Confronting the Uncertain: On Crisis, Time Sociology and the Narration of Dangerous Times


This article is an attempt to explore the concept of crisis and its relevance within sociology through a focused analysis on the literature of the sociology of time and attending the role narrative and rhetoric play in making sense of crisis situations. Attempting to tackle the fuzziness of such a concept, crisis is put in the context where, according to most accounts, contemporary societies are deemed to be ever more prone to change, uncertainty and open towards unforeseeable risks. In order to attain this, ‘crisis’ is put at the core of the tensions that current debates on the sociology of time expound. Nonetheless, this insecure milieu is frequently confronted with our necessity to make sense of events, inscribing them in a narrative that allows for a minimum of foreseeability. In this tension, political rhetoric often strives to make sense of economic bursts, natural disasters and other critical situations by inscribing them in a coherent plot, thus mitigating the experience of uncertainty in an ever more complex world. This carries within the risk of oversimplifying our quandaries and impoverishing the categories we use to comprehend our world and allow for the emergence of scapegoating strategies. The article concludes arguing that a temporalized sociology, open to its own critical moments, is called for in order to make sense of crisis as a category, hoping to seize the potential it has to open our perspective, albeit always limited to a retrospective understanding.

Dan Kitwood/Gety Images

… I have suspected that history, real history, is more modest and that its essential dates may be, for a long time, secret. A Chinese prose writer has observed that the unicorn, because of its own anomaly, will pass unnoticed. Our eyes see what they are accustomed to seeing
Jorge Luis Borges (1964, p.167)

With each new present, the world changes
Armin Nassehi (1994, p.72)

This essay addresses what I believe to be a much neglected aspect of sociological analysis, that is, the study of the uses of the concept ‘crisis’ ((It must clarified that crisis is not thought as an objective and distinct category, but to be profoundly variable from one case to the next (Morin, 1976, p.158) and thus this endeavour would be unserviceable if it attempted to abridge such complexity. Quite the contrary, what is sought is to delve on how such a notion is mobilized and its role in our understanding of our times, rather than to carry a comprehensive study of its inner dynamics.)) , being informed by current debates in the sociology of time and seen through the prisms of contemporary narratives on temporality, decline, risk and progress in political rhetoric. This stems from the realization that even if crisis is an overabundant word, what we mean by it is seldom unequivocal: if we speak an instant or a longer period of time, of a localized or generalized phenomenon, of an ‘event’ or its very absence. This ambiguity inevitably permeates the usages of this notion within the social sciences, and even though disciplines like psychology and economics have more specific versions of what a crisis is in their fields, this is not the case in sociology. Thus, although the aims of this research are mostly exploratory and theoretical, I hope a few empirical examples will illustrate where these considerations could be applied and the importance of a fully informed discussion on the matter. This is done with full acknowledgement of the significance — and profusion — of ‘crisis’ as a category to grasp the present. Accordingly, what I plan is to start by drawing from an overview of the contemporary theories on time and to follow with an exploration of their merits and shortcomings, all of which confront us directly with debates on acceleration, agency, uncertainty and narrative. To summarize, the aim is to bring some clarity over the questions posed by Osborne (2010): “How do the practices in which we engage structure and produce, enable or distort different senses of time and possibility? What kinds of experience of history do they make possible or impede? (p. 200).

But why should sociology be concerned with exploring this concept? One might argue we might be confusing a ‘word’ for a ‘thing’ (Starn, 1971) and thus embracing all the mystification and abstruseness inherent in its prosaic usage. A reason for its pertinence might be that examining ‘crisis’ can help unravel what is being communicated in its uses, what kind of ‘environment’ it presupposes and the types of actions that are justified in its presence. That is, the state of affairs implicit in a world populated by them and the forms for the future it assumes. Additionally, such a lack of clarity can diminish the interest of the discipline in tackling major events due to the lack of tools to ascertain them. Wieviorka (2009a, 2009b) has stated that sociology lacks an articulate conceptualization for crises and that sociologists have shown less curiosity than other disciplines in exploring them. This, he claims, is conspicuous with regards to the last economic meltdown of 2008 and the surprisingly few sociological studies on the 1929 crash. Thus, evoking the plea for the foundation of a Crisologie (Morin, 1976) and accepting the risks involved in tackling with such a fuzzy concept – first of which is that a financial burst is categorized under the same rubric as earthquakes, riots, etc. – what follows is an inquiry on both the practices ‘crisis’ can mobilize, the knowledge it assumes and the purpose it can serve to a more thorough sociology of temporality.

