18 September 2020


'Chronopolitics: A conceptual matrix' by Ian Klinke in (2013) Progress in Human Geography comments 

This article engages the platform of critical geopolitics through conceptual clarification of the debates around chronopolitics (the politics of time). It argues that the current literature has either reduced it to the dynamic of ‘speed’ or the ‘modern’ time consciousness in geopolitics. After re-emphasizing a narrative understanding of temporality and a non-dichotomous conception of space and time, the article highlights the heterotemporality of geopolitical discourse. It suggests that chronopolitics should be understood not as an alternative to geopolitics but as one of its crucial elements – and one that can also be found in the project of a critical geopolitics.

Klinke argues

Despite legitimating some of the darker episodes of 19th- and 20th-century history, the tradition of geopolitics continues to haunt world politics. It is in geopolitics that practitioners, academics and journalists declare to have found a sober and apolitical view that allows them to perceive a deeper layer of reality – to see the world as it really is. The continued existence of geopolitical writing has attracted academic interest and the last two decades have therefore given birth to critical geopolitics, a diverse and challenging body of scholarship, that has set out to investigate and critique the continued undead presence of geopolitics. Challenging it both as an expert-level form of power/knowledge and as a wider cultural discourse, critical geopolitics tries to strip geopolitics of its self-evidence. In its analysis of geopolitics as a spatial ritual, the critical study of geopolitics has concentrated especially on three discursive practices. First, it has addressed the delimitation of a familiar ‘self’ space from an unfamiliar and often threatening ‘other’ space (Campbell, 1992; Dalby, 1990: 39; Gregory, 2004: 17). Second, it has revealed geopolitics to be a detached, privileged and panoramic (God-like) vision that entices the observer through positioning it in a pretend position above geographic space (Agnew, 1998: 11; Dodds, 2005: 2; O Tuathail, 1996: 23). Third, it has critiqued how geopolitics simplifies complex social processes with the help of binary oppositions and catchy spatial  labels (O Tuathail and Agnew, 1992: 195; O Tuathail, 2006: 2), the latter visualized in maps, cartoons and films (Dittmer, 2010; Dodds, 1996). Engaging both theoretical and empirical debates, critical geopolitics – more of a platform than a grand theory – has brought a unique focus on space, boundaries and vision to the study of global politics. 

Perhaps because of its relative success, some key proponents of a critical geopolitics have recently displayed a slight reluctance towards reform. Turning away from developing critical geopolitics as a theoretical apparatus, the emphasis has been on fulfilling its promise as a tool for thick description research (O Tuathail, 2008, 2010a). It has been argued for the conservation of critical geopolitics, urging scholars to keep a ‘narrower focus on the geostrategic knowledges used to legitimize warfare, and more generally security’ (Dalby, 2010: 286). Others in the field have been less content with the current state of critical geopolitics. Critics have come from a number of theoretical positions, some of which are more sympathetic to the cause than others. It has included those on the more classical geopolitical end of the spectrum who have argued against the explicit ethics that (some) critical scholars of geopolitics have adopted (Black, 2009) or have sought a compromise between critical and classical geopolitics (Kelly, 2006). This group of (partially) external critics has also included those who have proposed a more ‘radical’ or Marxist geopolitics (Geopolitics, 2011; Mercille, 2008) as well as those who have urged critical geopolitics to take its feminism more seriously (Dowler and Sharp, 2001; Hoerschelmann, 2008; Hyndman, 2004). Additionally, it has encompassed a number of critics, some post-structuralists, who have argued for an intellectual engagement with material practices of the every-day with the help of ethnographic fieldwork (Dittmer and Gray, 2010; Megoran, 2006; Mu ̈ller, 2009; Thrift, 2000) and have urged critical geopolitics to address its ethical (Megoran, 2008) and epistemological tensions (Mu ̈ ller and Reuber, 2008). Finally, there are also those who have examined the relationship between geopolitics and biopolitics (Gregory, 2009) or the replacement of the former by the latter (Amoore, 2006; Campbell, 2005: 947). 

This article wishes to add to the debates surrounding critical geopolitics by taking as its starting point two existing attempts to incorporate the concept of chronopolitics into the platform. The first of these, originally inspired by Paul Virilio’s ‘hypermodern’ writings on speed and war, is found to sit uncomfortably within critical geopolitics because of its treatment of time as something accelerating outside narrative construction. It has also somewhat rigidly separated time from space. Instead, it is proposed here that critical geopolitics should tune its conception of chronopolitics to its discursive understanding of geopolitics, and see space and time as closely intertwined. This article also takes issue with a second more postcolonial literature on chronopolitics that has highlighted the modern progressive othering at the core of western geopolitics. Although this postcolonial critique of a modern conception of time does capture the temporality of much geopolitical writing, it leaves unexplored the complexity of modern temporal experience as well as the non-modern temporalities that (continue to) operate in geopolitical texts of all sorts. Notions of familiarity, recurrence, repetition and regularity are crucial alongside modern linear progressive and declining constructions of time. They permeate bestsellers on world politics, broad-sheet commentary, thinktank papers, politicians’ speeches and Hollywood blockbusters. 

