Palestine display put together by collection volunteers at the Feminist Library, Sojourner Truth Community Center, London. Photo by @thefeministlibrary, Instagram, March 25, 2024.

Against Historical Totality: Feminist Presents are Disorienting

Julia Alting in conversation with Victoria Browne

Every year, International Women’s Day protests around the world highlight that there is not one version of feminism, but many, with contesting affiliations and pressing questions of solidarity. Ranging from calls for reproductive rights to Woman Life Freedom (Jin, Jiyan, Azadî), an end to femicide and transphobia, to Palestinian liberation: the diversity of women’s lived experiences means feminists connect different struggles. However, this multiplicity is usually not reflected in hegemonic accounts of feminist history with its Eurocentric wave model. I encountered Victoria Browne’s book on nonlinear feminist history (Feminism, Time, and Nonlinear History, Palgrave McMillan, 2014) at the end of my Masters, when I was knee deep in critiques of art history’s basis on linear, teleological, Hegelian time constructs. As part of my PhD project on the possibilities of a nonlinear conception of historical time for art history, I spoke to Victoria about her process of working through questions of time, positionality, and the importance of conceptual clarity. If we acknowledge that linear time is a construct, then what comes after? And how can we conceptualise our participation in history through plural notions of time?

Julia Alting, linear time, digital drawing, 2024
Julia Alting, nonlinear time, digital drawing, 2024

JA I want to start with the sense of pessimism about feminist “progress” today, for example with regards to Roe v. Wade being overturned.

VB I have read some interesting critiques of this temporalisation in US politics as going backwards, back to the bad old days, pre-Roe. Obviously, there is a regression in some sense in that a right that was won or granted has been taken away. This is a reactionary politics and a taking away. Yet a lot of reproductive justice activists and reproductive rights activists are saying that actually, when we formulate what has happened in terms of moving backwards, we are really failing to grasp the extent to which the reproductive and abortion scene has changed in 50 years. Some protesters were turning up with signs with coat hangers, stating: “never again”. Yet, this fails to grasp the changes in the abortion landscape. This discourse of “going backwards” is not helpful, as most reproductive rights activists want to push the idea of abortion as being a kind of commonplace, ordinarily safe procedure, which is partly enabled by technological developments. Yet technological progress means that one of the dangers of a post-Roe landscape is abortion surveillance. If we talk about going back in time to a pre-Roe 1960s era, we aren’t really thinking about what this means for abortion now to become a criminal offence in the United States. Generally, it is just not helpful to think about moving backwards; we are moving towards a particular situation with unique opportunities and threats, emerging from a particular kind of technological landscape that is 2022, not 1969. It is specific to time and place, it is localised. You could almost be more structuralist about it and look at it in terms of a conjuncture, rather than progress or regress: you recover a sense of contingency. Things could have easily gone in a different direction. If you can only think in terms of progress or regress, you are still very stuck in that teleological way of thinking of history as a singular movement forward. 

JA Could you elaborate on how you started thinking about time and feminist history?

VB The book started as my PhD, and when I was trying to think of a topic, I had a very formative conversation with a friend. I told her that I wanted to do a PhD in feminist philosophy, but I didn’t know what to write about. And she asked what the hot topics in feminist philosophy were. I think she was asking me to do a diagnosis of the feminist present, and I just couldn’t do it. And it really was very disorienting. I just felt like I could not answer, and it really made me think about what a question like that even means. From whose perspective are we talking about? But it also made me think about feminism through time and progress, and wonder about where feminism is at today. Where are we on the scale of progress – which is always a universalist one? This is what got me thinking about it.

I had read quite a lot of Jacques Derrida’s work on the archive and thought that it would be really central to what I was going to do, and in 2008-2009, I spent a year reading Gilles Deleuze. I didn’t use any of it[1]. I imagined my project would take a poststructuralist approach (if we can talk about poststructuralism broadly). However,  as I was getting more interested in this idea of historical time, quite obsessively, I realised that it is still a very elusive concept in Derrida’s work; and in Deleuze’s, I just don’t think it is there at all really. I felt like scholars in new materialism, poststructuralism or deconstruction were looking at the conditions for the emergence of something like historical time; I wanted to approach historical time as a pragmatic temporality. Then I read Paul Ricoeur, and honestly, I always associated him with a very conservative kind of philosophy – obviously, he hasn’t really inspired feminist philosophy particularly[2]. It was a huge surprise to me that his work made so much sense to me, and when I got over my prejudice against phenomenology, a lot opened up.

Over the last decade since the book was published, there has actually been a real shift back towards phenomenology, particularly critical phenomenology in the work of Lisa Guenther and Sara Ahmed. Since Joan Scott’s critique of phenomenology and the idea of experience as evidence, feminists have been sceptical about the field and I was really influenced by that. But now I don’t think we can do away with appeals to experience; rather, we can take experience as a starting point. I arrived at critical phenomenology because I am interested in lived experience. I think feminism has to be grounded in lived experience: so the Deleuzian stuff of becoming animal didn’t work for me politically. My more recent book [Pregnancy Without Birth: A Feminist Philosophy of Miscarriage; Bloomsbury, 2022] is also, broadly, critical phenomenology. I did get fed up with the male canon of phenomenology, however, so I don’t read it anymore, to be honest. For my latest project on pregnancy, I just had no interest in reading these guys, I didn’t want to take Derrida’s concept of hospitality and try to make it fit pregnancy. I only read feminist work.