For all its opacity, ‘crisis’ has a widely known etymological origin, which is frequently cited in ordinary and academic discourse (e.g. Arendt, 2006; Habermas, 1976). From the Greek krinō – “to cut, to select, to decide, to judge; by extension to measure, to quarrel, to fight” (Koselleck, 2002, p. 237) – it has commonly been interpreted as the moment in which a decision has to be made, a tipping point about to be reached, that can have radical consequences for the future of the state of affairs involved. This is why it is mentioned in Hippocrates, as the crucial phase of an illness that separates future health and death, and in Thucydides, referring to the key battles that would decide the Peloponnesian war. Therefore, it presents us with the compulsion to act under the pressure of time and presupposes an implicit theory of the temporality (Ibid), and of the agency of the actors involved ((For example, ‘crisis’ is generally deemed to be different to catastrophe (Thom, 1976) in that it entails ‘decision’ and thus allows a margin of agency to the subject, which prevents them from achieving unreserved certainty and thus inaction. This evidences that they have a relevant subjective component and that what is a ‘crisis’ for some, might be a catastrophe for others.)) (Greenhouse, 1996). ‘Crisis’ collects a set of difficulties together, as for instance, the pressure to make a choice within a situation that can only be wholly comprehended in retrospective. Hence, in its minimal expression it opens uncertainty as it unlocks the possibility for radical change – of the ‘event’, the ‘new’ (Morin, 1968) – even if that change is ungraspable or never materializes, whilst also revealing something about the ‘normality’ from which it stems.

Accordingly, since crises bring to the fore debates on possibility and temporality, on agency and uncertainty, it is imperative to link them with current discussions on the sociology of time. Thus, an assessment of those arguments follows. This is also carried so as to acknowledge their contributions and limitations on the matter – which originate from their frequent neglect of narrative and historicity – and the way they can be used to connect lived time and history, individuals and their societies. That is, our goal is to explore the meso-sociological function of crises (Roche, 2003). Therefore, trying to problematize those dimensions, an exploration on the links between narrativity and crises ensues, along with the relevance of politics to comprehend them and followed by an exploration on the implications of different models of assessing them.

Temporality within sociology: Kairos, Uncertainty and the eruption of ‘Moments

When instantaneous reactions are required, the difference between the present and the future is eliminated
Barbara Adam (2009, p.140)

It has been widely held that time is a much too neglected dimension in sociology, even if one can count Durkheim, Schütz, Mead and Marx as some of the most prominent pioneers in the matter (Lusher, 1974). This is because sociology has historically lacked a systematic notion of temporality, which forces every generation of researchers to begin anew. That might explain why the discipline has lacked until very recently a sense of continuity and communication on the subject (Bergmann, 1992) and why it has become increasingly difficult to make general claims in regards to temporality in growingly more complex environments ((Although an important field of research was opened after Luhmann’s (1982) contributions and the discussions around time acceleration (Rosa, 2009))). Some of the reasons why that is the case are time’s omnipresence, unfathomability and multifariousness (Adam, 2006), the ever open possibility of readdressing the past retroactively, that is, “temporalizing” time itself (Baert, 1992), and as Gell (1996) would put it, the difficulty of separating time from its contents.

These challenges can help explain why much of sociological theory has become tantamount to taking ‘snapshots’ of society without a sense of temporality, either describing coherent wholes that seem impervious to inner change (Adam, 2009) – and thus ignoring the ‘event’ for the sake of the ‘structure’ (Morin, 1968) – or, similarly, by equating change to temporality, and hence failing to recognize the presence of ‘time’ in stability, in the much too simple opposition change/order (Giddens, 1979). That led to shortcomings in how the discipline deals with change and continuity, many times having to sacrifice diachronic sensitivity to attain a coherent synchronic model. I believe ‘crisis’ is relevant precisely in this area, for the thrust of such an overused word lies in the acknowledgement that a certain state of affairs might not be maintainable, and thus in the implicit recognition of a minimal distance with ‘normality’ and ‘stability’, whatever we may consider those to be (Thom, 1976); this is, along with the possibility, but not the assurance, that such a normality could radically change. Thus, ‘crises’ signal the emergence of ruptures that are hard to discretely isolate ((To this respect, Starn (1971) states that ‘crises’ might act as middle point category between ‘structure’ and ‘revolution’.)) and difficult to grasp without reference to the ordinariness from which they stem. A natural disaster, for example, even if it has no origin in society, reveals something about human matters and thus cannot easily, as a ‘crisis’ situation, be separated from them, as earthquakes have very different consequences depending on the society in which they occur. That is how, through this concept other key sociological concerns are summoned, such as the reversibility of time, the distinction quotidian/extraordinary, and vitally, our images of the future. This is why discussing ‘crisis’ entails putting into contact different time-logics (e.g. chronology, historicity, eschatology, etc.), which in sociology are habitually kept isolated.

