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A Positive Picture of What Time Might Actually Be

25th of March, 2024

This essay is the second part of a longer piece I am writing about the philosophy of time called Against Anonymous Time. The first part was published a month ago here, and two more parts will follow in the next few weeks. The third part will use a general discussion about music and phenomenology to outline how the present ideas might be used in writing, and the fourth part will follow that example by applying the ideas to individual pieces of music concretely.

In modern physics ‘time’ is one dimension of the manifold of spacetime, and it cannot be separated from this context without producing tensions in how we understand causality and entropy. This physical time is qualitatively distinct from dimensions of space only insofar as thermodynamics dictates that it must be asymmetric, whereas the dimensions of space are free to be isotropic over very large distances—as indeed they seem to be from our vantage point. Though the above two sentences are true to the best of my knowledge (to the extent that simple explanations of complex phenomena can be true) do they form a compelling description of what time means to us? What relevance do they have to experience? We are better served as thinkers (and as experiencers) to consider time as something other than this physical time—where the two times of phenomenology and physics derive from the same etymological root but which in practice mean different things. When discussing matters related to consciousness and culture, which are only very obliquely touched by the discourse of physics, we are better served to think of time as something that derives from our conscious and cultural models of reality, rather than from the physical substrate itself.

Firstly, in the conscious mode: time is something that enables the motion of consciousness by partitioning experience into strata. The most obvious example of this stratification is the production of a past, future, and present as relative domains. These are not different places or periods as such: I am not positing that there is such a fixed position as a present and that the past and future are extruded out from this place to occupy relative positions on a spectrum from more or less, from closer or further from us or the beginning of the universe or whatever else. The stratification is qualitative, and depends on taking the same real experience and describing it in different ways that serve different cognitive and social functions.

The cognitive function of the past is to serve as a representation of what we understand about the world—as both a mental representation in memory or a material representation as part of the public record of events. The past is a schematic that approximates a set of reasons for why the state of reality is as it is and behaves as it does. For instance, in the present we find vegetables in a fridge because we have memories of buying vegetables, taking them home, putting them in the fridge, and not touching them again until the present moment. The matter that makes up the vegetables was once elsewhere, and the energy that was expanded to grow and move them was once driving other processes, but a series of transformations in the physical substrate produced a material state in which there are vegetables in the fridge. These processes, the physical transformations, are usually what is thought of as “the past”, but the processes themselves are not accessible to consciousness directly. There is a material record that reality keeps—the vegetables are truthfully where they are because of physical processes that happened—but the past as such is the present state of the material in dialogue with the mental schematic in memory which describes the simplified reasons for why the vegetables are where they are.

There is, in the move to subordinate the past and the future to dimensions of the present, a tendency to then describe both as not materially existing; to say that they are entirely ideal constructs. On the contrary, in the case of the past we should emphasise that the past, as a set of reasons, materially exists insofar as those reasons continue to proscribe the present and the future, and that purely ideal constructions do not by themselves have the ability to direct the course of material. Describing the past as “unreal” is only appropriate if we understand the contents of our memories to be actual things, rather than simplified schematics of actual things.

The cognitive function of the future is to assign meaning, causality, and shape to pure possibility. As in the case of prophecy, the future is an ideologically informed model that exists as part of our present consciousness because of the past. When we talk about things that will happen in the future we are equally referring to real events that we expect to happen and to parts of this model. There isn’t usually the same confusion about the relative reality of the future because from our perspective the world state it describes is not yet corporeal. In fact, it never will be so because (for obvious reasons) the material state that will exist is not fully describable by transformations we make to mental schema based on limited sensory impressions or cognitive reasoning. In the short term the differences can be superficial, but as time passes these incongruencies compound to produce indeterminacy.

When we see the world and things in it, like tables and our own hands and the faces of other people, we are making mental representations of a material world which is the way it is because of the things that have happened in a past. The causality of this past has to be deduced and/or invented, and the ways in which different perspectives do this produces multiple coexisting pasts. When we imagine the future, and make plans, we are making complex abstractions about how the interplay of our activity, desires, and causal structures (deduced and/or invented) can make a past into something else. If the past is a crystallisation of the real, physical, material flux that has led us here, the future is a reanimation of that crystallisation into a fertile flow or plane: in more basic and concrete terms it is the trajectory of our extrapolations. The present is not really a position in between the past and future, but the process that creates them and the substrate that supports them. It is the essential property of change and flux that allows us to then confer these qualities of change and flux on the pasts and futures that we create.

