Stuck in Time: A Call for the ‘Transtemporal’ Historian

Historians are considered experts, not of all history but certainly of a particular subfield. There are those of us who study Canadian history, or British or Japanese history, and within those subfields are additional ‘areas of expertise,’ such as political, environmental, or economic history. The Canadianist is certainly not bound to a Canadian context, nor is she/he restricted to study specific subfields or genres. Nonetheless, and despite recent interest in adopting inclusive modes of inquiry, historians are generally taught to embrace a sense of familiarity in their work that derives from research focused both topically and temporally. Clio’s Current has previously explored issues related to national and regional identities, political and social histories, and inquiry-based methodologies, but given that we recently passed the one-year mark, it’s perhaps appropriate for us to investigate the impact of time on historical writing.

It is by engaging with historiography that historians become extremely familiar with a body of literature on a specific historical subject, and each subject is usually confined by parameters which stipulate a certain degree of periodization. Yet regardless of subject expertise, historians rarely interrogate the impact of temporality on their work. This is not to suggest that historians have failed to reflect on the issue. As readers of this blog can attest, historians could be found guilty of reflecting to the point of over-thinking in their analyses. To be sure, historians have long pondered the impact of periodization and demarcation on the interpretation of the past, and we make rigorous our attempts to avoid rigid temporal boundaries. For example, we recognize that the perils of the ‘Dirty-Thirties’ were in part shaped by the modern excesses of the ‘Roaring-Twenties’; we recognize that the origins of the Second World War derived in part from the First World War; and we recognize that postwar consumerism has ties to industrialization and modernity. But even still, historians generally situate their work within a confined time frame so to avoid ambiguity in hopes of better understanding change and continuity.

‘Transnational’ studies, or historical investigations that transcend geographical borders, have significantly added to our historical understanding of international as well as national developments and relations. A similar line on thinking has been deployed by historians in hopes of removing the borders of time. The term ‘transtemporal’ – in reference to the temporal lobe situated at the fore of the human head and across the brow – has been appropriated by some historians to describe analyses which implicitly break the bounds of temporal demarcation. In other words, certain recent modes of historical investigation have embraced significantly larger ‘time frames’ or ‘periods of time’ in study. By refusing to conform to strict temporal parameters, some historians envision grand histories that trace the human condition over the entirety of its evolutionary process, while others are simply (or not-so-simply) exploring new methods of historical investigation.   

On the other hand, periodization provides a measure of solace to the world of historical inquiry, or a ‘museological dimension’ in the words of historian Robert Baker, which appeals to a basic human desire for order. Story-telling is an orderly practice, and so historians naturally develop narrative structures to convey the past. Without historical narrative, our work would yield factual information with little reference to sociocultural developments and structure. It is therefore necessary that we accept periodization as central to the creation of coherent and useful history. Yet certain demarcations focus too narrowly on short-term segments of time, highlighting eras and decades to such a degree that historians’ ability to explore long temporal links is limited. It is here that the process of choosing time periods may become problematic, as historians (knowingly or unknowingly) are limiting the types of questions to be asked.

In the Canadian context, a quick survey of textbooks covering the twentieth century will reveal a distinct focus on the wars. There is no doubting the importance of studying the impact of war (both hot and cold) on Canadian peoples, but sociocultural, political, and economic change in Canada throughout the century was certainly not the result of war alone. This is not to suggest that war or other points of inherent demarcation need be ignored, but rather that historians must explore alternative approaches to periodization which may be better suited to delve into the nuances of change throughout history.

At the very core of Clio’s Current is the value of historical perspective. To understand and appreciate the impact of the past on the present is to accept that historical investigation must make use of temporality while remaining cognizant of its limitations. Historians will continue to identify with the pre-modern and modern eras; with the eighteenth, nineteenth or twentieth centuries; with the prewar, interwar and postwar periods; and more specifically in the Canadian context, with the pre- and post-Confederation years. It feels appropriate and safe to identify temporally as a historian, but perhaps we should also embrace ‘transtemporal’ research in an effort to further delve into the past. This means looking beyond our self-imposed limitations to challenge historical narrative and investigate the restrictions of time within a set of parameters that are anything but fixed. ‘Transtemporal’ study should not be defined, but its uses should nonetheless be explored. It's a changing methodology and won't lend well to all historical investigation, but its dividends may still surprise.