thoughts on the weirdnesses of time
While studying for my Masters someone told me, apparently, time is going to be the major subject of the philosophical thought of this century. This does not sound unlikely to me. For a long time thinkers have been perplexed by the elusive nature of time; I was first bitten while studying Kant in my second or third year of undergraduate philosophy when I discovered the idea that time and space are not objectively real but originate in the structure of the mind, like filters to order the glut of data from the universe perceived by our senses into systems and patterns, which allows us to make sense of the world in a meaningful way. And Kant was not the first serious thinker of time, oh no! His theories address earlier models of time constructed Leibniz and Newton, and ideas of the mind-dependence of time can be traced back to Aristotle.
Time, as we understand it in the most regular way – that is, as objective or cosmological or ‘clock-time’ – is linear and travelling in a forward motion from past through present into future. It can be measured by clocks and allows us to ‘place events in sequence’ in order to make sense; in order to derive a cause-and-effect pattern, and in order for us to derive meaning. Without a sense of the past we can’t understand how we came to be where we are now; without a sense of the future we can’t plan ahead. Time is absolutely essential for the possibility of a concept of identity – indeed, Kant proposed that while space has to do with outer experience, time is what structures our inner experience. I think that so far all of this meshes pretty well with a common-sense understanding of time. When considered in more depth, however, time quickly becomes a far messier, more complex and – I think – more interesting phenomenon altogether.
The reason I consider time such an important topic and so worthy of our attention is that when we talk about time we are talking about reality; about how our inner/’subjective’ experience corresponds to an outer/’objective’ reality. Philosophically speaking, the nature of reality is the most important subject of all. For this reason, and simply because it’s fascinated me so much over the last few years, I’d like to try to explain or at least to describe what I call some of weirdnesses of time.
No time like the present
The first thing to ask is whether time exists, and where, and how. I’m not going to get into the history of this question, nor even try to answer, just point out a couple of things (that may well seem obvious).
- The past does not exist. The past is ‘what is no longer’, therefore, it is not.
- The future does not exist. The futureis ‘what is not yet’, therefore it is not.
- The present is infinitely small. It is bordered by the future and the past, and what ‘is’, the present moment, has already passed into the past before we’ve even registered it.
Even the present, as we experience it, is already just a memory of what was present.
Thinkers in deconstruction very much like to quote Shakespeare. They say, ‘the time is out of joint.’
I’ve briefly set out the concept of time understood as objective and quantifiable, though intrinsically connected with inner experience. During the Twentieth Century, with the rise of psychoanalysis and a deepening, more complicated awareness of identity, thought about time acquired a psychological bent. The theories of Freud in particular make strange the notion of identity and our relationship to our-self, when he proposes the existence of a vast psychical world existing below the surface of our identity, as we understand it. We’re probably all familiar with Freud’s theories of repression, infantile sexuality, and so on. As sceptical as you may be of the correctness or relevance of those theories, at their core is a thought that has not gone away or become dated, but remains bubbling away with as much potency as ever. This thought is that what is past for us and long forgotten is not past at all; all that we ever were, and all that we have forgotten, we carry with us and in us, not gone, but waiting for the right signal to come leaping out of the shadows of that murky unconscious to make itself known in the bright light of the supraliminal world.
The point of all this is that what is termed ‘psychological time’ upsets the notion of time as either straightforward or linear. In this view, the past is not passive but potent, it spills into the present and can actually affect our relationship to the objective world. The condition of mourning, for example, could describe how in the experience of loss the past encroaches on the present with such force that it alters the way in which we experience the world. As well as upsetting the seeming linearity of time, psychological time also calls into question the idea that terming the world as ‘objective’ and the self/experience as ‘subjective’ is either a meaningful or accurate distinction. Prior to the developments of the 20th Century including psychoanalysis, they were seen as distinct, contained phenomena. After, the border between world and self become increasingly permeable. It’s not the case that our inner reality is the mere passive subject of the outer world, adapting with more or less success to whatever it throws at us. Rather, according to Freud, the psyche is active, shaping it reality around it.
The other major development to affect our understanding of time was the flourishing of technological innovation throughout the 20th Century. Inventions like the telephone and the telegraph brought new and previously inconceivable possibilities in communication; eradicated the necessity of physical proximity in order to communicate. This necessarily, though perhaps unconsciously, altered people’s understanding of their relationship to the world. Their thoughts, naturally, seemed to turn straight to the supernatural: telepathy and communication with the dead. Communication was accelerated and no longer so reliant on the physical, and the imagination of the people experiencing these first developments carried them to their possible logical ends and significance, as is amply demonstrated in the literature of the time*. Musing that ‘telephones, telegraphs and words are too slow for this age’, Mark Twain prefigures our present day obsession with speeding up the process of communication. With laptops, tablets and increasingly smart mobile technology, communication is quicker, easier, more diverse in media – and, increasingly, an extension of our-selves.
‘Time-space compression’ describes the reduction in our understanding of temporality and spatiality. Space seems reduced because it doesn’t stand in the way of communication, and even physical travel is quicker with faster planes, trains, cars and boats. Time is reduced because it seems to be accelerated; we can do things so much quicker, and not just things like travel, shopping &c., but the production of new technology is also accelerated, and things move into the past more rapidly; certain things are already obsolete the moment they exist. Already tiny, the present shrinks as the future encroaches, and the past becomes a junkyard of useless things to be forgotten, and for good.