“Assume we have stored everything that we have experienced, in a picture catalogue or a book or whatever, how do you find the experiences when you need them? When you see Uncle Joe, is there a little demon which zaps through the storage system in your head finding the proper picture from six months ago so you can say: “Hi, Uncle Joe”? The demon itself would have to have a memory of where it had stored things and what Uncle Joe means. So the problem becomes the memory of the demon. This demon, or any biological system, should have no need to store the past. It will never meet what happened in the past; instead, it needs to know what it can expect in the future. You need to judge at the moment what your actions should be so that you don’t drop off a cliff or get eaten by a tiger, or get poisoned by putting the wrong food in your mouth. You need memory, but you need hindsight and foresight as well.”
—Heinz von Foerster, Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition

Culture is an emergent control mechanism which arises when lots of consciousnesses live and work together. In other words: culture is a tool that allows lots of consciousnesses to share an environment without their limited ability to observe and influence that environment on an individual level to lead to insoluble contradictions. Culture, like time, is a reciprocal series of processes—it is the totality of a group’s representations of themselves and the world, and it is the process of iteration that leads to the creation, maintenance, synthesis and destruction of these representations. The group both creates and is represented by this culture, and is therefore synonymous with it. Consciousnesses can produce shared representations of their environment (like maps or a theory of physics), a set of strategies for influencing that environment (like industrial practices or ideologies), and any number of other kinds of intersubjective artefacts. With this definition, a cultural mode of time can function pretty similarly to the conscious mode. A history is a representation of time that helps a culture understand present states, the future is a model for the scope of their collective possibility, and the present is the material world that serves as the substrate for these representations.

The opening up of national and international markets reduced the capacity of individual communities to conduct the schedules of their lives according to local custom. For instance: the siesta, common to many cultures in warm weather zones like the Mediterranean, the Indian subcontinent, and China, has been on the retreat as Northern European work schedules are exported to the regions where it once enjoyed universal observation. Reading a history of time, we might learn that in 2016 the Spanish Prime Minister announced plans to limit the siesta and shorten the working day to bring Spain in line with the industrial routines of the rest of Europe. We would then read that this apparently seismic betrayal of an Iberian institution was less impressive than it seemed—it was already very rare for people to take siestas in the cities because neoliberal city planning has everywhere contrived to place affordable homes too far away from workplaces for a commute home to be a practical use of rest time. The policy, ostensibly designed to address the Spanish productivity crisis, was an empty aesthetic gesture. Law, an ideal expression of the state, tries to play catch-up with material reality.

The internet’s instant connectivity is the logical conclusion of this exportation of time, as the speed with which modern commerce and communication is expected to respond to minute fluctuations creates a single world time: a simultaneous daytime of constant economic frenzy in which stock brokers in Singapore can respond within minutes to the election of a president in Colombia. The internet sees its readers as alienated cells, bombarded with a salvo of data that unfolds in a tangram deluge. Where images appear in sequence, they do so according to a time that was first unmoored from any communal regularity, then brutally quantised by the modernist fetish for commercial timetables, and then finally contorted into the fractal of an eternal global twilight. Time does not pass, the future does not arrive, and the present is a Frankenstein’s monster of amplified anachronisms.

The many coexisting cultural schema of the world are always in some unconscious competition—the sort of competition that takes place between electrical signals in neural pathways or between silicate crystal lattices in the slow grinding of tectonic plates. If we view the passing of time as a succession of states that are computed iteratively, one state defining its successor, then it is this competition which informs the rules of computation—states develop according to the resolution of contradiction. Northern European labour schedules, which (on a purely technical level) are suboptimal for warmer climates, have been very successful as memes because they rely on the viral exploitation of the mechanisms of a world market. The generality of this world market, which depends on the conscious and planned interpenetration of smaller local and national economies by a transnational bourgeoisie for the purpose of highly plastic import and export strategies, is capable of superseding any more locally adaptive labour cultures even when they are nominally more efficient because of that plasticity. The victory of the nine-to-five over the siesta is not, on its own, more than a mildly unhappy accident. A sequence of these results, snowballing and mutating over the last thousand years, can produce catastrophes. Prospects of this kind might include the final victories of Amazon over libraries, private property over the social commons, and ExxonMobil executives in the present over all living mammals in the future. In short, the victory of barbarism over communism.

It is in the context of a cultural time that we can say that time can be unmoored, or flattened, or quantised. The specific and historically transitory ways in which we organise our labour seriously affect the texture of our days and nights as we experience them. It is the cultural conception of time, where culture coordinates our shared models of the past and the future, that is so amenable to contortions of this type. Culture submits to the authority of production, which is what enables the critic to speak of the redefinition of moments, causalities, and histories.

Further Reading:

Oxymoron: A Philosophy of History in Avant-Garde Jazz
Three Trains of Thought From the Barbican, 7th of October
Hyperoptics: Lessons From Cinematic Vision