Time and the Colonial State




When the colonial power builds a railway, it does not only colonize space, it also colonizes time. Meryem-Bahia Arfaoui describes the relationship between time, space, the State, and the law in this article that can be used as a toolbox for our issue.

Arfaoui Funambulist 3
“The imperial road” between Bechar in Algeria and Gao in Mali. / All documents from Science & Vie no. 43 (June 1958).

One evening, my uncle and I sat in our courtyard in Jendouba in northwestern Tunisia, talking about our homeland. In Tunisia, “we got our independence in 1956,” I said. He abruptly shot me a stern look, almost as if by reflex, before retorting, “1956… that’s a French date!” That night, my ensuing questions pierced through the thick silence of the quiet border villages. I would come to learn that Tunisian independence had been claimed long before the 1950s. In fact, the armed resistance in Ghardimaou dates back to the 1920s. Growing up in France, everything I learned in school from history books — which was already quite limited — seemed off. That’s because it was. Even though this history claimed to be objective, the narrative was never impartial in its storytelling or its timeline. By removing human experience, the history I was taught claimed to survey the entire world by conveying strictly the facts. But time and chronology are not politically neutral. And colonizer time is not the same as time kept by the colonized.

Birth of Independence ///

Back home, in the mountains connecting Algeria and Tunisia, no one will let you say France “gave birth” to our freedom in 1956. “Giving birth” implies a mythological beginning in which the oppressed only enter history through the oppressor’s narrative. Part of France’s persistent selective retelling of history includes deciding who is part of history and who isn’t — and when. Only in this context could former French President Sarkozy have said “the tragedy of Africa is that the African man has not fully entered into history” during his 2007 speech in Dakar. After stating that African people exist outside of history, he elaborated on his colonial ideology adding that the “African peasant” exists in an endless present and is therefore, not only without a past, but also without a future. The idea of “giving birth” to peoples and nations organizes the world on a colonial timeline. For example, many migrants in France have been assigned the birthdate of January 1st, a day “automatically given to immigrants who did not know their date of birth, because they came from countries or regions where civil status services were lacking or were in their infancy” (Latifa Oulkhouir, 2001).

Official history is the dominant national narrative that aims to hold sole authority on events that, in reality, possess multiple accounts: “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” French history is taught as a list of important dates to memorize by heart. The selected dates are, of course, always to the advantage of the national narrative: a bunch of notches on a timeline follow the march of progress demonstrated by an arrow moving from left to right which represents past, present, and future — implicitly suggesting that writing in the other direction would be like regressing, going against progress. The events on the timeline are discontinuous and detached from their constructive processes. The product of this superimposition of key dates is the illusion of a sum of moments in which nothing happened between the dates. A timeline speaks nothing of the interstices.

Arfaoui Funambulist 2
Assakrem road in construction in the Algerian Sahara.
Arfaoui Funambulist 4
Railway in Abadla in the Algerian Sahara.

The Desert Is Not a Void ///

Colonization draws spatial borders on geographical maps while totally ignoring existing social realities. In a similar way, colonization draws subjective temporal borders across the world that impose a rhythm and social formations that ignore pre-existing realities. Take the Sahara as an example, which is often represented in French geopolitical books as a “non-space”, “hole”, or “void.” This depiction makes it seem as if the desert were a social anomaly absent of any life. Because the desert does not correspond to the Western political imagination, the Sahara is denied politics or history.

The Sahara has its own temporality that largely precedes popularized representations of it. In reality, the desert is far from static and empty. It is a highly mobile and nomadic space, which is not defined by its margins (a function of borders) but by the flows that structure it. For example, an oasis is a crossroads and lively meeting place, but is often depicted in the exotic imagination as a site of rest for lone, weary travellers. When the colonists arrived they denied the pre-existing realities of the Sahara. In total contradiction with colonial aspirations for a sedentary and expansive authoritarian State, the colonists imposed structures of control. Enforced standardization of space and time radically distorted the desert. Railroad construction made connecting two points of space quicker and as a result, it compressed time, reduced it and gave it an exogenous rhythm that did not correspond to the desert’s pre-existing spatio-temporality.

Railroad construction made connecting two points of space quicker and as a result, it compressed time, reduced it and gave it an exogenous rhythm that did not correspond to the desert’s pre-existing spatio-temporality.

Chronopolitics ///

Colonization imposes definitions of time across space — or the domination of time through the appropriation of space. The imposition of the capitalist-State as the ultimate form of social organization creates a standard temporal referential (modernity) whose main functions are to normalize the negation of any other social temporality and to establish State dominion over any other social structure. On the world map, we can observe how time zones require all of humanity to live at the same rhythm of “progress.” These lines are also borders.

