Tense Future

A conversation about literature's engagement with the forms and temporalities of war


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Philosophy / Theory
  • Politics / Economics

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought and the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania are pleased to announce "Tense Future," featuring Paul Saint-Amour in conversation with Sarah Cole and Eric Hayot on Thursday, April 23, 2015, from 6 – 7:30 p.m. The event celebrates the release of Saint-Amour's book Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford University Press, 2015).

What is the time of war trauma? The field of trauma studies emphasizes the post-traumatic symptoms that can occur in the wake of severe experience. But can the anticipation of violence inflict violence as well? Tense Future argues that it can—that twentieth-century war technologies and practices, particularly the aerial bombing of cities, introduced non-combatants to a coercive and traumatizing expectation. During wartime, civilians braced for the next raid; during peacetime they braced for the next war.

The pre-traumatic stress they experienced permeates the century's public debates and cultural works. The coercive psychodynamics of mass dread commonly associated with the Cold War emerged as early as the 1920s, a decade we have long mis-recognized as roaring only with postwar gaiety. During those years, the memory of one world war was already joined to the specter of a second, future one, framing the period in real time as an interwar era whose terminus in global conflict seemed, to many, foreordained.

This apparent foreclosure of the future elicited dire responses: prophecies of societal collapse, visions of the destruction of the written archive, and military theories that capitalized on both prospects. But it also produced kinds and intensities of critique that arise precisely when the future appears barred—radical critiques of the war and gender system, for example, that took imminent war as the occasion for warding off the prospect of a politically and sexually retrograde peace. And it helped provoke some of modernism's most celebrated works of fiction, encyclopedic novels that pitted their massive reach and formal play against the scale of total war.

read more

"Writing in early 1940, Walter Benjamin gave us that unassimilable image, the angel of history, facing the mounting debris pile of the past while being blown, backwards and helplessly open-winged, into the future by the storm of progress. Whether in protest against sovereignty's attempt to monopolize depictions of the future, or simply because the war unfolding as he wrote was the only horizon he could imagine, Benjamin says little in "On the Concept of History" about the temporal direction in which the angel is blown. Like that divine messenger, he turns his back on the turned back of the future, hoping perhaps to disenchant it and put the prophets out of business while still leaving the messianic door ajar.

But we know now that an angel of the interwar could not face only the past; that its gaze would travel back and forth between history's singular catastrophe and the future through which the unprecedented might at any moment arrive, whether it take the shape of the Messiah, the revolution, or the disaster. And we know that such an angel, pinioned between one storm it physically remembers and another it cannot not imagine, would keep watch over the making of archives, the burying of time capsules, the writing of strenuous and broken encyclopedias. We might like to put that trapped figure behind us or inter it in archives of its making. But the normative time of the state remains premised on war's seriality. We are interwar angels, blown sideways by a storm into a storm."

— Paul Saint-Amour