After Failure // Edward Jones Corredera

In the Western world, two dominant forms of time have overlapped from the early modern period to our present day. One was a Christian manifestation of time, characterised by slowness and shaped by the logic of waiting. The other was the acceleration that resulted from the realisation of individual agency.[1] Recent studies on the modern hopes to synchronise the world through empire and technology have encouraged the study of the links between scientific forms of power and social understandings of temporality.[2] Climate change and the postcolonial turn have challenged and expanded our views of the relationship between the temporality of Western historiography, power, and nature.[3] Today, we need to bring together the logic that underpins many of these insights, and consider a form of temporality that has remained underdiscussed. This is the temporal logic of the scientific method: a perspective that considers trial and error a part of the methodological design rather than a flawed result of a process.[4] Faced with failure, Christian eschatology undermines agency and seeks redemption; the Enlightenment’s teleology of progress cannot account for an error in its expectations. The scientific logic that grew with and through the Scientific Revolution, that of trial and error, however, assumes and absorbs the fallibility of its experiments.

The scientific logic can counteract the paralysing eschatological readings of climate change and Coronavirus. The popular response to climate change and now coronavirus may be characterised as an apathetic eschatology that relies on moralism, nostalgia, and the sense of powerlessness; apocalyptic visions serve to foreshorten a familiar past during periods when the complex nature of the recent past is difficult to grasp. The temporality of the scientific method accounts for error. It can account for the need to reconsider and reconfigure processes long considered instrumental to economic growth, from industrialisation to social acceleration.[5] Quite simply, we cannot continue to industrialise or rely on the perpetual economic acceleration that guarantees political stability.[6] Scientific culture, moreover, cannot be seen as the property of the elites. The response to failures like climate change or the Coronavirus should not be a moralistic one that relies on religious ethics or teleological stubbornness; rather it should be one of careful observation, calculation, and, yes, an acceptance that failure is a part of historical change. When an experiment fails, time is needed to study its failures, engineer alternative solutions, and establish a clear timeline.

One may ask whether this just an appeal to grant greater authority over the future to political technocrats. But political technocrats are not the experts here: the speed at which medical experts around the world can generate a cure will determine the next eighteenth months. Greater awareness of the scientific method, and its capacity to host and harness failure, will therefore be important both to the discovery of the cure and to the generation of new social understandings of our common global future. We may use this opportunity to foster a broader cultural move: to popularise the discussion of the scientific basis and the social conditions that can trigger climate change and epidemics around the world. The goal here is not to foster objectivity, but to encourage an understanding that trial and error shapes our world in ways that Coronavirus has thrown into stark relief. This is not a glitch, but an opportunity to reclaim the merits of the study of error. Science has been perpetually reshaping our world for centuries. Today, the global political future turns not just on the scientists, but on an individual understanding that our own failure to adhere to the recommendations of scientists can be lethal to others. The only way to get past this will not be to avoid talking about imagined futures that ignore the present and consider only what comes after the global epidemic. Rather, it will depend on steadying ourselves and discussing our present, a time of failure.

Edward Jones Corredera,
Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge
25 March 2020

References

[1] On these see the particularly rich chapter, Reinhart Koselleck, “Does History Accelerate”, in Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories. Edited and translated by Sean Franzel and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), pp. 79-99.

[2] Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017); Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time: 1870–1950 (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, October 2015).

[3] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197-222.

[4] On the odd links between the realization of seventeenth hopes in the nineteenth century see Lorraine Daston, “Unindexable: Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)” Conference Undead Texts: Grand Narratives in the History of the Human Sciences at Columbia University and MPIWG

[5] Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration. A New Theory of Modernity. Translated by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

[6] Rosa, Social Acceleration.