptions and delays, and anyway a date is a lengthy period and encapsulates a big chunk of different times. But as well as the complications of the date a letter is written under, it is incontrovertible that the starting time of its writing is never its finishing time, because the writing itself of course takes time.
9. Thirdly, there is the time that is in a letter, that is, the times that the writing is concerned with representing and commenting on. This represented time can be all past and retrospect, all present and in the moment, all future and prospect, and of course the probably more usual mixtures of these. However, both the moment of writing, and also the prospect of a future in which the letter will be read, in a sense come with the territory, for what ‘a letter is’ is definitionally predicated on it being written and then being read. In turn, what this indicates is that, while letter content may be all retrospect, the structure of the letter involves the present moment of writing and the prospective one of it being read, so that retrospect alone is not possible in epistolary terms. Also there are further complexities concerning the anticipated prospect of a reply to what is being written – this can involve just a future, the reply, but there can also be the writing of a number of possible futures, concerning the range of things that the reply might or might not contain.
10. The way a letter is written, the specifics of its contents, can mask such things, conveying rather the sense of timelessness, or of utterly condensed time, where the letter-writing is utterly immersed in and concerned with something that is of a single moment held still. Two Olive Schreiner epistolary items can convey what is meant here, and they are the text of two telegrams sent in succession by her husband Cronwright-Schreiner to her older sister Ettie, the gist of which are in succession ‘fine baby girl,’ and ‘our baby is dead.’ The first, recording the birth and the baby’s state of being, seems almost out of time in the confident statement made, although it can also be seen as the representation of a triumphant moment condensed. The second, recording a few hours later the fact of the baby’s death, is written in the present voice and, like other deaths, it becomes a perpetual ever-present fact: my mother, partner, baby, is dead; a dead person always is dead in the present tense, a perpetual ever-lasting moment.
11. Fourthly, epistolary time by definition also involves space: a letter travels in time, and also over space and place, from me here and now, to you there and then. This brings Bahktin’s idea (in The Dialogic Imagination) of the chronotope into frame, a term which literally means time space and signifies the forms in which canonical mappings of these become genre-specific. This is however not a matter of time then space or vice versa, but rather that both are fused in material instantiations of, in the case of our research, letter-writing. Within this, as within the particular kinds of novels, fairy stories and so on that Bahktin was concerned with, such things as character, description, events, plot and denouement are made material in ways that fuse temporality and spatiality in their rendition in writing. Indeed, Bahktin proposes that the chronotopic assemblage of time and space defines genre and genre distinctions. So what does this mean in letter-writing terms?
12. The initial question to contemplate here is, is there a chronotope for the genre of letters? Are there specific ways in which letter-writing is predicated upon time and space or upon materiality, seriality and movement/succession? Here we have already suggested our response is yes. And are there particular canonical ways in which time and space are instantiated in the form or structure and the content of letters? And here, formulating a response must necessarily wait until there is sufficient data in the form of numbers of letters analysed in depth to base this on. Whether letter-writing is ‘a’ genre or not begs many fascinating questions about the forms that letter-writing takes in particular times and different places. However, our beginning approach to this, drawing on ideas honed in Schreiner research, is that the route into exploring this is via ideas about an ‘epistolary pact’ (Stanley, Salter & Dampier 2013)
13. But the questions following are more provoking. Given that demonstrably the conventions regarding ‘a letter’ change over time and between cultures, should any claim about the existence of ‘a’ chronotope and ‘a’ pact be bracketed or suspended? If time makes a difference, perhaps the array of spaces of letter-writing and letter-reading make powerful difference too? Also, if there appears to be one dominant chronotope or pact at any particular point in time and a particular culture, how does this relate to conventions of what ‘proper’ letters are seen to consist of? In addition, perhaps defensible claims can be made that conventions regarding chronotopic time and space and an epistolary convenpact can be inscribed in ways which are particular to a particular letter-writer, or perhaps even more so to a particular linked network of correspondents, and so what are the ways in which this can be best explored?
14. We are just beginning to address such questions in relation to Olive Schreiner’s letters – in a very real sense, such questions can be explored only at the end of a major investigation of a group of letters or letter-writers, because doing so requires having a conception of ‘the letters’ as a whole and in their entirety. Consequently in the case of the Whites Writing Whiteness research, it is very much a case of wait and see, while in relation to Olive Schreiner’s letters, we hope to publish something specifically on their chronotopic features in the year ahead. However, it is helpful to consider that an epistolary chronotopia is a non/real representational world of co-construction between a letter-writer and their correspondents, with letter-writing at basis consisting in a series of (usually over-lapping) dyadic exchanges. These exchanges of letters have pronounced time/space dynamics, although whether these take place under the sign of something so tidy as ‘a chronotope’ is a matter for detailed investigation of letter-writing over time and over space.
