"International Relations and the Problem of Time" by Andrew Hom - a book review
Slaying the Dragon of Time: Theory as Narratives of Time in International Relations
The clock talked loudly. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked. – Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing” (1956)
Once upon a time…
…or so at least begin many of our most cherished childhood fairy tales. Introducing a classic story with these four simple words has been a wheel so often re-invented that its power and utility can occasionally be forgotten. “Once upon a time,” serves to transport the listener/reader to a different time and place, preparing them for the story that is soon to follow. Indeed, that the phrase is a near-universal introduction to many beloved stories of old serves as a testament to its ability to create a distance between the listener and the events of the story. We need not worry about whether knights currently slay dragons or if some very miraculous individuals might still weave thread into gold because the storyteller has reassured us that these events simply occurred “Once upon a time.” Indeed, the true power of the phrase may lie deeper still. It may be said not only to prepare the listener/reader for the story, but in so doing, enables them to more thoroughly comprehend the world in which the story takes place. Upon hearing “Once upon a time,” not only are we prepared to hear of the exploits of dragon-slaying knights or gold-weaving spinstresses, but we are made to better comprehend such incomprehensible exploits. Time itself thus becomes an instrument of the storyteller; a tool to enable the listener to better make sense of the story. What Andrew Hom illustrates in his sometimes reflective and sometimes provocative text, International Relations and the Problem of Time, is that theorists in the field of International Relations (IR) starkly resemble such storytellers; their theories, their stories; and time, an instrument of their creativity. Hom thus seeks in his first monograph to investigate this relationship between time and world politics. In doing so, Hom provides an approach by which we might better understand what role time and temporal dynamics play in IR and where such concepts might originate in the politics of human action and discourse.
Why Time Matters [in IR]
The first challenge for the modern theorist of time in IR, however, is in convincing students of a field that has neglected any extensive theorizing about the concept that ‘time’ (or indeed ‘times’) are relevant to the study of IR at all. Hom appears quite cognizant of this fact and thus confronts this challenge head-on by observing that time is by no means a “new” concept in IR. Historically, from Nazi Germany’s development of Blitzkrieg warfare as a solution to the temporal limitations confronted by its wartime strategy to the “Doomsday Clock” developed by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board, symbols of time and examples of the geopolitical effect of temporal dynamics abound in the historical record.
Building upon the practice of politics, in Part Two Hom illustrates that much of IR´s analytical history, not to mention many of the theoretical anthologies that have proliferated therein, might be read as the variegated operationalization of different conceptions of time and the ways in which temporal dynamics operate to shape history. From the proclaimed “timelessness” of those most social scientific theories of IR (neopositivist theories) to historical institutionalist explanations which have openly embraced history and the forward march of time as relevant variables, Hom posits that all IR methodologies have at least something to say about the role of time in politics, even if only after some lengthy interrogation. Having thus created a space for an investigation into time, Hom’s project is to better understand this hidden relationship between Time and the study of IR.
The End of Time as We Know It
“Time is both ripe and a source of decay. It reveals truth but kills all its students. It is or is not on our side. It is a river or a commodity. It is something abstract and shaped—curvilinear, unirectilinear, a layered manifold, extensive or punctual.”
To that end, Hom sets the stage for his own theory of narrative timing by engaging first and foremost with the other relevant literature in the field – namely, “the temporal turn in IR". Yet, while International Relations and the Problem of Time is certainly not the first attempt of its kind to posit a relationship between time and IR, Hom observes that the research on the subject has heretofore failed to advance the debate to the question that truly lies at the heart of time studies: from where does a particular concept of time come? Instead, according to Hom, much of contemporary time scholarship has been confined to a “Prison of [Its] Own Making”. This conclusion is built upon two observations of the current literature on time.
