American public culture is obsessed with crisis. Political polarization, economic collapse, moral decline—the worst seems always yet to come and already here. Tense Times argues that the ways we discuss these crises, especially through verb tenses, not only contribute to our perception and description of such crises but create them.
Past. Present. Future. These are the three principal verb tenses—the category of syntax that allows us to discuss time—that account for much of what is written about our crisis culture. Lee M. Pierce invites readers to expand their syntactic inventory beyond tense to include aspect (duration) and mood (attitude). Doing so opens new possibilities for understanding crisis discourse, as Pierce demonstrates with close readings of three syntaxes: the historical present, the past imperfective, and the retroactive subjunctive. Each mode produces a different experience of crisis and can help us understand our current political reality.
The book investigates a dozen widely circulated discourses from the past decade of US political culture, from Beyoncé’s controversial hit single “Formation” to the presidential campaign slogans of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, from the dueling rallies of Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart at the National Mall to the Ground Zero Mosque controversy and the 2007–2008 bailout. Taking a comparative approach that integrates theories of syntax from rhetorical, literary, affect, and cultural studies as well as linguistics, computer science, and Black studies, Tense Times suggests that the public’s conjuring of crisis is not inherently problematic. Rather, it is the openness of that crisis to contingency—the possibility that things could have been otherwise—that ought to concern anyone interested in language, politics, American culture, current events, or the direction this country is headed.
“Pierce’s approach to cultural analysis brings together rhetorical and critical theory in fresh ways while always attending to close reading and careful textual analysis of cultural events.”
—Sharon J. Kirsch, author of Gertrude Stein and the Reinvention of Rhetoric
"Lee M. Pierce integrates the disciplines of grammar and of rhetoric in this ground breaking new volume. And she uses that scholarly integration to show how some productive research may inform our current cultural and political crisis, in her book Tense Times: Syntax and Suprise in American Crisis Culture. This book will be of value to scholars in English, Linguistics, Communication, Rhetoric, and Politics at the very least. Its readability will make it useful in the classroom as well."
—Barry Brummett is the author of A Rhetoric of Style, Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture, Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, Rhetoric of Machine Aesthetics, The World and How We Describe It, and Rhetorical Homologies.