With regards to the sociology of time, most debates are based on a classical distinction between two ways of understanding temporality, chronos and kairos (Adam, 2006). The former refers to the abstract quantitative dimension of time to which we are accustomed: its measurement in discrete, quantifiable units. This we commonly call ‘clock-time’ (Hassan, 2007), in which any given time-unit holds no fundamental difference from either the one preceding or following it. Also, given its mathematical character, it is theoretically unbound to limits and serves as a framework to inscribe any process, regardless of its inner dynamics, which allows it to become comparable, in principle, to any other. The latter, kairos, refers to a qualitative time, in which a moment is not quantifiable or directly comparable to the next. Through this form of temporality we recognize and differentiate the extraordinary from the everyday; a distinction that is unperceivable to sheer clock-time. Therefore, whilst chronos is impervious to what populates it, kairos cannot be strictly separated from it. The first temporality sets up an everlasting ‘chronology’, whilst the second allows for a ‘temporal horizon’ ((Horizon is here a fundamental concept for it makes manifest that social temporality has to be understood not as a chronological flow from past to future, but with reference to a present that allows for their thematisation. That is, where past and future, become immanent from the standpoint of the present: tensed time, as opposed to abstract quantifiable measurements. McTaggart (1927) speaks of the difference between an A-Series and a B-Series of time, where the latter is a time of absolute irreversible coordinates and the former encompasses past and future as part of the temporality of the present. We shall be focusing mostly on this last version.)) (Luhmann, 1982). This is what makes Nowotny (2005) speak of Eigenzeit, a time ‘proper’ to things as opposed to one forced onto them. Hence, kairos has necessarily a different pace to the one imposed by chronos, which explains for Adam (2009, p. 121) the experience of waiting: that is, the resistance of a kairos to be forcefully encompassed within other time-logics. In these terms, one can only speak in kairological terms of that which is a rupture in the smooth and unyielding passing of chronos, such as – by definition – ‘crises.’

Habitually, sociologists of time take the latter distinction as a starting point and from it develop the argument that modern society is characterized by a ubiquitous acceleration of time (Gleick, 1999). This hastening can only be measured once we conceive of the widespread use of a chronological time that serves as its framework; that is, allows us to speak about temporality in general and comparable terms. This diagnosis is shared by many renowned thinkers (Bauman, 2009; Castells, 2006; Harvey, 1989; Urry, 2005; Virilio, 1999). According to it, western societies began in the modern period to generalize the use of clock-time and standardize its functions, initially due to the emergence of industry and the necessity of railway coordination across countries. Later, due to (and aided by) urban growth and momentous technological developments in communication and transport, it became increasingly more necessary and attainable to standardize our time measurements and our exploitation of it, which led to the instauration of a global time, GMT. Thompson (1967) argues that from work-regimes based on the completion of tasks and craftsmanship we moved toward a model of production based on the ever more efficient use of chronology, mass standardized production. This connects to Marx’s (1976) intuition that the ways in which capitalism strove to augment productivity and surplus profit was to exploit time either more intensively (in the amount of production possible in a given time-unit) or extensively (in an expansion of the availability or labour throughout time). Thus, in order to remain competitive – and aided by substantial technological advancements – capitalism intensified its pace, colonizing time itself (Adam, 2003). Similarly, in the case of urban life, Simmel’s (1997) Metropolis is characterized by a growing pressure over its inhabitants to conform and coordinate themselves in ever more refined ways.

The paroxysm of this logic lead to the generation of a ‘timeless-time’ (Castells, 2006) – present, for example, in international stock-exchange flows – in which a ‘real-time’ that is present instantaneously in all locations superseded even em>clock-time itself, which had become too cumbersome to sustain the pace of the ‘acceleration society’ (Rosa, 2009). Urry (2005, p. 123-124) states metaphorically that the logic of ‘holograms’ – images that propagate a ‘whole’, instantly and irreversibly, as opposed to the focus and temporal limitations of the photographic lens- becomes generalized whilst chronology is divided in ever more minute units, to the point where even human temporal experience becomes obsolete, unable to cope with this newfound complexity. An ‘omnipolitan time’ (Crang, 2007) thus ensues, which unites the globe in its unyielding, tireless and repetitive rhythm, ever more densely populated by events in the network society and ever more oblivious of physical distances (Sassen, 2000).

Although the forms in which these theories are carried forward may differ considerably, their basic tenets are mostly akin ((For example, Nowotny’s (2005) diagnosis of the emergence of an “extended present”, as compared to Lübbe’s (2009) Gegenwartschrumpfung (contraction of the present) through exactly the opposite assertion, carry forward a similar argument.)) , along with their analysis of the pernicious consequences of this speeding up. They state that the logic of social acceleration, taken to its apex, leads to a disempowering situation, for subjects cannot cope with the density and amount of information that becomes available. This hinders the possibility of planning, foreseeing and thwarts long-term attachments and prognoses (Bauman, 2009). Rendering moot Elias’ (1996) assertion that modern societies are based on at least the slightest possibility of predicting if they are to coordinate themselves – in order to attain trust and constrain destructive short-term interests – this hastening had reached such a degree that a minimal distance between present and future became increasingly less attainable. Through this breach, ‘chronoscopic’ time (Virilio, 1999) emerged as the dominant temporality: the paroxysm of acceleration and its peculiar type of inertia, granted by its very velocity. This allows Sennett (2006) to speak of a ubiquitous “loss of narrative” in contemporary subjective accounts of subjectivity. Thus, it is unsurprising that ‘crisis’ becomes an increasingly important category, in the absence of “a minimally secured present [that] is a precondition for a sustained capacity for a temporal extension beyond the immediate present” (Carvounas & Ireland, 2008, p. 174). Where every moment involves a choice and every decision risks unforeseeable consequences, a generalised experience of krinō arises. Without a minimally reliable horizon, the threat of radical discontinuity becomes widespread, and therefore, ‘crises’ become ever more expectable for those dwelling in this myopic present.