Firstly, the field of IR has been stifled by the “discursive ubiquity” of the concept of “time”. Temporal terms and vocabulary abound in both conversational and political language, but without consistency. Hom illustrates this ambiguity in the appropriate language of time with reference to two different cultures of time: “Western Standard Time” and “the Problem of Time” (otherwise known as “problematic time”). Western Standard Time is that notion of time, which perhaps comes first to mind when asked about what “time” means. It is that constant forward march of the biophysical world in equal, measurable parts (seconds, minutes, hours, etc.), perfectly captured by the steady clockwise movement of the hands on a clock. Problematic time, on the other hand, “evokes a much older transcultural symbol of time as a problem or naturally malevolent force confronting human affairs – a bringer of disorder and chaos.” It is that time that brings with it uncertainty about the “future.” It is that time that brings with it new problems and troubles for human society. It is that time which works against us, and which we are constantly working against:
“The problem of Time refers to tropes, symbols, and assumptions that cast Time per se as a source of disorder, dissolution, and death. On this view, time passes naturally, and carries human projects and lives away in its wake.”
The trouble for the theorist of time then comes in distinguishing between these two understandings of time beyond the simple heuristic presented here. After all, as Hom observes, both conceptualizations of time and temporal dynamics are often employed interchangeably under the broader umbrella of “Time.” In other words, IR scholarship simply lacks the appropriate philosophical and analytical vocabulary to adequately document, differentiate and then discuss what has become “an increasingly prolific and variegated menu of times and temporalities.”
Secondly, while the “temporal turn in IR” has indeed accomplished a great deal in improving our understanding of the relationship between time and IR, much of the recent scholarship has failed to advance the debate on time to the origins of time(s) itself, instead often simply favouring one or more “master concepts” of time. In the pursuit of understanding the role of time in IR, theorists of time have limited the analytical scope of the research to only a few concepts or manifestations thereof. Yet, “where these ‘original’ times and temporalities come from or what justifies their use over and above other possible master concepts does not typically receive much discussion, leaving these accounts dependent on whether we find their choice of foundational time(s) plausible and intuitive.”
The aggregate of these challenges then is simply that a new approach is necessary; one which not only reveals the relationship between time (or different conceptualizations thereof) and international politics but is able to account for the proliferation of different times and temporalities in the everyday practice of IR. Enter, a theory of narrative timing.
From Time to Timing: Storytelling as the Human Condition
Perhaps the most striking feature of International Relations and the Problem of Time lies in its ontological reorientation of the field from the study of time to the study of timing – defined as the active effort to order change continua in a way that makes the human social [and political] experience manageable and livable. Indeed, for Hom, at the heart of the problems for contemporary time scholarship lays its focus on “time”: the noun, the thing, the object, the entity. Yet, drawing upon Norbert Elias’ An Essay on Time, Hom posits that “all references and experiences of time and temporality stem from – and refer back to – underlying timing activities.” Put simply, instead of conceptualizing time as a static concept, the study of timing focuses on the process of change and adaptation in human life, thereby ascribing an active role to actors in society who cope with changes in the world around them by adjusting their conceptions of time.
Beginning then with such “timing activities”, the basic “formula” of time begins with what Hom calls a “will to time.” An adaptation of Nietzsche’s “will to power” (Wille zur Macht), the will to time captures the basic human desire (or even instinct) for order when confronted with chaos and disorder. Thus, when presented with a series of disordered changes, Hom observes, all individuals seek to make sense of the world by ordering all such changes with respect to some standard (usually, one of the presented change continua). This timing standard, however, is not merely left as some internal preference for each individual. Instead, as societies have grown to become more and more complex, requiring the organisation and coordination of multiple individuals, applied timing standards are communicated (and more importantly, justified) through narrative. Thus, at the heart of Hom’s approach is a recognition of storytelling as a fundamental feature of the human condition. Each and every human being communicates their understanding of the world and their vision for the current (and even proper) order of things through narrative. In so doing, they communicate a particular timing standard, which is then either accepted or rejected by the broader society that they live within. As specific timing standards thus become accepted, and then more and more frequently used, their usage reinforces their justification, and those very timing indexicals become reified and naturalized past the point of being simply a possible standard to order human life, and instead becoming the standard to organize society. It is at this point, of course, that the original timing activities which generated, justified, and reified these indexicals are forgotten, and they appear entirely natural to the human experience, eventually earning the abbreviated name: “Time.”