JA How do you approach your own lived experience in relation to your work?

VB Positionality is of course very important in feminism: I would never profess to write from a view from nowhere. I think it is important to be present, but it isn’t my style. A lot of people will write themselves into their work; there is quite a confessional impulse in some feminist academic writing. I appreciate it, and I enjoy reading that kind of work, but I don’t feel particularly comfortable doing it. I don’t know if that is an Englishness compared to a more American style. If I feel like it is very relevant, I always try and say something about myself. In my book on pregnancy and miscarriage I do have a preface where I state my personal investment in the topic. I felt like people would read the book thinking, has she been through this? What is her personal view? I was reminded of Lauren Berlant’s essay, America, “Fat,” the Fetus: I remember reading an interview where they were saying “they’ll be thinking all the way through: is she fat? Is she fat?” There are some topics, if you write on them, people will question your personal relationship to it. With my book on miscarriage, it was important to say where I was coming from, because it explains why I have approached that particular topic in the way that I have. There were other times that it felt less important to put myself in the writing. I wonder, especially as a white woman, I think it is more problematic to occupy that view from nowhere. Yet sometimes it becomes quite a ritual, when people feel compelled to acknowledge their positionality and their privilege, almost like an incantation. And if this doesn’t really affect the work, because it isn’t folded into the work, then it feels performative, like “virtue signalling,” for lack of a better word. So, I haven’t always put myself in the writing, and if somebody wanted to criticise that decision, I would feel that would be legitimate. But this is where I landed.

JA When you say that historical time is often elusive in philosophy, do you mean that it is written less from a perspective of actually ‘doing’ history, that is practising history? 

VB Yes, I think so. In a lot of the work I read, there was no deep engagement with the making of history, whether we mean that in the sense of participating in political action or in the process of documentation. (And obviously those two strands can be one and the same thing.) I also felt that the concept of historical time was elusive in the sense that it was posited. You see the term here and there, but often not used much, and never actually elaborated. When I say elusive, I also mean that I was chasing after it all the time – throughout most of my PhD, I was chasing after a concept that I couldn’t fix down. I wanted to be able to unfold it more, and what I found mostly came down to the conditions for the emergence of something like historical time. But it was always presumed, while I wanted to dwell in that realm. 

Then I found in Paul Ricoeur’s work that something like a sketch of historical time starts to come out. He is really interested in what historical time is and how it is distinct from a phenomenological, personal time. So historical time not being this objective, empty time of events. He is Kantian in the end, so he is all about antinomies and trying to bridge the antinomies. Ultimately, I didn’t like the way he presented it. There is always the gap between the personal and the collective, and historical time becomes the bridge for him. I didn’t think of it that way, in the end, but his works took me really far along. It helped me work through that process of trying to conceptualise this form of time, and get to my own framework of approaching historical time as a composite kind of time. Reading Ricoeur’s work, I saw the different strands that were making up historical time, but he thinks they have to all ultimately be unified under one concept of history; he still wants there to be an idea of historical totality. And I am not sure what that does for us: we can still think in terms of diversity or multiplicity, but for Ricoeur it would always be subordinated to the one, the total [history]. Totality isn’t necessarily the same as unity, but I still feel that it doesn’t help us think about diversity and multiplicity. I didn’t want to take that part of his work on. Yet if we suspend the totality from his work, then I think there are loads of really rich discussions of these different forms of time, like generational time.

JA What I really like about your book is its conceptual clarity. There are many critiques of linear Hegelian teleological time, but the question remains: if we abandon linear time, then what? We can call for ending linear time, but how will we actually do history then?

VB Exactly how I was feeling. 

JA I think we need another step.

VB Yes, and I think it is fine to talk about multiplicity, but it actually helps to specify. That is what we learn from queer theory, right? Yes, you multiply, but you specify and go very particular. I think that is what I wanted to pin down, but it is also how my mind works: I want the clarity. Very often I will start with confusion, though. I will work through something, and then what I come up with at the end, I feel like, oh my God, is this so banal? And I would think everyone knows this already. I don’t think it is banal, though. It is a question of philosophical style: for me, I don’t feel satisfied with a vague gesture. There are lots of ways in which linear time is really useful, so I don’t think you should completely abandon it, you know? I think we need to understand that it is constructed, and then we can ask what it is constructed for. And then, if it is a tool, what can the tool be used for? It can be used in oppressive ways, but it can also be used in really constructive ways. We need it for coordinating particular kinds of political action, for example: “we all need to come together at one o’clock,” stuff like that.

What I really liked in the chapter I did on calendar time was reading all this amazing sociology. Super interesting, and also just really precise in talking about time as a social tool. I started thinking about the idea of a calendar as actually being a nonlinear representation of time, because we are moving not only backwards and forwards, but also up and down across the calendar. As long as we don’t think of it as being time itself, if we just think of it as one perspective, and look at what it can bring us.