So far we have mostly focused on chronos, and from this account a preliminary account of ‘crisis’ can be visualized. Nassehi (1994), drawing richly from Luhmann (1982), states that the tensions in modern temporality reside in that a progressively more abstract global ‘world/clock-time’ had been imposed onto society and onto its different kairological time horizons, in order to attain greater systemic coordination. This means that since society has become more complex and the inner Eigenzeits of each subsystem have become increasingly more incompatible (e.g. financial system leading towards one direction, state-politics toward another), the future can only serve to unify the horizons of expectations if it becomes ever more devoid of any content, only available to us as a blank date (instead of as a Utopia, for instance). This explains why “meaning and time have drifted apart” (Nassehi, 1994, p. 72) and why former teleologies of progress become ever harder to sustain ((Let us remember that ‘crisis’ is often used to mean ‘decline’ or the existence of growing tensions that are hard to trace or unravel.)). Likewise, the more an empty abstract notion of time expands through different spheres, the more it allows for extraneous temporal logics to exert an influence onto them. In this sense chronological time resembles money (Adam, 2003), in its ubiquitous albeit scarce character; in its abstractness, quantifiability and standardizing effect. This can illuminate what Hope (2011), speaking about the subprime crisis, exposes: one way of understanding it is as a clash between different temporalities put in contact under global capitalism: i.e. the temporality of state bureaucracies and democratic mechanisms, faced against the relentless velocity of international financial transactions. The incompatibilities between finance, production, debt and consumption led to unsatisfactory couplings of expectations, which in turn overdrove the system with requests particular time-logics could not supply. In this sense ‘crisis’ emerges as the impossibility of coupling the Eigenzeit of different agents and the tensions that thus emerge within the world-time. They represent, in Adam’s (2009) terms, the impossibility of ‘waiting’ together with the obligation to do so. Taken to its zenith, chronological time, in its coordinating function, becomes inadequate to contend the opposing forces of different temporal-logics and then, quite literally, time stops. In practice one can find that frequently in ‘crisis’ situations (as in the case of natural disasters, power shortages and crises of the rule-of-law) the fluid coordination of different temporalities is called into question, and thus factually what under normal circumstances is considered obvious and reliable is rendered doubtful. Kairos, hence, generates a rupture that takes us away from world/clock-time, reminding us of its artificiality notwithstanding its ubiquity. One could claim ‘crisis’ for most of this literature reflects the inability to predict tied with the possibility of outbursts. In a nutshell: the lack of a secured present.

These kairological eruptions, nonetheless, should not be thought of as being necessarily dangerous to the persistence of that ‘omnipolitan time’. On the contrary, Eigenzeits can become part of the fabric of chronology, inasmuch as the former presuppose the latter as the background in which they are inscribed, considering no other time-logic is capable of supplanting it. As Sloterdijk (1990) argues, the attempts to achieve a minimal distance with chronos, of living through a significant experience of time against the meaninglessness of clock-time is always an open possibility. But these experiences are always limited if they are to be sustainable, and thus serve a purpose to chronology itself -which, because of its abstract, mathematical and empty character, is their most adequate backdrop ((This explains why for Bruck (1995) and Urry (2005) what unites our narrations of current times is the joining together of many diverse and unconnected instants that share only their ‘newsworthiness’ and their inscription in a particular chronology. Thus, in their kairos, they generate a ‘collage effect’ that unites heterogeneous phenomena in one description of the present (visible, for instance, in any newspaper). Therefore, the uncertainty that guarantees the emergence of ‘crises’ feeds onto the fact that we do not only suffer them, but also need them to narrate our times.))-. These ‘moments’, in the sense that Lefebvre (2008) uses ((That is, the “total realization of a possibility” that “exhausts itself in the act of being lived” (Lefebvre, 2008, p.348); the emergence of a phenomenological experience that in its ‘being lived’ reveals itself against the precarious character of ‘normality’.)) , albeit far-reaching, ineludibly arise from the milieu of chronological time, and thus, according to Sloterdijk, can never become more than a fleeting and limited escape to its logic bereft of meaning. An utter relinquishment of chronos would be then, rather than a ‘moment’ or a ‘crisis’, a ‘catastrophe’ ((That might explain why many revolutions, such as the Russian and the French, attempted without much success to replace traditional western chronology (Corfield, 2007).)) (Thom, 1976).

