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Time and history as context

There is a tendency in anthropology to feel that history is something you write a chapter about in the beginning of your monograph, and then later – in the "real" analysis – ignore. During my fieldwork in the Soviet Union it was impossible to ignore history. Everyone talked about it, it hung over them all like a leaden weight. My friends and informants all had an uncle or brother or mother who had been deported or starved to death in the Blockade or was shot by Stalin's henchmen or died in the battle of Kursk. Soviet society without history was a contradiction in terms. I noted at an early stage how the singer Vladimir Vysotski spoke about this.

In the monograph I later wrote, history caused me many problems, and I ended up by initially taking a good and thorough look at present-day conditions, and only then work myself back into the historical context, first the blood-bath of the 20. century, then the history of the Russian state, and then a postulated Russian tradition. In the introductory chapter to my unfinished comparative monograph, I perform the opposite maneuver; the context is narrowed down in rapid leaps inward, until events in the present finally emerge. Both techniques reflect, as I see it, my strong need to conceive of history as organically present here and now, rather than a distant and dead "past".

The history of anthropology

In the early 2000's, I wrote, with Thomas Hylland-Eriksen, a compact but wide-ranging history of anthropology, which was published in different versions in English and Norwegian (The somewhat longer Norwegian version included a mini-history of anthropology in the Nordic countries, and other materials.) Both original editions were later revised and published in a 2nd edition (the 2nd English edition was heavily edited and somewhat expanded; the 2nd Norwegian edition corrected a multitude of typos and minor but irritating errors). I found this project fascinating, and as I slowly unravelled the tangled web of influence and counter-influence, charisma and prestige, mutually dependent national traditions, theoretical revolutions, institution-building, jealousy and loyalty, my fascination increased. Through the process of writing this book, and later repeatedly teaching a two-semester course for first-year students based on it, I gained a kind of x-ray vision in the presence of contemporary debates.

I later made more direct use of this experience in a paper directed at Baltic anthropologists in the throws of establishing modern anthropological institutions in their countries. The paper compares the genesis of such institutions in post-war Scandinavia to our day's situation in the post-Soviet Baltics.

What is time?

What is time? I am neither a physicist, a mathematician nor a philospher, but I believe it is important to think deeply and seriously about this question. We should at least consider the following: First, that time (as we learn when we age) is embodied, it is deposited into every cell of our physical being. Time is thus intimately present, not a distant abstraction. And yet, and this is my second point, time is also infinitely far away, and in our age, with its increasingly sophisticated technologies, we start to appreciate just how far away "infinitely" may be. Millions and billions of years. The trouble is to even start to appreciate what such numbers mean.

As an experiment in visualizing the longue durée of time, I have built a Timeline of Human History, which, though neither infallible nor very exact, gives a fairly good feeling for what I'm getting at. As far as time's embodiment is concerned, what I have written so far (aside from the passages referred to above), is mostly poetry. Here, for what they are worth, are three offerings: a poem of memory, a poem of death, and a poem of a historical event.

This is one thing I have always been attracted to in T.S. Eliot's poetry: its near-obsessive fixation on time. I am at present working on a project involving retranslation into Norwegian of all of Eliot's major poetry, accompanied by a loose commentary on the text, explaining moot points and providing context where necessary.

In latter years I have also been working on a novel that addresses some of these themes, where different historical times are contrasted, time passes through individuals, and a deathless couple lives for thousands of years.