“This is (Not) Crisis”: Chronotope, Crisis Narration, and the Metapragmatics of Historical Time

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

In post-independence Timor-Leste, the spectre of crisis looms large. Since its troubled beginnings, the first new nation of the 21st century has been plagued with successive waves of ruinous violence. Declarations or denials of "crisis!" continue to be commonplace. How do such narrative invocations of crisis influence peoples' understandings of the structure of historical time?

What do declarations of crisis do socially and interactionally and how do they work in practice? Drawing on 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Timor-Leste's capital city from 2008-present, this talk examines Timorese mass-mediated political discourse surrounding the "2006 Crisis," an episode of destructive communal violence in which Timor-Leste's government institutions collapsed and one quarter of the population was once again displaced. Using the tools of a semiotically-informed linguistic anthropology, I examine the spatial and temporal organization (or "chronotopes") of Timorese 'crisis narratives' and their social effects.

I investigate how the narrativity of crisis operates on a micro-interactional scale to invoke and transform audiences' understandings of large-scale phenomena such as "national history" and popular judgements of political legitimacy to rule. Drawing together insights from critical historiography and "conceptual history" (Koselleck) with literary theory (Bakhtin) and contemporary linguistic and semiotic anthropology, I propose that "crisis" can be viewed as a "cross-chronotopic operator"-- a metadiscursive device that invites comparative evaluation of disparate "events," "episodes," or "space-times" within the same experiential frame (the event of crisis narration) thereby consequentially transforming the present in its wake.

Gabriel Tusinski is Assistant Professor of socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) interdiscipilinary cluster at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).