Narration, Politics and Crisis: How to mend our experience together

To tell and to follow a story is already to reflect upon events in order to encompass them in successive wholes.
Paul Ricoeur (1980, p.178)

Even if those outbreaks of kairos can never relinquish completely of chronology, one cannot ignore that many of these ‘moments’ – which Giddens (2007, p. 202) dubs ‘fateful moments’- cannot easily be encompassed within their own immediate spheres (e.g. an economic crisis pertains to more than the economy, a riot is more than a public-order problem), are frequently difficult to seize without reference to wider arguments, which often bring to the fore moral and existential criteria. That is, the emergence of those ‘moments’ cannot easily be handled within the narrowness of particularistic or technical reasons, but unavoidably compel us to think more broadly, however inconsequential or short-lived such reflections might turn out to be. A clear example of this are the reactions to the subprime crisis that attempt to explain it through the moral shortcomings of actors in the financial system, and sometimes even to question the desirability of the system itself. Similarly, Beck (2009) claims that through the experience of risk and their assessment, considerations that underlie the normal functioning of societies might arise, in what he calls the ‘cosmopolitan moment,’ often bringing together actors that were distant from each other, as is the case with the discussions on the global warming. This helps elucidate why one of the first reactions to crises is to reinterpret the past that led to – or allowed – them, and thus unsurprisingly, moral shortcomings tend to ensue as the cause. This is often followed by the condemnation of a preceding ‘normality’ that has been newly discovered to be ridden with flaws: for example, the deficiencies Hurricane Katrina unveiled on how we are prepared for such emergencies.

Crises’, therefore, encourage a retrospective examination (Baert, 1991) and swift decisions. Nonetheless, one could argue (Bauman & May, 1990) they are not automatically followed by an expansion of dialogue or a ‘cosmopolitan’ feeling, but might provoke quite the opposite reaction: a reclusion from them onto the private, trying to flee the perils that overflow the public. Likewise, ‘crises’ might simplify or enrich our perspective, enforce a contingency-reduction narrative or allow us to grasp aspects of our societies that were previously hidden. The importance of these considerations is that those critical moments generate the opportunity – even the compulsion – to tackle them in a moral and totalizing fashion, and thus, compel us to inscribe them in a narration that is their backdrop (Ricoeur, 1980), inasmuch as morality presupposes a temporal horizon that is absent from abstract chronology, insofar as it entails more than a present bereft of any reference to past or future. Precisely where time and meaning are divorced, a craving for understanding forces us to mend them together, however frail that newfound link might be, regardless of how naïve it is to fathom our predicaments. Hence why one cannot understand crises – at least discursively – without reference to their role in a wider framework, especially so when they are deemed to be ‘total’.

Recapping the previous chapter, one could claim ‘crises’ reside in the interstices between chronological and kairological time, as a qualitative scission within the fabric of an ever more autonomous chronology. Nonetheless, as we have seen, those forms of interpreting crisis can only be a starting point, since they tend to disregard narrative insofar as they understand social time in its sheer ‘presentness’. Kairological outburst against the context of normality, I claim, put in tension the emptiness of chronology with our need to inscribe our experience in a ‘tale’ that weaves them together, in an urge to attain a minimum distance from that myopic present devoid of meaning. For, as Ricoeur (1980) states, the mere experience of a timeless present – lacking a horizon of past or future – is neither a temporality proper nor humanly attainable. It neither allows for a minimum of foreseeability -a precondition for decision and action- nor for the generation of memory, and thus a minimum of narrative. Hence, even if the diagnoses on social acceleration are correct ((Which, we might claim (Wajcman, 2008), is an oversimplification.)), they cannot completely dispose of wider time-horizons without abolishing their inner logic. That is why time-narrations still stand and thrive in spite of the emergence of ‘chronoscopic time’. Thus, I want to draw attention to the meso-sociological (Roche, 2003) dimension of ‘crises’, the way they bring together the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’, time and history, everyday life and biography, and so connect individual experience with wider concerns. Through focusing on this aspect one can enlighten how ‘crises’ are used to link present and future, and therefore how they help join together event and structure, as many become part of how we ‘tell’ our history and how history touches our lives, 9/11 being a prime example. This is why they are permeated by narration and morality and why I believe historicity ((I mention historicity, and not merely history, inasmuch as it highlights the contingent relation between an event and a chain-of-events. Historicity (Koselleck, 2004) states that history is not a natural and given sequence, but that events and the way they form a plot are to be collected and assembled.)) to be much too overlooked matter in the debates on time acceleration and risk society.

Crises’ can, therefore, help unveil obscure aspects of the world they populate and compel those who endure them to attempt connecting their experience with the longer time-spans that underlie them. It is a peculiar concept inasmuch as it can serve to piece together a coherent ‘plot’ as well as to violently tear it apart. They – in a world that is increasingly lived from the limited standpoint of sheer presentness – forcibly become the tool through which we thematize possible futures and ‘meet’ the uncertain. Hence why the way ‘crises’ are narrated becomes politically relevant. I hope in what follows to explore the political aspects of the tensions they generate, along with their importance to consider and challenge how they are interpreted and appropriated. Neither do I wish to give an exhaustive description of the causes of particular crises nor to produce a general model to ascertain them, but to expound how the previous categories can play a part in interpreting how phenomena deemed ‘critical’ are construed, managed and, when possible, made part of a coherent plot. If these reflections contribute to a tentative Crisologie, they do so delving on the pressing matter of ‘crisis’ reactions, responses and seizures.

