The Anthropology of Anachronism: On Failures, Reversals and the Space-Time of Political Possibility

In many parts of the world we witness a disorienting sense of crisis and emergency: political ideologies considered defeated (fascism, socialism) or marginalized (nationalism, white supremacy) are gaining new prominence, refusing to stay in the dustbin of history to which they were consigned.  Political, social, and economic rights once considered settled in law are being disregarded, challenged, or overturned (reproductive rights, rights to privacy, to work, to health, to vote, to equality).  Institutionalized commitments to environmental protection are being threatened, and institutionalized processes like European unification have lost a sense of inevitability and necessity.

Particularly striking is the way people characterize these developments: we are “going backwards” rather than “moving forward,” political and social forms widely represented as historical “failures” are finding success, historic victories are being “reversed.”  All evince a sense of anachronism – a feeling that something is not in its correct historical or chronological time. This sense that time is “out of joint” is something we have seen before – it has been articulated in and from diverse locations at least since the end of the Cold War. This latest moment is continuing evidence that how people feel about and make sense of political and social transformation is largely organized by a modernist understanding of history as the movement of progressive, linear, evolutionary time – leaving in its wake non-repeating pasts.

This panel argues that this sense of anachronism provides an opening to consider how the relationship between time and power is generated, conceptualized, organized, reworked and resisted. It asks us to think more specifically about the conditions (and authoritative frameworks) under which something gets marked as a failure, or an era gets marked off as past and the present gets defined as “post-” (socialist, colonial) – and how those conditions and frameworks are changing today. The panel aims to look at how various actors, including neo-fascist, socialist, or indigenous ones, work at various scales to change what would be labelled as “progress” and what as a “failure”. By complicating the notion of historical failure this panel also suggests that we can fruitfully revisit what have been marked as failures to find sites of an “otherwise,” rich with signs of possible futures and potential politics.

We invite papers that look ethnographically at how politics becomes inscribed into particular spatio-temporal configurations and how elements of such failed or “obsolete” configurations get a new life, challenging and reversing a modernist sense of historical direction (or, rather than reversing modernist time, are seen to be corrective action, restoring collective subjects like nations and races to their rightful place in history). More specifically, we are interested in papers that explore how the relationship between progress, time, and power is defined or challenged in particular contexts. Activist struggles for gender, sexual, labour, or ecological rights seem to be especially productive sites for thinking through this relationship. More broadly, the papers could address how a modernist understanding of historical progress is being reworked in the fields of, for instance, development, electoral politics, policy, activism, human rights, humanitarianism, ecology, work and labour, family and kin networks, and so forth. We see this panel as contributing to anthropology’s long-standing interest in understanding the historicity of the present.

Please contact Carna Brkovic ( or Andrew Gilbert ( with inquiries or draft abstracts as soon as possible.

We will notify all of decision on the inclusion on the panel no later than 31 March.