Let’s see if I can make the idea of historical time clearer. As an example, I want to compare the relationship of a parent to a child while the parent is alive and the relationship between them after the parent dies. While alive the parent and the child are both in a position of being response-able in that they are able to respond each to the other in real time. Further, both members of the relationship between parent and child are ethically obligated to think of the other even before one thinks of one’s self. This is especially true when either party is unable to care for one’s self. For the child, the parent is fully and completely response-able for the child from birth, through infancy, and in slowly diminishing functions of response as the child develops from childhood to adulthood. Even though the functions diminish, the ability, even the obligation of the parents response-ability does not. During the period of development, of growth from child to adult, the child is response-able to the parent in many ways. Because s/he is dependent on the parent for life and sustenance, the child’s role is to respond to the parent in ways that please, albeit constantly testing the limits of response-ability. At some point, however, he child, often in his or her own adulthood finds that s/he has to reverse roles with the parent. The child becomes the care giver, offering sustenance to the parent, often in the last stages of the parent’s life. All of this happens in real time, in existential time. In short, existential time is interactive, reciprocal, and synergistic or cooperative. There is discourse between the participants in existential time, a relationship that is fluid and dependent upon direct interaction one with the other.
Historical time begins at the moment of the death or upon the entry to a vegetative state prior to death of one of the parties, generally though not always, the parent. At death existential time ceases to be for the one that has passed on. The dead member of the relationship is no longer able to respond, is no longer response-able. This does not mean, however, that the dead have no influence on existential time, quite the contrary. Paul Simon once wrote:
Time it was, and what a time it was
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
It’s all that’s left you.
Simon’s words mirror the idea of historical time quite well. The death of a person removes that person from existence, from participation in existential time, from being able to respond. There is no possibility of interaction between the living and the dead in the sense that stands up to notions of interactive, reciprocal, and synergistic. The dead, however, exert a strong influence on the living so long as they are remembered, so long as they live in memory. This influence is much like the influence an author has on a reader when all the reader has is the printed page. The transaction the reader has with the words on the page are interactive, reciprocal, and synergistic with regard to the text and not with the author. Jacques Derrida argued that even if the author were able to directly respond to a reader, the author would be creating a new text rather than commenting on the old.
Existential time is fluid, lives in the moment of what Derrida called the trace, is temporal and perhaps temporary. Historical time is fixed, living in the photograph, text, headstone, or artifact that has been left behind. Historical time has a permanence to it that is unchanging, is dependent on the artifacts and not on response-ability. Interpretations may change with regard to historical time, but this change does not occur in historical time, rather it only occurs in existential time.