Political time is created and ordered by State authorities that declare itself as the norm. To define political time, the State must describe itself as timeless such that without the State there is no temporality: nothing exists before the State nor beyond it. In this construction of political time, the State centers itself as the defining, dominant, authority of time-space. Because creating political time requires memory, the State produces its own superficial and fictitious accounts by drawing up a linear and causal narrative to make it seem as if history were the product of a progression of moments. The State then denies any role in this construction and defers to an essentially tautological referential: it is because it is.

One main function of the State is to name and to govern. It does this by systematically determining what is and differentiating it from what is not. To do this, the State needs a nomenclature system. Law is the language of the State. It is used to define political time by establishing a system of measurement. Therefore, in the same way that there is a “geopolitics” aimed at analyzing power over territories, it is essential to acknowledge a “chronopolitics,” which analyzes power over temporalities.

Colonization as Anti-History ///

To say colonization is a part of history is to give it constructive value. In actuality, colonization is not a moment in history but a process of destruction. It is the permanent negation of all that is pre-existing. In practice, colonization destroys, deforms, and suffocates history by enforcing a dominant temporality and organizing the whole world around it. Colonization denies collective constructions of history in favor of a fictitious imaginary. In pursuit of an idealized Western social organization, colonization enacts an expansionist de-historicization through destruction and annihilation. For example, pretending land is without history is a myth the colonizer employs to appropriate, privatize and to transform land into goods for the purposes of production and consumption.

The colonial State monopolizes space by denying any form of habitation other than that which has been clearly defined by borders. These borders produce an interior and exterior. But in colonization, the outside is just another inside. In the same way, the State monopolizes time by denying anything outside of it. This is how a colonial State gives “birth” to independence by solely acknowledging that a society exists. By defining modernity and the meaning of progress, the State also defines the meaning of “history.” It imposes systematic ruptures upon histories (of countries, peoples, humans, etc.). Through creating permanent ruptures it fabricates a standardized structural continuity in their place — such that anywhere in the world it’s the year 2021, even though this calendar corresponds to a specific history that is far from relevant to most. As another example, the term “medieval” has the connotation of something regressive in the Western context. For Arabs, the Middle Ages are a period rich in innovation and to call something “medieval” would mean the exact opposite.

It’s essential to deconstruct the idea that histories of marginalized struggles are only constructed by their relation to dominant colonial history. Understanding histories of the oppressed through narratives provided by those that seek to destroy them is counterintuitive. Considering resistance while remaining in this State vision of time forces a sequence of events stuck in the logic of strict causality. Struggles and revolts are not disconnected from temporality. However, they take place on their own temporality located on a matrix of existence that spans the long term — a proper historicity with extant social knowledge and practices — which makes contact with this new, fictitious, short term temporality.

To struggle is to restore continuity by building bridges across the ruptures imposed by the colonizer. Resistance reaffirms a process of construction in the face of the Western State, which seeks to convince us that nothing exists outside of its definition. The histories of struggles are not ruptures in colonial continuity. Rather, it is colonization that is a rupture in the histories of the oppressed; the oppressed will be in permanent resistance against it.

Revolts against colonialism are not just anti-colonial history; they represent an even longer refusal of colonization which reaffirms itself constantly. To limit the history of struggle against colonialism to the colonizer’s clock is to defer to the dominant timeline of the oppressor.

Revolts against colonialism are not just anti-colonial history; they represent an even longer refusal of colonization which reaffirms itself constantly. To limit the history of struggle against colonialism to the colonizer’s clock is to defer to the dominant timeline of the oppressor. This would effectively render colonialism as a positive temporality through which a resistance must be constructed. But, it is not violence that creates resistance, it is everything that precedes it. If we highlight the fact that colonization is an anti-history that aims to annihilate everything that exists outside of it then we can return it to its marginality, to its violence, we denormalize it and call it what it really was: the destruction of history.

Arfaoui Funambulist 1
Roads, railways, and airways in colonized Algeria.

The Law as the State’s Metronome ///

The State is essentially based on two permanent tensions that constitute the basis of its modus operandi: repression and law. Repression serves to dominate space (notably by police force), and law serves to dominate time (notably through its legislation). Above these two axes, the State grants itself “the monopoly of legitimate violence” (Max Weber, 1919), which is the all-encompassing power of determination and definition. The State defines through silhouette: something is defined not by what it is, but based on what it is not. In this formulation, everything is a fundamentally negative entity. To create an object, it must draw its contours. To create a State, it must draw boundaries that exclude. To create ordered political time, it must exclude all “illegal” (i.e., outlawed) temporalities. The norm is a fictitious reality of exclusions constituted as the basis for measurement. And it is through this lens that all things are determined. The State is, in essence, a process of negation and exclusion enforced by violence and use of lethal power (material and immaterial).