As with all stories, however, there appears a villain – this one resurrected: the Problem of Time. As dominant timing structures (“times”) are erected to order society, they bring with them challenges from the margins that question the appropriateness of the given timing standard to the lives and activities of the relevant population. The natural result are calls for some other timing standard according to which society should be ordered. Thus, the cycle repeats – this time, however, with some dominant “Time” awaiting a challenger’s ascent.
What then does all this mean for IR? Quite simply, for Hom, all theory is an act of timing through narrative. Each theory and methodology in IR, regardless of its particular ontological assumptions, expresses some preference for ordering the objects of international politics in a particular way. This ordering of things according to some standard becomes an act of timing. Thus, in Hom’s account, theory itself becomes a narrative of time. In turn, by examining the ways in which temporal dynamics are communicated and proliferated through the narrative of political discourse, we can materially study the “timing activities” that give way to particular timing standards and, eventually, different ways of timing geopolitics.
Back to the Future: The Problem of Time in International Relations
Perhaps the principal contribution of International Relations and the Problem of Time is that it reunites the study of time in IR with the study of empirical geopolitics that has historically defined the field. By re-materialising the abstract and returning the metaphysical subject of time to the empirical domain of political analysis, Hom opens the door for theorists in IR to engage more deeply with their own temporal assumptions, without departing from the core subject matter of their concern and engaging too seriously with the metaphysics of time. Indeed, in some sense, the true contribution of Hom’s first monograph is in its clever methodological solution to resolve the linguistic ambiguity of time through the source of that ambiguity itself: its empirical ubiquity. Thus, Hom’s attempt to “dissolve the aporia of time” with reference to the material, observable behaviours of individuals within a particular discursive space “de-philosophises” a subject that has thus far been rendered one of IR’s most metaphysical discussion points.
Furthermore, Hom’s project not only proffers an innovative look at the relationship between time and IR, but it also fundamentally re-envisions the entire field as a timing project. Thus, in the vein of critical theory more broadly, the theory of narrative timing posits that each and every theoretical work in IR, whether or not explicitly dealing with temporal symbols and dynamics, is either reinforcing or challenging some timing standard or structure. Hom thus encourages IR theorists to look more closely at their own uses of time in building and defending their theoretical models. Yet, it is here that the analytical implications of Hom’s text become less clear.
While within the field of time studies, Hom’s theory of narrative timing certainly ventures down the path less travelled, where this path leads and what it should mean for IR theorists more broadly is unclear. Quite understandably perhaps, Hom spends the bulk of the book advocating for this new approach to time studies and demonstrating its application. However, somewhat perplexingly, despite making the case that all IR theories are narratives of timing, the implications of this philosophical discovery on the practice of IR are left unsaid. Perhaps, this work is better left to the future. Still, students of IR are left to wonder what sort of impact Hom’s text ought to make on their own understandings of geopolitics.
Nevertheless, the contributions of Hom’s work ought not to be overlooked. As a groundbreaking reorientation for what it means to study time, as well as a call to action for all theorists in IR to be more cognizant of the way in which we speak of time and temporality, it serves as a constant reminder that, consciously or otherwise, our own works and theoretical discourses are littered with Once upon a time’s.
Elias, Norbert. An Essay on Time. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007.
Hom, Andrew. International Relations and the Problem of Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
Hom, Andrew and Ryan Beasley, “Constructing Time in Foreign Policy-Making: Brexit’s
Timing Entrepreneuers, Malcontemps, and Apparatchiks,” International Affairs 97, no. 2 (2021): 267-285.
Olsen, Tillie. Tell Me a Riddle. London: Virago Press Limited, 1980.
 Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle (London: Virago Press Limited, 1980)  Andrew Hom, International Relations and the Problem of Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).  Hom, International Relations and the Problem of Time, 3.  Id.., 1.  See id.., 111-231.  Id.., 28.  Ibid.  Id., 9.  Id., 11.  Id., 28.  Id., 29.  Norbert Elias, An Essay on Time (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007).