Absurd history, absolute future

On the tenth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, Sarah Rifky reflects on the moment alongside the writings of Hannah Arendt and Reinhart Koselleck, arguing for a rethinking of history as a radical act of remembering, imagining, and becoming.

[Editor's note: This article is the second in a series published in collaboration with Mada Masr to mark the tenth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. It is also available in Arabic.]

The embodied insight I gained the evening of Mubarak’s abdication in February 2011 is that absolute freedom corresponds to the feeling of being trapped in a crowd. This doubled-edged sentiment has allowed me to think of revolution not as a given, but as a concept constantly changing both in historical time, and in time as we imagine and experience it. 

In response to the demands of our political present, I want us to think about the importance of finding ways to retrieve “futures past” or former futures (Reinhart Koselleck). The motif of this question appears in the work of a number of writers, historians, and anthropologists, including Achille Mbembe, Gary Wilder, and David Scott, among others. In his book Freedom Time: Decolonization and the Future of the World (2015), Wilder says, “I am not primarily concerned with futures whose promise faded after imperfect implementation, nor with those that corresponded to a world or to hopes that no longer exist, but instead with futures that were once imagined but never came to be, alternatives that might have been and whose unrealized emancipatory potential may now be recognized and reawakened as durable and vital legacies.”1 There is critical value in the retrieval of imagined futures that never came to be. 

The further we drift in time from the beginning of uprising in the Arab world, I think about how we construe a relationship to the past, and how this configures the future. To do that, I want to briefly stop at a key idea of Hannah Arendt, familiar to most, and noted as one of the most influential political philosophers and humanist thinkers of the twentieth century: natality. Natality, in a sense, stands for the capacity for action, and is distinct from the idea of birth per se. As a condition, natality is the radical act of coming into the world, a coming into being with people, strangers, that go on to configure the world beyond our own knowledge and intention. While the capacity for action in the political sense emerges from this condition of natality, it is not always manifest. The utmost manifestation of this capacity in political theory is revolution. However, the same capacity to act manifests at levels that are less performative than revolution, and less politically theatrical than the nation state. In the absences and failures of both we retain the capacity to act at the level of community, neighborhood, and organizations. 

Arendt’s political theory is animated by her thoughts on love, conceptually, through the writings of Saint Augustine. She wrote her dissertation on his work in 1929. She takes no interest in Augustine historically. Instead, she creates an intellectual space that can hold the disjointed ideas and contradictions of a thinker caught between times. Through Arendt’s reading of Augustine, we reckon with the different understandings of love. We distinguish human love as transient from the eternal love of the divine. All love is bound with the functions of time, memory, and history. If human love (cupiditas) is transient, craving, and future-oriented, divine love is a “present without future,” or a timeless present (nunc stans). This timeless present is not completely unbound from our human experience, since we observe it through remembrance, “recalling the past.”2 Human time stands still to us in memory, and it is this memory that is the source of our desires, as it “transforms the past into the future possibility.” For Arendt; for us, perhaps; the “absolute future turns out to be the ultimate past.” 

In the book Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (1979) by Reinhart Koselleck, there is a linkage made by the author between a chronological past and a lived present that was once an anticipated future, and expectations of the future, such that any given present is at the same time a former future. Koselleck was one of Arendt’s readers and younger contemporaries who became a key theorist of history during the second half of the twentieth century in Germany. He was most noted for devising the area of “conceptual history” (begiffsgeschichte), and demonstrated how chronology and lived time coincide but also diverge. He regarded chronology as a datum (a fixed starting point) against which temporality can be registered, but that this conception of temporality is itself the outcome of the structure with which we endow lived events. Koselleck’s temporal understanding is grafted on the ideas of Arendt’s mentor, friend, and lover Martin Heidegger, and his book Being and Time (1927), where persons are considered with respect to their possibilities and futures, such that the subject matter of history becomes not simple facticity, but possibilities; “more precisely past possibilities and prospects, past conceptions of the future: futures past.”3 While Arendt and Koselleck were never directly in conversation, they both approached history through a similar intellectual lineage, with focus on a sense of “precondition,” of possible histories, and of the political. They both emphasized the necessity of a conceptual rethinking of history at large and as it happens. Both described history as “absurd.”

In thinking of these days, on the occasion of a chronological passing of time, I am of the feeling that what happened in 2011 is of much less significance and importance that what came after, both for better and worse. In this brief intervention that invites us to think of “futures past” as that which lurks conceptually in history and revolution, I am thinking of how revolution itself, as idea, how we think of it, and what it entails, historically and conceptually, is subject to change.

  • 1. Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World, 2015, 16.
  • 2. Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1929), 27–28, 48-49.
  • 3. Reinhart Koselleck and Keith Tribe, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); David Carr, “Book Review: Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time,” History and Theory 26, no. 2 (1987): 198.