The law is the most purified form of the State’s authority because it creates a unit of measurement that allows it to constitute itself entirely. Law measures the political time of the State: it defines when things are, when they are no longer, how long they last, etc. Legislation stands as truth as long as they are in place, even if they’re in total contradiction with social practices. For example, the French law of the 26 Brumaire year IX (November 7, 1800) specified that “any woman wishing to dress as a man must present herself to the prefecture of police to obtain the authorization” forbidding women to wear pants, was only repealed in 2013. The law creates a political time distinct from lived social realities which makes it one of the most insidious weapons of State domination. It permeates all social interactions — from the duration of a president’s term of office to the duration of a cell phone contract — and permanently measures and defines everything in order to constrain it (to legalize is to control). Therefore, the law creates a strict temporal framework outside of which everything is considered illegitimate.

The law is a political metronome of the State’s daily rhythms. In everyday life, most legal rules are latent and infiltrate all our actions until they become reflexes — crossing at the crosswalk is not innate behavior. By what I would call “the routine exception,” the law suddenly breaks with a previous order to create a new normal. Take for example the rules inherited from the successive states of emergency in France, which have imposed themselves as a new legal order. States of emergency are initially presented as a very short expression of State omnipotence. However, in a State of law, there is no exception. It is structured by exceptions. Therefore, the very nature of a state of emergency is to normalize the latent violence of the State and to give the impression that, because it is widespread, it is bearable. Without a State of emergency, there is no State of non-emergency — and therefore, no rule of law.

While states of emergency are observed as legal responses to active realities (mass uprisings, health crises, etc.), there is also a permanent state of emergency within the State: the prison. The prison is another structuring fiction that serves as a basic unit of measurement of the State. It calls both the law and the State into existence. It operates as a unit of measurement, since it serves to define the extreme violence of the State in relation to which diffuse violence is constituted.

The prison both reinforces the State’s ordinariness and, at the same time, structures it: the law has no viability if it is not sanctionable. By creating this exceptional space-time, the State normalizes ordinary law, ordinary repression, ordinary violence and ordinary political time.

The prison is a spatio-temporal structure of chronic concentration — both time and space are constrained.

The prison is a spatio-temporal structure of chronic concentration — both time and space are constrained. It is therefore where the rules for measuring political time are created. Without a space-time of ultimate constraint, the State cannot define an ordinary and therefore a political time that would like to be objective and whose only purpose is, in reality, to serve its own survival. In prison, one is condemned “for a time,” in the State, one is condemned for life. It is the difference between the two that normalizes the State constraint exercised on our temporalities.

In order to exist, the State controls time and distorts history. By rendering itself as preponderant, everything else is defined by contrast as anomaly or deviance from the norm. Colonization and prisons are archetypal examples of State domination over time. The State derives its power from this self-conferred authority to dictate political time. It seeks to be the sole structure of continuity. It imposes the idea that, de facto, there can be no society without a State even though it draws its power from the systematic negation of its own temporalities. The State is a social rupture. This is because it denies all other temporalities and processes of social construction (a common sense of living together, a shared memory, an affective transmission) to maintain State power. However, the State is the temporal deviance. It is the State which builds itself a posteriori of the societies that constitute it, that amalgamates them and oppresses them. The State is a social and temporal anomaly, which is to say — it is not measured because it exists but only exists because it is measured. To resist is also to create linkages and bridges, to break the ruptures and to bind that which exists.

Transmission, such as the conversation I had with my uncle, is essential to our struggle because it is what characterizes continuous time — social collective organization is a process in permanent reaffirmation and mutation of itself. Each time the State imposes its domination on time, the autonomous, marginalized social entities (from oppressed peoples in current colonies to the inhabitants of racialized working-class districts), reaffirm and transform knowledge of the long term within these very recent, short determined chronopolitics. But ultimately, the State needs control in order to exist. Societies do not need a State to reinvent themselves.

That August, I stayed up late into the night as my uncle relayed a history previously unknown to me. When he was six years old he would go with my grandmother each day to bring lunch to the house next door where Houari Boumédiène and other Algerian National Liberation Front fighters were hiding. He told me how we hid in the mountains and fought in Aïn Draham. And how we turned the house into a makeshift hospital.

That night, for the first time, I could situate myself in a temporality that was not fictional. I felt what it was like to have my own history — one that reaches far beyond the ports of La Goulette. There was still so much for him to tell me, and so much for me to hear. I think he didn’t want “France to swallow me up,” as he said. We said we’d continue the discussion “next year in shaa Allah.” “Next year,” for us, means “the next time you come to Tunisia.” One time “next year” amounted to four years.

I finally made it back that December. Unfortunately, this time I came to bury my uncle. His stories were buried with him. Our courtyard in Jendouba is silent again. Or so it seems. I like to believe there’s more writing on the walls to be revealed in time. I replay this night from memory, nostalgic for all the conversations we never got a chance to have and with immense gratitude to have been able to have this one. I re-tell this story so it is not forgotten and to remind us that, after all, 1956 is only a date made up by the French. ■