JA I feel like this is often the problem, that people assume that linear time is neutral or natural.

VB At the time I was doing the book, there was so much critical work of the idea that generational time is inherently patriarchal or patrilineal, patrimonial. And obviously it is not: that is one way that generational time can be conceptualised or temporalised. I was really enjoying reading lots of Black feminist literary criticisms. I loved reading Alice Walker for that chapter. I feel that in literary writing time is often nonlinear. In the end I felt a bit naïve because I realised that in lots of criticism of novels and poetry people realise this. I gave a talk at a literature conference recently and felt a bit silly – I felt that people really understand nonlinear time in the literary world. 

JA When presenting on nonlinear time, I also often got the feedback that linear time is something we cannot move away from. People would say that a book is always linear, because you read it from beginning to end. However, there are so many different times involved, the events happening in the book and while the person is reading it… People often assume that linear time is such a precondition for human experience that you cannot move away from it.

VB It is such an ingrained idea, I think. And books aren’t always read in that way of course! What I would like to move away from, however, is this idea of linear time versus nonlinear time and just think about forms of linear and nonlinear time intersecting. Just being conscious of how particular temporal structures are themselves constructed and how they work, I think that is what it is to be critically engaged with time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you would reject all forms of linear time. It is just to understand that they aren’t just a backdrop to social life but that they are socially constructed. Linear time might be really useful – when I am teaching, I use shorthand chronologies all the time. It is partly how we organise things. But you have to be aware that there are other ways of organising. So, if you are opting to organise in this way, then ask what the benefits or shortcomings might be. I think it is about being critically aware.

[1] See Jacques Derrida’s Mal d'Archive: Une Impression Freudienne (Éditions Galilée, 1995); for Gilles Deleuze on time see for example Le Bergsonisme (Presses Universitaires de France, 1966) or Cinéma II: L'image-temps (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985).

[2] See for example Paul Ricoeur’s three Temps et récit volumes (Tome I: L'Intrigue et le récit historique, Le Seuil, 1983; Tome II: La Configuration dans le récit de fiction, Le Seuil, 1984; and Tome III: Le Temps raconté, Le Seuil, 1985) or La Mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli (Le Seuil, 2003). 

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. America, ‘Fat,’ the Fetus. Boundary 2, vol. 21, no. 3, 1994, pp. 145–95. JSTOR, Accessed 5 May 2024.

Browne, Victoria. Feminism, Time, and Nonlinear History. Palgrave McMillan, 2014, London.

Browne, Victoria. Pregnancy Without Birth: A Feminist Philosophy of Miscarriage. Bloomsbury, 2022, London.

Deleuze, Gilles. Le Bergsonisme. Presses Universitaires de France, 1966, Paris.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinéma II: L'image-temps. Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985, Paris.

Derrida, Jacques. Mal d'Archive: Une Impression Freudienne. Éditions Galilée, 1995, Paris.

Ricoeur, Paul. La Mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli. Le Seuil, 2003, Paris.

Ricoeur, Paul. Temps et récit, Tome I: L'Intrigue et le récit historique. Le Seuil, 1983, Paris.

Ricoeur, Paul. Temps et récit, Tome II: La Configuration dans le récit de fiction. Le Seuil, 1984, Paris. 

Ricoeur, Paul. Temps et récit, Tome III: Le Temps raconté. Le Seuil, 1985, Paris.


Victoria Browne is a feminist philosopher with specific interests in temporality and reproductive justice. She is a Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at Loughborough University. Prior to this, she lectured at Oxford Brookes University from 2013-2023, and also held the position of Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University, New York, from 2017-2018. She has won funding awards from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust. To date, Victoria has published six books, among them Feminism, Time and Nonlinear History (Palgrave McMillan, 2014), Vulnerability and the Politics of Care: Transdisciplinary Dialogues, co-edited with Jason Danely and Doerthe Rosenow (British Academy Conference Proceedings series, Oxford University Press, 2021) and Pregnancy Without Birth: A Feminist Philosophy of Miscarriage (Bloomsbury, 2022). Her work appears in various journals including Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy and Signs: a Journal of Women in Culture and Society. She has also been on the editorial collective for the journal Radical Philosophy since 2012.

Julia Alting is a PhD candidate at the Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG), where she researches nonlinear approaches to art historical time. Her research and writing have appeared in publications like Metropolis M, Rekto/Verso, Aziatische Kunst and Trigger. She has given presentations at institutions including the American University (Washington DC), the University of Copenhagen and Spui25, and at museums like the Rijksmuseum and the Cobramuseum. She has organised symposia and events in collaboration with the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW), the Association for Young Dutch Art Historians (Jong VNK) and the National Research School for Art History (OSK). Her research has among other grants been supported by the Jo Kolk Study Fund, the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (KNIR) and the Leiden International Student Fund (LISF). She teaches on decolonial and feminist theory in art history, and previously studied cultural studies at Amsterdam University College, New York University, Leiden University, and SOAS, University of London.

No items found.
Reading time

Related articles

No themes were found

Related themes