15. Fifthly, this gives rise to the fifth point for discussion here. A letter is in time, and letter-writing is over time, with the existence of strong structural and other temporal dimensions undoubted. However, are letters just in time? Or might there be equally definitional spatial aspects, and which on occasion might become even more important than the temporal ones? ‘A letter,’ it should not be forgotten, is at basis a material object with three-dimensional spatial properties (height, width, depth). Its fourth temporal aspect in a sense a product of its spatiality – it takes one form in its writing in one place, then another in its reading in another place, which is also and thereby separated from the first by time. This is the liquidity but also the materiality of time made concretely manifest. Indeed these four dimensions can all be conceived in spatial terms, once time is taken into account as spacetime (rather than the timespace of the chronotope concept). This is to conceptualise time by means of foregrounding its spatial instantiations, seeing space as having temporal properties and focusing on these. Two simple examples in letter-writing terms may help show some of the issues.
16. Olive Schreiner’s last letter to the Afrikaner politician Jan Smuts, dated 19 October 1920, has a form and content indistinguishable from the form and content of her many other letters to him. The passing of time in the form of the hindsight of the researcher enable it to be seen as ‘the last letter’ she wrote to him because it is the last in literal terms and no more followed. However, there are spatial aspects which enable it to be read as ‘last’ in the sense of a mindful decision to cease writing – prototypically, Schreiner’s letters make use of all sides of the paper and then all the margins; this letter is utterly different, for three side of the folded eight pages are left blank, a cessation from writing that is extraordinary when the physical letter is read and which no transcription or other simulacra can convey. The meaning of this letter is not apparent from its structure or content, for regarding these it is the same as many other Schreiner letters, including others to Smuts; but it clearly has a ‘this is the end’ meaning which can be read from its surface, from the way its surfaces of paper have been used and not used. Circumstantial evidence, including taking into account other Schreiner last letters, indicates that it was Schreiner finally giving up on Smuts’ race politics and that these would ever become more liberal that led to ‘the end,’ writing what she wanted to convey and then stopping. However, neither content nor time (and that no letters succeeded it) on their own yield such meaning, which is provided by spacetime.
17. What have been published as Bessie Price’s journals letters are part letters, part diaries, part memoirs of time just past, part journals of day-to-day schema. But as they appear under the sign of dates, and because they have addressees and intended readers, so they are perhaps more letter than they are these other forms or genres. However, the dates provided, certainly of these letters written while the Prices were in southern Africa are frequently just starting dates and many of these pieces of writing have an array of internal dated pieces of writing within and constituting them. Looked at more closely in terms of specific content, the dates provided are not continuous and of a ‘day after day’ or ‘week after week’ kind, but are there rather as markers of moves by the Prices from one place to another, and where dates are not provided this is because the place (and by implication events and the fabric of life) stayed the same. Spacetime as a fourth dimension of spatiality again provides a helpful means of thinking about this, because it brings recognition that, while time is always a factor, it is not necessarily the most important or definitional factor at work in given circumstances. Date is in fact better treated as an indication of a change of place, then, rather than the rhythms of hours, days and weeks. Bessie Price was living in circumstances in which the passing of time meant very little with, not even clearly demarcated seasons to mark it; but movements between places not only structured time and gave meaning to it, but also place brought with it very different ways of being and living.
18. Chronotopia and timespace and the other interesting topics rehearsed in a preliminary way here seem a very far distance from recording a single simple date such as 24 March 1855 and its precursors and successors in the framework for recording our research activities provided by the VRE. Might there be an alternative which better recognises such complexities? In responding it is important to keep in mind that the number of cases – howsoever we label them – is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands; consequently something which supports rapid efficient data management and analysis is needed and we have yet to think of an appropriate alternative. We have considered that place might be such an alternative, but with whatever its limitations and its complexities, time and date foreground the temporality which a longitudinal research project concerned with social change over a long period of time necessarily has to grapple with. However, our collective thoughts seem to be moving in a direction towards spacetime and away from a more chronotopic approach, although it remains to be seen how this might be operationalized apart from in the details of analysing specific letters.
19. Just in time? It seems that our provisional answer is no, and – watch this space!
Last updated: 8 February 2014