Fernand Braudel was a leading writer in the French Annales school. He argued that historians should recognize that time and history move at different speeds or rhythms; geographical, social, and individual. The first, geographical time, is marked by slow, inexorable, almost imperceptible change. The second level, the longue duree, comprises long-term social, economic, and cultural history. For example, Braudel looks at two or three centuries in order to spot a particular pattern and its deeper connections, such as the decline of the power of the monarchy, or the long trajectory of slavery and equal rights in America.
The third level is that of event history: the time of surfaces and deceptive effects. Foucault commented that the Annales school went in for long-term continuities or slow transitions “that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of events.” Dr. F. Time was thinking of Braudel while reading an excellent essay by Wendy Brown, “The Time of the Political.”
Brown asserts that the late twentieth century could be said to be “a time of relatively banal events, of events that acquire their status not by being part of a larger historical force or movement but precisely by erupting out of the everyday.” This domination of political discourse by events represents the “trivialization of politics by the increasingly tabloid character of all media.” For example, Obama once poked fun of McCain and Palin’s new “change” mantra. “You can put lipstick on a pig,” he said as the crowd cheered. “It’s still a pig.” There followed a media frenzy about the event with the headline “Obama calls Palin a Pig.”
Sixty years ago Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre broke with each other on working at Braudel’s third level. Accused of withdrawing from political engagement in his writings by Sartre, Merleau-Ponty responded:
“I have in no way renounced writing about politics…With the Korean War, I made the decision to stop writing about events as they occur…most of the time, events can be evaluated only within a larger context of change…I suggested that we present comprehensive studies rather than hastily taken positions…as it creates a distance between the event and our judgment of it, defusing the trap of the event.”
Instead of focusing the discussion on Sara Palin’s possible resemblance to an even-toed ungulate, voters could use events as an occasion for longer term thinking. For example, instead of responding hastily and emotionally to the pinprick of a particular event having to do with illegal immigration, the voter could soberly consider the development of this issue over the last 20-50 years.
They could examine how their own adamant position on the issue was developed over time. How were they influenced, what are their assumptions? They could consider how the discourse and policies on this issue might change in the next 4-20 years. Then they could examine how a candidate fits in this longer history and how he or she might be able to achieve the individual voter’s normative goal.
The voter who forsakes the distance invoked by Merleau-Ponty runs the risk of “becoming simply another hubristic pundit, milking too much meaning from too little knowledge.”