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turning points - the American conversion story


What would history be like if you knocked out the years, days, weeks, centuries? How would we show, for instance, change? In one sense, philosophical history does just that – it rejects the mathematical symbols of chronology as accidents of historical structure that have functioned to place people in time for various interests – religious, political, existential – but that veil the real pattern of change (and blocks of changelessness). These are the crutches of the historian, according to the philosophical historian, who brings a sort of human need – even a servile need – into the telling of history. Instead, a philosophical history will find its before-after structure in the actual substance of history, under the assumption that there is an actual substance to history.

In the case of the most famous philosophical history, Hegel’s, a before and after, a movement, is only given by the conceptual figures that arise and interact in themselves. To introduce a date, here, is to introduce a limit on the movement of the absolute. A limit which, moreover, from the side of the absolute, seems to be merely a superstition, the result of a ceremony of labeling founded on the arbitrary, and ultimately, on the fear of time itself, that deathdealer.


Andrew Abbott, in his book, Time Matters, issues an interesting defence of “narrative” as a legitimate sociological method, which is founded on understanding time outside of a state or cult ordained inventory. The chapter on turning points is especially rich.


“Note that this "narrative" character of turning points emerges quite as

strongly in quantitative and variable-based methods as in qualitative or

case-based ones. If quantitative turning points could be identified merely

with reference to the past and the immediate present, algorithms locating

turning points could beat the stock market. It is precisely the "hindsight"

character of turning points-their definition in terms of future as well as

past and present-that forbids this.


Given this narrative quality, we can reformulate and generalize our con­

cept of turning point to include simpler "bends" in a curve. What defines a

turning point as such is the fact that the turn that takes place within it con­

trasts with a relative straightness outside (both before and after).”


The turning point is definitionally linked to the “new” and its value. The archetypal American turning point, I think, is usually a conversion story. These stories are oddly powerful – x describes, say, being a leftist and then confronting a reality that makes him or her realize that leftism is bogus. In this story, what seems to be told about is x’s variable judgment, which one would think would disqualify x from analysing leftism or rightism. But that is not how the story signifies. It signifies as a conversion experience, an account given from beyond some turning point. It doesn’t imply the continuity of the foolishness of x, but x’s newfound wisdom. These cases can be found throughout our newspapers, tv, movies, novels, poems, etc. American conversion is a genre in itself.


Abbott digs into this a bit in his own way: “There is for the individual actor a curious inversion of " causality" and "explanation" in the trajectory-turning point model of careers or life cycles.  From the point of view of the actor moving from trajectory to trajectory, the "regular" periods of the trajectories are far less consequential and causally important than are the "random" periods of the turning points. The causally

comprehensible phase seems unimportant, while the causally incomprehensible phase seems far more so.”


I think this says much about affect and time. But time is short, and I have other non-turning points to turn to.