Ephemera and Pseudo-Events

11 September 2011


A paradigm case of 'strategic shock' as well as of the clash of civilizations.

One quote that fascinates me (and to which I have referred many times in this forum) is from Fernand Braduel:

Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion.

Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 2, Part Three: Event, Politics and People, p. 901

Which may be taken in the context of another Braudel quote:

“Traditional history, with its concern for the short time span, for the individual and the event, has long accustomed us to the headlong, dramatic, breathless rush of its narrative.”

Fernand Braudel, On History, “History and the Social Sciences,” University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 27

Braudel, then, did not consider his own efforts in history as “traditional history,” and indeed the structuralist approach is the antithesis of that that centers on individuals and events. We could say that the history of the event is Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history stripped of its anthropomorphism and applied to time itself.

For the historian of the event, a particular moment in time is raised to a special significance, and becomes a turning point, a pivot of history, of which one can later say that all history is divided into what came before the event and what came after the event. Thus the event is the moment in which everything is changed.

According to a now-familiar narrative, the terrorist attacks on the US of 11 September 2001, now ten years ago, is just such an event: there is everything that happened before Sept. 11, and everything that happened after Sept. 11. This narrative is often supplemented with the “clash of civilizations” narrative, which would seem to give a significance to Sept. 11 beyond the event itself — a macro-historical significance and resonance.

No one will deny the significance of the event in its immediacy. Viewed strictly as a terrorist attack, its magnitude would be difficult to equal, whether judged in terms of body count, property destruction, or impact. The brutality of the attack should not blind us to the sophistication with which it was stage-managed by its planners, so that the televisions of the world would be tuned to the event and see the second plane hit the second tower live, as it happened.

Were the terrorists reading Baudrillard, or were they merely channeling the Zeitgeist in their intuitive mastery of creating a hyperreal event? But hyperreality cuts both ways — the event is both real and unreal — like the map that coincides with the extent of the territory it maps, and when the empire falls, both map and territory meet the same fate.

Decades before Baudrillard formulated hyperreality, Daniel Boorstein formulated the concept of the pseudo-event. The pseudo-event is a contrived event that possesses whatever reality is does possess only in virtue of the participation of the media that turns this non-event into an event.

What could be a more perfect example of a pseudo-event than an anniversary? It possesses no intrinsic reality; the date is nothing on its own account. And suppose further that the anniversary is an anniversary of an event, that is to say, the anniversary of some ephemeral event that was hardly glimpsed before it settled back into oblivion. A pseudo-event marking ephemera? It sounds like Plato condemning artists, who are so far removed from reality that they create shadows of shadows.

An anniversary is an arbitrary thing — the length of a year is utterly arbitrary — but it is natural to want to commemorate a loss, as it is natural to want to celebrate some joyous occasion. Some timetable must be adopted, so there is not reason not to adopt a cyclical observation that coincides with an regularly occurring astronomical event.

Santayana famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. When we think of the events of Sept. 11 in this context, in which the US suffered rather than acted, we realize that Santayana was speaking from the perspective of the agent rather than the sufferant. If one were to reflect on memorialization from the perspective of the sufferant, one would say, rather than “condemned to repeat,” something like “never forget” or “never again,” which is what we hear said of events like the Holocaust.

But Santayana was already speaking in terms of the importance of memorialization. To memorialize an event is to prevent its repetition, to render it singular, although we must relive the trauma in each memorialization. Failure to memorialize an event means that it will be visited upon us time and again, though we will be spared the re-traumatization of the continual consciousness of the event.

Thus even from a strictly naturalistic point of view, it is perfectly reasonable to remember an event, however ephemeral, but, to avoid the debilitating consequences of a continual consciousness of trauma, a regularly recurring memorialization assures that we will not forget. In other words, we schedule our re-traumatization, and as time passes the interval becomes longer. At first we notice that a day or a week or a month has passed. And then we mark the years. And then we mark the decades. Eventually we mark one hundred years. Memory observes a reverse logarithmic scale.

By the time we recall events from the distant past, like a few cities in Europe that celebrate a thousand years of their existence, the significance of the celebration has changed completely from the original event.

And this is the perspective of structuralist history that Braudel pursued. We can see now that these perspectives — the history of the event and the history of the longue durée — and not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are complementary. The event and the longue durée are two perspectives on the same temporal reality.

There is a certain kind of mind that dismisses the longue durée as unreal because its relation to human life is so tenuous. This is the spirit of the famous Keynes’ quote that in the long run, we’re all dead. There is another kind of mind that dismisses the passing and the ephemeral as unreal. This is the venerable tradition of Plato, who called time “the moving image of eternity.”

We cannot, in good philosophical conscience, dismiss either as unreal, or set up either as the exclusive reality. And this is why I have formulated ecological temporality as a structure in which to synthesize the micro-temporality of the event and the metaphysical temporality of the longue durée.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “Ephemera and Pseudo-Events”

  1. Very very nice. A shadow of a shadow is a simulacrum. A simulacrum has no original, so is a copy of a copy. Like the 1930’s circus set for Water For Elephants.

    Synchronized for the second plane to be seen in real time. Nice again.

    What you need to include in your thinking is that time itself has changed. The longue duree is Prout’s Lost Time. More real than real is hyperreal. The bombing of the Twin Towers was an excess of reality coupled with the “suicide” of the Twin Towers. The Symbolic Gift which requires the Counter-gift or suicide if the gift cannot be returned. and it must be returned. Perhaps not right away. And it must be returned excessively. We have not returned the Counter-gift.

    More Baudrillard on this subject.

    In simulated reality there are only Events. Historical time requires linear time as does progress. We no longer are living in linear time.

  2. […] Ephemera and Pseudo-Events (geopolicraticus.wordpress.com) […]

  3. Mr. Nielsen,

    I came across your blog rather randomly and for that I am grateful. Your comments in ‘Ephemera and Pseudo-Events’ won’t leave me alone. I have reread the post several times with varying responses each time. I am conflicted.
    Ordinarily I would not comment until I resolved my conflicting thoughts. However, in this instance that might take quite a while. That said, your words have made an impact.
    I hope you don’t mind that I quoted you in my own blog (missfionna.wordpress.com) but I thought it only polite that I let you know. I look forward to reading more of your words.

    Fionna Larcom

    p.s. Have you ever read ‘Those Crazy Ideas’ by Isaac Asimov? I read this neat little essay as a teenager and experienced vindication for the first time. 😉

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Ms. Larcom:

      Thank you for your comment!

      I am delighted that you have quoted me on your blog (I read your post). I live for those rare moments when I have an impact on another’s thought.

      As for being conflicted and having different responses, well… me too. I wasn’t sure whether I should even have attempted to write that post, since I was not able to provide the definitive formulations that I could feel my mind groping toward unsuccessfully. But if I waited to write until I had resolved by conflicting thoughts, I would probably maintain my silence unto the grave.

      All of these ideas represent unfinished business, to which I will return.

      Very Respectfully Yours,


      PS – I am completely unfamiliar with the Isaac Asimov piece you mention, but I will seek it out.

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