But why focus on political rhetoric? Politics has a set of characteristics that turn it into a privileged sphere through which history can be narrated. Firstly, because as contributions in anthropology have shown (Greenhouse, 1996), different senses of temporality entail different forms of understanding human agency. Secondly, due that “owing to its need for legitimation and consensus [the temporality of politics] tends to depend for orientation on articulated history” (Luhmann, 1982, p.359-360) and therefore, presents an advantageous instance for collecting events and merging them into a ‘em>plot’ with causes and directionality ((This could be what allows Burckhardt’s (1964) historiography, to weave together crises to create a sense of historical drama, and to reinterpret them in a national epopee.)). Moreover, to some extent politics itself can be defined as the struggle to impose one narration over others, and even if for Luhmann the functional primacy of bourgeois societies shifted from politics to economics, he must still admit that “the natural concept of history is a political one” (1982, p. 313). Although that might merely be the result of a “habit of mind” (Ibid), incapable of grasping the temporal complexity modern societies had attained. But a pervasive habit it is. To support this one could claim that, even in the case of economic bursts, political explanations and reverberations tend to ensue, regardless that the relevant political institutions are frequently ill-prepared to confront or prevent them (Brochier, 1976), which is patent in the current Eurozone crisis. Also, by way of ‘lack of preparation’, ‘acquiescence’ or ‘courageous decisions’, natural disasters and accidents are also swiftly interpreted in political terms, as recent cases of earthquakes and hurricanes attest. Thus, because of this ‘habit of mind’ – which might relate to the moral dimension explored earlier – fateful moments tend still to be encompassed within politics, and so they summon a particular set of implications in how they are thought and confronted, which frequently makes reference to progress, necessary sacrifices and images of desirable future. This fact alone already frames the crises to come. The slogan “we are all in this together” extolled by Cameron in the context of the UK’s austerity measures to tackle the budget deficit (provoked by shortcomings of actors in the past) might be an example.

Correspondingly, since critical times are deemed to demand for decisions – however powerless the actors involved might be – and decisions imply a minimum of influence, it is foreseeable that during times of upheaval a strong political intervention is commonly called for (Gellner, 1964) and the highest authorities are hastily interpolated, as for example the expectation built around the British Government reaction to the riots in August 2011. Waldis (1970:105) describes was tends to ensue as a ‘politics of crisis’, which is based on the urgency to intervene in a temporal milieu regarded as the decisive turning point of history. This, according to him, distorts the political map and allows for ‘critical’ measures to be taken, which is tantamount to granting extraordinary powers ever more regularly. Calling a situation a ‘crisis’ invokes anxieties that allow for special ways to deal with them. This is how a natural disaster, for example, can become a reminder of the precariousness of the present (showing us that we are still vulnerable), an event that allows and asks for exceptional measures (like the state of exception declared after many of these catastrophes) and/or a landmark toward a new epoch, one which rhetorically calls for greater responsibility (safety standards). ‘Crises’ are thus internalized in a plot that encompasses them, depriving them from their most irruptive, earth-shattering potential.

Thus, many political discourses thrive in seizing ‘crises,’ one might claim, in order to fashion a framework capable of co-opting ruptures before they happen, whatever their origin or character. Through the generation of a narrative, ‘crises’ can be made part of a ‘politics of crisis’ which, instead of understanding them as an opportunity to question normality, thinks of them as nodes in a story. I cannot stop thinking of how the London riots were swiftly appropriated with explanations that said more about the speakers than about the event, attempting to quickly curtail their irruptive character. That is the reason why ‘crises’ in this logic are rarely deemed to be total, in the sense that the narrative that renders them meaningful is mostly impervious to its own ‘crisis’. Similarly, Anderson (2006) has stated that nationalist rhetoric thrives in rendering ‘necessary’ that which is ‘contingent’; that is, it assembles the ambiguity of experience and renders it necessary in retrospective: the ex-post facto appropriation of our uncertain experience.

It follows that any crisis in relation to politics ought to be understood as part of a wider temporal horizon than its sheer presentness, and it always has broader implications than its particular milieu. As the literature on risk society would suggest (Beck, 2009) ‘crises’ often cannot be isolated or confined, but are intertwined with many other phenomena, with whom they enter in feedback loops. This complexity seems to contradict the previously expounded discursive assessment of ‘crises’, which attempts to abridge the utter uncertainty inherent in our temporal experience with the effort to mobilize those ‘moments’ as ‘calls to arms’. That is how the intricacies of time that were the object of previous chapters might seem incongruous with most political rhetoric, insofar as it tends to fashion culprits and protagonists, discernible causes and consequences, insofar as it tries to fill the void of chronos with meaning. The nebulousness of the future is thus transformed into something known, much like Simmel’s (1997) adventurer treats the future, with a patent sense of denial, as if it were certain. The case of how the Chilean government and the international media treated the incident of the trapped miners in 2010, as almost a staged spectacle, is a clear example. If that is the case, no matter what lies ahead, it is swiftly made part of a particular interpretation, and any disruption is rapidly interpreted and thus superseded. A scission is thus drawn between the type of crisis that can be internalized and even ritualized – be it as an unveiling of weaknesses or of resilience, failures or successes – and the type of ‘crisis’ that are regarded as a threat to the plot itself (for example, what the Occupy Wall Street movement attempts). These last ‘crises’ cannot be easily encompassed in such a temporal horizon, insofar as they call into question that narrative itself. They thus hint both the necessity and impossibility of a narrative of crisis, which paves the way toward a deeper discussion on this concept’s significance for sociology and beyond.