Earlier I mentioned that with the inventions of the telephone and the telegraph people began to become a little obsessed with ideas about telepathy. Serious people often with scientific minds were investigating the phenomenon, including Sigmund Freud who was fascinated by it. Telepathy is the ultimate logical end of advance in communication technology, just as Mark Twain dryly suggested that even ‘words are too slow’. The boundary between the physical/outer world and the mental/inner world melts as technology corrodes the border between them. The physical, indeed, begins to only stand in the way; eventually we might even cast off our bodies and become pure mind communicating in space. Without the anchoring, individualising force of the past, we’d merge, thus eliminating the need for communication at all, as one vast collective consciousness.
Of course this is fairly nuts, but a logical end doesn’t have to correspond with our understanding of reality – because our understanding of reality changes. This is, in fact, a fairly timely blog, as I’ve noted that David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don de Lillo’s Cosmopolis is soon to be released. I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between time, technology, world and identity in an exploration of some of de Lillo’s novels, including that one; and Cosmopolis is a novel that is highly concerned with and illustrates much of the above. I’ve no idea what the film will play like, but on the strength of Cronenberg’s direction (Scanners of course!) I reckon it will be well done. So this might be something to look out for.
One area that has fascinated me a great deal is a thought or school of thought which I feel has often been misunderstood, the thought of Jacques Derrida introduced in his 1993 work Spectres of Marx that bears the name ‘hauntology’. It is easy to understand why hauntology is so often misrepresented; the Wikipedia entry on the subject describes the idea as ‘suggest[ing] that the present exists only with respect to the past, and that society after the end of history will begin to orient itself towards ideas and aesthetics that are thought of as rustic, bizarre or “old-timey”; that is, towards the “ghost” of the past.’ In his blog, focusing especially on the use or interest in hauntology in music, James Bridle wonders whether hauntology is really so different from plain old nostalgia. It’s my view that the confusion regarding hauntology has arisen due to too much attention and focus being given to the ‘rustic, bizarre or “old-timey”,’ that is, to the evocation of things we can place physically in the past, retromania, like the recent trend in recycled adverts, images from the past that suggest bygones and a more wholesome time, and not enough attention to the ghost at the heart of the matter.
Hauntology has to do with the ghosts that walk among us, suggesting in contrast to the future orientation of time-space compression a past that is encroaching on the present. It’s a concern with what is dead and done and past. If the present were a room with two doors, one to the future and one to the past, in an age of hauntology the door to the past would be open wide and the past would seem to be almost living with us in the present. It’s paradoxically to do with both reanimation – the knowledge that what is dead is not really dead, but undead, living with and in us as the sum of our present, potentially to rise from the grave of our unconscious at any moment – and mortality – the knowledge that the present moment is already gone and dead the moment it’s registered. For the especially morbid and melancholy, it could be the sense that we, that I myself, am already, in a sense, dead.
Viewed in the context of the time-space compression era, it’s my view that hauntology might be a reaction against the future-orientation of the capitalist worldview, both producing and the result of a hyper-awareness of time. It occurs to me that there are two levels to a reaction. One is the conscious, the one which Bridle hits upon, which looks to the past in search of values or plain old safe familiarity in a scary age and a scarier looking future, like when music recalls the movements of decades past. The other, we are less aware of, because it is the one that’s produced in a kind harmony to our environment. We’re each the product of our environment, a cultural/macro environment as much as an immediate one, and mentally the product as much as anything else. It seems to me (perhaps obviously) that the basic world-understanding of each generation is subtly different to the one which preceded it. Anyway, it’s impossible to say whether this unconscious reaction is the latent feeling and concern of a people at large, visible to and named by a select group of people such as writers and academics who concern themselves with noticing such things, or whether it is a phenomenon invented by those people. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. What we come to consider the psychological concerns of a people in any age has always been best noted by the academics, the artists and the writers, if only because they were the ones to record it, and these concerns do to an extent define an era.
What’s especially weird about this particular aspect of time is that it implies a worldview in which both future and past encroach, since if I’m right to say that hauntology is a reaction, you can’t have a reaction without the initial impetus. Or can you? – Even the cause-and-effect pattern can seem weirdly out of joint. Not only this, but you’d think that if both past and future were encroaching on the present, the present moment would shrink. But it doesn’t. Our hyper-awareness of time makes it swell. Sometimes, in queer moments, you find yourself experiencing time almost in slow motion you’re so aware of it. Or at least I do.
So. So far, there is no time but an infinitely small present, there’s no objective reality, the dead walk among us, and an unchecked capitalist future-orientation will lead to the loss of the individual identity. Time’s paradoxical, often seemingly illogical, and, malleable, despite what the clocks say. But it also seems to balance itself out in a weird way. The truth is I don’t understand time at all; but I like thinking about it.
In this, I’m not really trying to say anything about time, nor to make any propositions about its workings or nature. I write out of curiosity, because the more you delve into a subject like time – even a much smaller topic – the more it unravels and starts to look quite weird. Some could get really quite pessimistic about this, but the idea that the more we begin to understand the more mysterious everything gets is also exciting. The more you think about the weirdnesses in time, the more you notice them.
This being said, two thousand words is a ridiculously short space to try to explore a huge subject like this, so I’d be grateful to know if there are parts of this semi-essay that need clarification or development, or if you have questions that need answering in regard to this – which I probably won’t answer, as I’ve made it my business not to answer, but which I’ll at least certainly think about.
*If you’re interested in the connection between technology and worldview especially as represented in literature, I would thoroughly recommend Pamela Thurschwell’s excellent Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920.
For general stuff on time and the way we understand it, Mark Currie’s Narrative Fiction and the Philosophy of Time is a good introductory text.
For a more thorough article on time in the history of thought, although it’s not the lightest read, this Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article may be of interest .
Andrew Gallix writes well on hauntology in this blog on Guardian Books.
In fiction, I’m bound to recommend the ouvre of Don de Lillo, especially Cosmopolis, The Names, The Body Artist, and Underworld.