Permanent Temporariness

2019-05-06 10.11.17

A checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem (note how the term “crossing” re-writes the reality of this space, and the lights for Ramadan)

In my work on nineteenth-century novels, I think about time. How narrative time is political–demarcating between modern and seemingly backward characters and establishing a known, imperial future as the horizon for futural imagining. But I also suggest that even as narrative time works to differentiate people and places and consolidate a narrow vision of the future that extends existing social arrangements, other temporalities–and other visions of politics–persist.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the things I found myself thinking about while in Palestine was time. Questions of time are ever-present. They are present in understanding Palestinian memory and history: the long duration of inhabiting the land, the disjunction between past and present (although Palestinians in the West Bank whose families are from the sea may never see the sea, the sea still shapes their sense of place), the memories of people and places that no longer exist but still shape one’s consciousness. They are also present in the settler colonial practices of the Israeli state: uprooting olive trees and planting white pines in their place, creating national parks where Palestinian villages once were, establishing outposts that become settlements–the Zionist investment in what Edward Said calls “a future wish” not only eliminates Palestinian people, it erases their histories (The Question of Palestine, 9)Questions of time are also more quotidian: checkpoints make the time of travel uncertain, showing that while the settler colonial structure remains constant, how it impacts one’s life constantly shifts. Famously, the Israeli state never declared its boundaries, so the conventional wisdom that states transform time into space doesn’t quite apply here: state-space is constantly shifting over time.

Eyal Weizman is particularly good at thinking about time in Hollow Land (2007). Studying the “permanent temporariness” of occupation, he writes:

“the use of the term ‘occupation’ for the forty-year-old Israeli military control and administration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip may thus itself be complicit with the legal charade on which its entire system rests. An ‘occupation’ is understood as a transitional state, in process of being resolved or terminated politically or militarily” (104)

Recently, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, have thought through this concept in an exhibition and book.

A colonial system grounded in the ever-shifting temporal scales of permanent temporariness, of course, produces exhaustion. The temporariness of occupation means constantly facing new obstacles and unexpected challenges while its permanence makes envisioning an alternative future or connecting with the past more difficult. Or, to frame this through my work on nineteenth-century novels: unlike the narrative time of realist novels which works to consolidate a narrow vision of an imperial future by representing the shared time of modern institutionalism (a shared time that always depends upon differentiation), the time of occupation/settler colonialism at work in Palestine seeks to consolidate a narrow vision of the future (and past) by constantly improvising with time. The instability of time and space make it difficult to represent reality in Palestine, but also difficult to create and cultivate collective life. Or, in other words, it is easy to feel the temporariness of occupation in Palestine, but hard to construct other visions of permanence (take, for instance, home demolitions, where Palestinians are forced to destroy the very homes that they have built and lived in over time).