Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Modeling Time

The ruler of history

Daniel Rosenberg

At a glance, there isn’t much to a timeline, a simple line marked at regular intervals with dates. Timelines are everywhere—in newspapers, textbooks, websites, anywhere that diagrams are used—and for good reason: they are powerful and intuitive. The timeline is debugged, as data theorist Theodor Nelson might say.

Yet, in the long history of data graphics, the timeline is still relatively new. Ancient empires inscribed tablets with their rulers’ names. Early Christian scholars composed chart books that aligned the histories of different civilizations. Medieval monks painted scrolls bearing elaborate family trees stretching to Adam and Eve. Measured lines, too, have been common since antiquity. But the simple convention equating historical time with measured space did not become common until the middle of the eighteenth century, and its emergence, in works such as the 1765 Chart of Biography by the natural philosopher and theologian Joseph Priestley and the 1786 Commercial and Political Atlas by the economist William Playfair, goes hand in hand with modern ways of thinking about history. In the twenty-first century, it is common to think of ourselves as postmodern, but if the continuing power of the timeline is any indicator, modern may still do the trick.

The world of contemporary art is crowded with timelines, too. They grace the walls of exhibitions and the pages of catalogues, sometimes with beautiful results, as in the famous cover diagram from the 1936 MoMA exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art.” Chronologies of various sorts have even insinuated themselves into the work of artists, including Ad Reinhart, George Maciunas, Joseph Beuys, Hans Haacke, On Kawara, Ant Farm, Paul Chan, and Sarah Fanelli, who splashed a timeline of artists across the entry walls at Tate Modern. Yet for all the vibrancy of these artifacts, none presents a thorough challenge to the simple, linear form. The timeline is powerful in part because it is inconspicuous. In another context, you might call something like that culture.

But timelines are not as uncomplicated as they appear. Consider a timeline with no qualities, one found in a common university history textbook from the United States. A thin vertical line runs from top to bottom of a printed page. A whisper below the top, a small perpendicular hatch crosses the main line with the label 3000 BC. Below that at regular intervals, ten more bold hatches labeled with dates: 2500 BC, 2000 BC, and so on, ending at 2000 AD. Between each pair of bold hatches are four fine ones indicating centuries. There are no events on this timeline, only a title: “A Chronological Context for Western Civilization.” That’s all there is to it. It is intentionally blank; students are meant to fill in facts from the textbook.

And yet, there is so much here.

In the first place, this timeline is straight like a ruler. As such, it sets in place an expectation of regularity and directionality. Additionally, it puts the study of history into the realm of quantification. The textbook contains many facts. Whatever kind they are, these facts become history through their association with the “chronological context” of Western civilization. In a tour de force, Western civilization transforms facts into history even as these facts constitute Western civilization. Though a timeline may be used in a way that is discontinuous with the purposes of narrative, it is used here, in a typical manner, to draw chronology and narrative together.

At both top and bottom, a final hatch mark intersects the vertical line a short distance before it ends. With this formal element, the diagram asserts that history continues before and after the chronological segment in a larger flow of time. Perhaps time has a beginning. Perhaps it will end. But not for the purpose of the histories we teach university students. Early timelines were formulated in an eschatological context. Here, however, we are formally agnostic about both ends and origins.

And then there is the question of where to begin and end the line. Conventionally, 3000 BC is associated with the birth of writing in the West, in Sumer. Beginning the timeline at 3000 BC is a way of indicating that the history of civilization is also the history of writing. The single, straight line also provides a geography of civilization, placing the origin of the West in what is now Iraq. The end date, 2000 AD, does work as well, serving as a visual balance and supporting the apparent conceptual neutrality of the numerical array.

Finally, there is the chronological numbering, which turns out to be less tidy than one might expect. Our timeline looks like a standard ruler, but because it accurately represents conventional chronological time, it contains a strange variation: there is a number missing at the BC/AD divide. At the center of the diagram where you would expect to find a zero, as on any line of integers going from positive to negative, appears the number one, representing the year one. Our common system of historical dates has no year zero. This omission is stimulating because it reminds us that that our system of dates is a system of names, that moving from chronology to chronology is a kind of translation, that chronological systems are languages originating in cultures. Even today, there are multiple dating conventions in the world. There is a Jewish calendar, a Muslim calendar, a Chinese calendar, and so on. In Europe, it is quite recently that historical calendars have been mutually synchronized. England adopted the Gregorian calendar only in 1752, when with a stroke of the pen, eleven days disappeared from the calendar and Wednesday, September 2nd was followed by Thursday, September 14th.

We should also observe the use of dates before and after Christ. By the late twentieth century, the BC/AD terminology was already antiquated. American textbooks were coming to favor the terminology of the “Common Era”: BCE/CE. But BC/AD may be more telling, highlighting the cultural basis of a system that has more converts than Christianity itself. The BC/AD dating tells us that this textbook belongs to the last throes of a dying chronological nomenclature.

All of this is what social theorist John Law would call a mess or a non-coherence. The practice of drawing time together creates a semblance of conceptual consistency, yet it also supports and authorizes a diversity of time-reckoning practices. Such practices follow alternative and interacting paths that may be cyclical or branching, or even follow another logic altogether. Consider two mundane examples that are part and parcel of conventional chronological sensibility: the calendar, cyclical on the order of the week, month, and year, or the genealogy, which follows a tree structure. The fact that we are able to draw and think time through these mechanisms and through the linear timeline without cognitive dissonance suggests the strength of each, the power of culture to synthesize discontinuous models, and a happy flexibility in our ways of seeing. It points to the power of the linear model as epistemological strategy and its weakness as a representation of the multiple ways in which we imagine and experience historical time. 

Daniel Rosenberg is professor of history at the University of Oregon. With Anthony Grafton, he is author of Cartographies of Time (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010). His current work concerns the history of data.

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