The Trap of the Event

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.”

2 thoughts on “The Trap of the Event

  1. Scott

    So, are you telling me that reading an article on Huffington Post, going down to the comments section, finding the snarkiest apposing view point from someone I have never met and calling that person an idiot, isn’t meaningful, knowledge based discourse?

    You wrote, “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.””

    Unfortunately, I think the majority of voting Americans fall into this category. Myself included. It seems that the media have become experts at pushing our buttons with content that plays to our most basic emotions. Most political reporting these days seems intent on eliciting an, us against them mentality from its audience. I can’t tell you how often I have found myself drawn in to defending a position that, on further refection, I don’t even necessarily agree with?

    So why do we let the media suck us into this trap? Why don’t we take the time to really understand the issues? Why are we satisfied to let the political zealots speak for us?

    I have a couple of ideas.

    – Perhaps we have developed incredibly short attention spans and limited ability to focus on any subject for more that a few minutes. The result of a sound bite society?
    – Desire for immediate gratification. (Quick emotional response.)
    – The overwhelming desires to belong to a group. Kind of like religion or sports. Back to the, us against them mentality.
    – Too engaged in the day-to-day demands of making a living to ponder.
    – The shear volume of information being thrown at us every day.

    I don’t see this trend changing any time soon.

    1. father time Post author

      I agree with your bulleted list. We don’t have time or bandwidth to ‘really understand the issues’ so we have to rely on ‘experts’. But it is easy for debaters from either side of an issue to find an expert that supports and further reinforces their already-held beliefs. Why don’t we make a conscientious effort to research the other side’s data and arguments with an open mind? Your third point argues to why we rarely consider starting such a research agenda.


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