What War Does to a Survivor’s Sense of Time: The Spatiotemporal Self After Violence in Tajikistan

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What War Does to a Survivor’s Sense of Time: The Spatiotemporal Self After Violence in Tajikistan

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War is so forceful it often seems recent to its survivors regardless of when it occurred. The violent past is alive and lies in front. To understand why I develop a new paradigm called the spatiotemporal self. Although my research is about time and war, my intention is that this paradigm will be of general interest to the social sciences. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted primarily in the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, this interdisciplinary research examines experiences of a civil war that occurred 20 years before and a one-day battle that occurred during the fieldwork. The spatiotemporal self is a theoretically novel alliance of time and self, brought together by visual perspectives intrinsic to both. Time is conceived of using spatial construals of time — temporal span (T-span), sequence time (S-time), and most importantly, the internal and external variants of deictic time (D-time). The self is conceived of as having four levels that emerged in evolution, from oldest to newest: the protoself, core self, minimal self, and narrative self. The first three levels combine to use a pre-reflective mode of self-consciousness that emphasizes a phenomenological, experiential processing of events; these three levels use a first-person visual perspective of the self. The narrative self level uses a reflective mode of self-consciousness that emphasizes the conceptual meaning of events in the context of broader life and society; this level uses a third-person visual perspective of the self. Because the spatiotemporal self is an alliance of cognitive processes, at the cognitive level it is a human universal. Ethnographic respondents were asked which visual perspective of the self they used to recall events important to them from the violent past. A first-person visual perspective of the self predominated in which respondents focused primarily on their experience of an event’s concrete details, with a tight focus on the time of the event. Internal D-time was indicated by the past being alive and in front. Respondents were also asked to switch visual perspectives to use the third-person visual perspective, so they could see themselves in the same event from an external perspective using their mind’s eye. Respondents then discussed the event using external D-time and S-time, focusing on the event’s conceptual meaning for self and society. Respondents’ phenomenological accounts of the past exhibited a complex, multilayered temporal structure. On the one hand, respondents layered time in them conceptually, differentiating past from present. On the other hand, they flattened time in them phenomenologically, almost erasing distinctions between past and present. Both ways of knowing the phenomenological past were equally practical to the respondent, despite appearing analytically incongruous. Moreover, attributions of what happened to respondents in their phenomenological accounts were made under the rubric of the minimal self, despite being articulated by the narrative self. Finally, some phenomenological accounts of the past were symbolic, embedding a generative, conceptual message. A tentative finding is that the presence of temporal layers and generative elements in phenomenological accounts suggests that internal thought might contain generative constructs independent of linguistic expression.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2020. Major: Anthropology. Advisor: William Beeman. 1 computer file (PDF); xv, 444 pages.

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Lynch, Damon. (2020). What War Does to a Survivor’s Sense of Time: The Spatiotemporal Self After Violence in Tajikistan. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/216862.

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