Chronotope

Chronotope – Linguist and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin Bakhtin uses “chronotope” to mean time-space, or the intrinsic connections between temporal and spatial relationships in a text. The word is also used to mean a specific unit that relates characteristics of space and time, conventionally, within a genre. For example, by this definition, the chronotope of a horror movie is often a single weekend during the summer, in a single suburb. The chronotope of Moby-Dick, meanwhile, is much “longer” and “wider,” beginning in Manhattan, then in Massachusetts near Christmas, then rounding almost the entire world.

Chronotopes may also correspond to particular worldviews and may be inherent in language. Think about the German/English/American week, which is seven days long and has been seven days for many centuries. In ancient Rome, the week was eight days long. The entire calendar revolved slightly differently in German and Roman cultures, and each calendar had a different relationship the physical spaces important to the market or holy days that buttoned each week. (Different places became more important on different days.) Language thus defined time and space in a certain way. Modern chronotopes may include the “commute to work” (an hour or so, typically from a suburban area into an urban one), as well as the “visit back home” (a week of vacation as an adult spent with parents or other family relations who aren’t seen often). Both of these chronotropes give rise to genres or subgenres of literature and cinema.

The point of referencing a chronotope—a joining of space and time—is to intentionally not privilege either space or time on its own. Bakhtin believes it is important to analyze the time and space of literature as a single fabric, so as to downplay neither historical/momentary cultural elements (which must occur somewhere, every time) nor physical loci (which have their own histories).

Wikipedia cites another good example (my paraphrase, my emphasis):

Linguistic anthropologist Keith Basso invokes chronotopes in discussing Western Apache stories linked with places. In the 1980s, when Basso was writing about the stories, geographic features reminded the Western Apache of “the moral teachings of their history” by recalling to mind events that occurred there in important moral narratives. By merely mentioning “it happened at [the place called] ‘men stand above here and there,’” storyteller Nick Thompson could remind locals of the dangers of joining “with outsiders against members of their own community.” Geographic features in the Western Apache landscape are chronotopes, Basso says, in precisely the way Bakhtin defines the term when he says they are “points in the geography of a community where time and space intersect and fuse. Time takes on flesh and becomes visible for human contemplation; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time and history and the enduring character of a people… Chronotopes thus stand as monuments to the community itself, as symbols of it, as forces operating to shape its members’ images of themselves” (1981:84, as cited by Basso 1984:44-45).

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