Michel Serres, Bruno Latour, and the edges of historical periods

by Donald Wesling

For a scholar in the historical disciplines, interest in periodization as such is likely to come late in a career, after these typical stages: taking survey courses as a student and being forced to do period-dating of unidentified passages; teaching survey courses, and writing books and articles that use and revise period-terminology; becoming by degrees dissatisfied with the extant periodization’s philosophy of time, and with its working terminology for macrohistorical systems and microhistorical events.(1) One must be sensitive to questions of period in order to write, yet few of us devote ourselves exclusively to these questions. The list of distinguished contributions to this subfield is notably skimpy, I think because periodization is the enabler of thinking in the several historical disciplines: facilitator, adjunct, frame; and like all frames external, not the main matter, and anyway visible only when one is looking at and for frames. Before this metaphor from the visual arts becomes inconvenient, we may remind ourselves that frames enclose the edges of the picture in order to cover the unpainted flaps, nails, signs of construction; frames provide a visual blend between picture and wall, picture and world; frames enhance the edges by describing the decisive act of imagination that made the artistic object — also by visually focusing the viewer’s attention onto the picture’s representation of the world, with such seductive force that we nearly forget the grubbiness of edges.

Even those who are connoisseurs of the edges of historical periods tend to observe them not directly but askance, by studying overlapping temporalities, or …

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