Dealing with Uncertainty, Reconsidering Normality

The history of culture is the history of its images of the future
Frederik Polak (1961, p.115-116).

In his excursus on a tentative Crisologie, Morin (1976) stated that ‘crises’ are generally the symptoms of unexpressed conflicts. These are not extraordinary for, as part of any organizing principle, of any ‘structure’, there are frequently submerged tensions that strive to become manifest. That is why Freud and Marx were, for him, the first modern theoreticians of crisis, insofar as they recognize a surreptitious level of antagonistic forces that underlies normality which explain the periodically emerging crises. These tensions can be expressed in temporal terms (in the narrowing of our temporal horizons) and thus emerge in lived time necessarily as a rupture. This illustrates why ‘crises’ cannot be strictly separated from ‘stability’, and why they are commonly used to mean a ‘state of affairs’, the stage of frictions that have existed long before an ‘event’ makes them visible. Thus, they are a privileged opportunity to ‘bring to light’ (Starn, 1971) that which was hidden and call for a retrospective evaluation.

This retroactive perspective can be supplemented with accounts on the uncertainty contemporary temporal experience fosters. Perrow (1984) has stated that one can trace what provoked a rupture in complex situations only ex post facto. For example, investigatory commissions can trace back the sequence of events that lead to an accident, but they cannot forecast future ones. This is especially true in complex systems where events are multiple, indistinct, parallel and hard to follow (Ibid). Similarly, Baert (1991), basing himself on Mead’s temporalized model of ‘I’ and ‘Me’, claims that a deeper level underlies our immediate experience of time. This level has the capacity to re-evaluate the frameworks that are thought to regulate the functioning of an order, and, when such a structure is found to be insufficient, to self-monitor itself and reconsider the past in the light of new findings. This is similar to how, when learning a foreign language, the acquisition of new knowledge abridges gaps in the past and uncovers previous errors. Thus, for Baert there can be no finished ‘order’, the past is never foreclosed and the present is constantly compelled to declare its limits. Reminding us of Kuhn’s (1996) model for the sciences, he states that the eruption of the new always carries within the possibility of reassessing what was thought to be secured. That is how, crises can reveal shortcomings and call for a re-thematization of a narrative: that is, drawing a daring parallel, for a re-evaluation of its paradigm. For many analysts, this is what the subprime crisis should force us to do in relation to political economy (Hope, 2011).

Thus, ‘crises’ may act as a ‘configurational act’ (Ricoeur, 1980, p.178), in the sense that they are capable of re-configuring, through the experience of a shattering moment, the plot that structured the passage of chronology, an attempt to give meaning to experience through the break of meaning itself. This is why they invoke so many anxieties – especially in ever more complex environment – and why through them is revealed to us that “one cannot trust time anymore [since] it necessarily produces unknown events” (Nassehi, 1994, p. 71). Teleologies, narratives and eschatologies can therefore be interpreted, in part, as efforts to prevent the truly disruptive dimension of crises: their capacity to be unexplainable in the current logic, inasmuch as they inscribe any event in a ‘story’ that has already ‘been told’.

This twofold — seemingly contradictory — model of ‘crises’, in which they are both tools for the sketching of history and the harsh eruption of uncertainty, serves to illustrate the ambiguity of the word. For our purposes, they are both necessary to narrate and the ultimate peril to any fixed narrative. Thus, one of the urges of any ‘plot’ is to encompass crises so as to prevent them from disrupting their inner coherence ((A similar thing can be said about the classical economic model that inscribes periodical ‘crises’ as part of its development (Brochier, 1976) and thus, claims to know they have an end as part of a cycle.)) . But every present – more so in increasingly complex times – allows for the existence of inner contradictions that can be brought to light through a rupture, through a kairological moment. To think the contrary is to believe in crystallized orders, absolute equilibriums that are evident and immutable, in a rapidly shifting world where prognoses are ever more fragile.

Against the backdrop of an increasingly more uncertain future, narrations still structure our understanding of time. Contrary to the multifariousness and complexity of temporal experience, narrations tend to be framed in a linear fashion that can easily be followed. Wieviorka (2009b) had stated that it is more productive to comprehend ‘crises’ not only as turning points – climaxes in a straightforward story with a beginning and an end – but on the contrary, they provide the opportunity to trace processes that cannot easily be separated from the normal functioning of the system, nor are necessarily the fruit of one particular decision at any point in time. For instance, some analysts trace the 2008 subprime meltdown’s origin in a particular parcel of the world’s economy, the US housing market, and others – for Wieviorka more insightful – in the earlier economic policies, thus interpreting it not as a result of an incident, but of a context in which occurrences interact. That is, ‘crises’ represent either the result of practices fostered for a long time, or an easily isolable case that can be resolved in a story with distinct causes and consequences. The latter form is more manageable and tends to favour a clearer reassessment in terms of culprits and protagonists, and so it is generally how ‘crises‘; are interpreted.