Although some of its analytical efforts have arguably gone into an exploration of the temporal logics that underpin geopolitical discourse (Sharp, 2000: 43, 91), critical geopolitics has tended to reduce conceptually global politics to a ‘spatial spectacle’ (O Tuathail, 1996: 60). In line with scholarship in International Relations that has investigated modern politics as ‘spatial politics’ (Ruggie, 1993; Walker, 1995: 306; for a recent exception, see Hom, 2010), geopolitics is rendered ‘the ideological process of constructing spatial, political and cultural boundaries to demarcate the domestic space as separate from the threatening other’ (Dalby, 1990: 137, emphasis added; see also Agnew and Corbridge, 1995: 4–5; Mamadouh, 1999: 124). This preoccupation with space has been rooted in the platform’s self-understanding as a resistance against the subordination of space in western intellectual thought (O Tuathail, 1996: 24; Soja, 1989: 11), the inspiration for which can be found in the work of Michel Foucault, who claimed that ‘the present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space’ (Foucault, 1986: 22; see also Dalby, 1990: 21). This emphasis on spatiality has not gone unnoticed, and one observer already complained more than a decade ago that ‘the centrality of the spatial in the modern imagination’ needed ‘a more considered justification’ in critical geopolitics (Heffernan, 2000: 349). If, as one observer remarks, time is always ‘deeply involved in geopolitics’ (Aalto and Berg, 2002: 267), then critical geopolitics needs to assemble more conceptual tools to unpack it. An important step towards a more sophisticated conception of chronopolitics is to recognize that critical geopolitics is already engaged in analyses of political time, even if it does not always admit to it. Questions of prediction, historical analogy and even periodization have played a key role in the analysis of geopolitical discourse, but the many references to geopolitics as the politics of space alone inhibit a full appreciation of how these questions are chronopolitical. Perhaps critical geopolitics has taken a little too seriously Foucault’s injunction to write a history of spaces (Foucault, 1980: 149). 

It is important to note that any critique of critical geopolitics is made difficult by the way the platform’s eclecticism is valorized and a unified definition of critical geopolitics is rejected (Campbell and Power, 2010; O Tuathail, 2010b; O Tuathail and Dalby, 1998: 7). 

Although some authors discussed in this article may not align themselves with the label of critical geopolitics, it is possible to associate them with the platform because of similar analytical foci and normative positions. This article closes in on the version of critical geopolitics that is still the most prevalent. It is the body of literature that has rejected the state-centric nature of thinking about global politics, emphasized the discursivity of geopolitics, and problematized the binary spatial identities that are constructed through geopolitics. The aim of this article is to promote an understanding of chronopolitics not as an alternative to geopolitics (something that rivals it) but as something already at work within it. Temporal language contaminates geopolitical writing and collective identities are produced as much through temporal boundaries as they are through spatial ones. Furthermore, what often escapes the critical geopolitical eye is that geopolitics employs not only a spatial ‘God-trick’ that scans and classifies the globe, but also a detached perspective on history that carves it up into neat periods, thereby placing the geopolitician in the superior position of he who knows time. 

This article sets out both to provide a conceptual clarification of chronopolitics and to offer a theoretical toolbox for the analysis of political time in geopolitical discourse. Notions such as chronotope, narrative, heterotemporality and periodization open up the possibility of distinguishing better between different types of geopolitics. The utility of this conceptual toolbox will be demonstrated with the help of examples taken from a number of geopolitical bestsellers, from Kissinger to Chomsky. After a discussion, in section II, of the limitations of existing conceptions of chronopolitics, the article moves on to re-ignite a narrative understanding of temporality and non-dichotomous concepts of space and time, in section III. While a return to narrative theory improves our comprehension of the relationship between language and time, the notion of the chronotope helps us to understand how such geopolitical narratives are structured around key spatiotemporal symbols. Section IV suggests the concept of heterotemporality in order to account for the temporally polymorphous rather than monolithic nature of geopolitics. The final section discusses how different temporalities manifest themselves in periodization, the simple practice of carving up time.