Conversely, to narrate ‘,em>crises’ by looking for particular culprits – in linear series of events – risks both not tackling the causes that provoked the disruption and impoverishing our view of our world precisely when uncertainty calls for its reassessment. Wars tend to operate rhetorically in this way, as they frequently foster quick dualisms. Morin (1976, p. 161) talks here of ‘regressive’ and ‘progressive’ reactions to ‘crisis’, where the first produce a simplification of our distinctions, dualistic categorizations and the latter favor the emergence of a more multifaceted picture, that paradoxically, asks for more refined categories in a moment where swift decisions are called for. The dilemma that every ‘crisis’ reveals is the demand for a decision against a shifting and insecure background. That is why government initiative is immediately requested and its absence rapidly criticized. Thus, these situations can be made part of a histoire événementielle (Braudel, 1982), a history of events and deeds, heroes and villains, that ignores longer time logics and avoids a more measured assessment of causality, inasmuch as causality is the central problem of narrative itself (Ricoeur, 1980).

It is commonplace to say that ‘crises’ offer both threats and opportunities. In our excursus, risks lie in attempting to draw too many conclusions from the past, to inscribe ‘crises’ to come in a model that interprets them before they happen, thus claiming a totalizing picture of the world through which any novel phenomenon can be understood. This is common precisely because the obliteration of deep-rooted certainties is such a traumatic experience and because of the necessity we have of a minimally secured background (Giddens, 2007). A sociology of crisis must thus be open and aware of the opportunities they offer to reinterpret our situation and insist on their critical character, against the efforts to forcefully inscribe them in a procrustean bed. The limitation of such a perspective is that it can only allow for an assessment of ‘crisis’ once they have already taken place, and thus forces us to admit the unreliability of our temporal experience.

Since this insecure present is ever more ubiquitous and untraceable, we face the fact that we only can understand our experience in retrospective, that we are ever more incapable of following the processes that are taking place in the present we live through, and thus require meso-sociological institutions to bridge the gap between ‘time’ and ‘meaning’, even if they have the pernicious effect of oversimplifying our predicament. What this excursus has expressed is that what we call ‘crisis’ is filled with ambiguities precisely because it is the stage in which several tensions are to be resolved, put in the context of a world that suffers a “loss of narrative”, as Sennett (2006) famously expounds. But it is not merely that we have lost a wider temporal horizon, but that we are compelled to adopt narratives and dispose of them periodically, that ‘plots’ are becoming harder to sustain. Thus, the alternatives between a faster and a slower sociology (Wajcman, 2008), that is between a wider or narrower temporal horizon – attention to longer or shorter time-span s- can be interpreted as possible answers to how to deal with uncertainty in the face of ever more rapid temporal experiences. I claim that a temporalized retrospective model, that acknowledges the eruption of the new and is never a closed framework can help attain some clarity on the matter. This nonetheless asks for humility on the part of sociology, insofar as it does not avoid the contingency that is generally extolled by the current literature, but embraces it, and insofar as it disallows for straightforward temporal oversimplifications. That is, acknowledging the precarious presentness as our temporal condition, but conceding that narrations are not so easily disposed of.

A temporalized sociology of ‘crisis’ should not just debate over the actual or potential consequences of decisions taken in a ‘crisis’, but also over the previously latent aspects that such a situation illuminates (Baert, 1999, p. 122). Anomalies that could hardly be perceived in ‘normal’ times might appear at the forefront of explanations, which demands for an open mind in the aspects of normality that can be regarded as problematic. Fixed institutions that appear solid and crystallized, – such as, for example, the State in situations of political instability (Greenhouse et al, 2002) – might turn out to be exposed as unsettled, as a kairos that violently erupts. In this sense, through a ‘crisis’ what is tacit is illuminated, the unnoticeable gains significance. It represents thus a newness that is not ex nihilo, but begins anew the efforts for a better understanding of the present, one that has to be permanently reconstituted. A ‘normality’ understood as a finished ‘work of art’, and every novelty regarded as an accessory, is thus the most dangerous of possibilities.

An irreversible, non-cyclical and non-linear model of time (Leach, 1997) is thus called for, an understanding of time that disallows for events to be prematurely framed. Neither can we afford only a Historia Magistra Vitae (Koselleck, 2004), the already-lived as the source of all we can expect, nor to restrain ourselves from assessing the past. Seeing that any ‘crisis’ might be the last – as the rebirth of the interest on apocalyptic scenarios attests – they confront us with the dilemma of attesting narrative as insufficient, but not being completely able to dispose of it. Our precariousness lies in the fact of knowing the shakiness of the ‘omnipolitan-present’ but lacking the tools to extend our temporal horizons without hindering what we can observe. That is, to be able to draw lessons only from the past but being unable to use them for the future. I would like to finish by quoting an expression coined by Adorno (1988), which best summarizes our predicament, ‘die Verbindlichkeit des Neuen’: the capacity of the new to bind us, forbidding us from acting as if it did not happen.


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