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Time Is Not a Line

26th of February, 2024

“Whereas capital works to dominate the long term through the short term… our own model seeks to harmonise the rhythms of production with those of nature… We are going to nationalise time.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon

On the 14th of June, 2022, French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon shocked, confused, and delighted various political cohorts by claiming that his regime would nationalise time. It is easy to see how Liberals, sceptical of Mélenchon’s political ambitions, could find this ridiculous. It reads like a parody of the French social democratic obsession with subordinating all the complexities of the firmament to the Republican welfare state. The French have a particularly illustrious history of nationalisation and of the standardisation of weights and measures, but in their pursuit of Metric System reforms it was time alone that resisted. To the chagrin of French radicals, we all still use an essentially Babylonian system.

In his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber makes sure to express how strange he finds it that no one had ever written a history of debt before. He muses that people have written histories of salt, and of shit. A history of salt is really an excuse to write a history of global trade routes, and a history of shit is an excuse to write about the history of medicine and of history civic architecture—how, given the biological ubiquity of the stuff, do we place our settlements and design our cities so that it can be disposed of? Until Graeber’s own book there had only been histories of money, which invariably ignore most of the manifold economic, cultural, religious, and philosophical modes of debt as the engine of economic difference. At their best, they use the issue of coinage to talk about variable access to metals and the land on which it could be mined, informing a materialist history. At their worst, they are an excuse to talk about the succession of faces that appear on coins.

In a short Oxford University Press book The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction, the author admits that “my concern is with calendars as such rather than with their use of meaning; likewise, though much may be written about time as a social construct—and constructor—or about its perception by young and old, by men and women, or by office workers, factory hands, and peasants, there are others more qualified to write it.” Graeber rightly identifies debt as a force of nearly unparalleled moral and political power in the social history of mankind. It is present in the foundational Indian theology of the Vedas. It is the basis for the first definition of justice that Socrates dismantles in The Republic (from Cephalus: justice is speaking the truth and paying one's debts). It is the basis of every single modern state economy in the form of deficit spending. Perhaps the only thing more wasteful than a history of money which ignores this titanic social influence, such that it is in fact a history of coinage, is a history of time which is in fact a history of calendars.

We are tangled in webs of ideas that define the structure of our thinking but seem to be collectively unable to think about them. Time is so ubiquitous a condition of experience, perhaps the most ubiquitous of all, but we struggle even to define it. The Cambridge Dictionary definition doesn’t even bother trying: “the part of existence that is measured in minutes, days, years, etc., or this process considered as a whole.” It is into this sort of world, where such strange substitutions of territory for map are made, that Mélenchon’s statement is born. Alexis Kagame, working on an ethno-philosophical study of Bantu thought, points out that the general grammatical pattern for describing existence in these languages is to describe spatial presence: “it is there” refers to a definite position in space, but not time. He writes “time is a colourless neutral entity, as long as it is not marked or stamped by some specific event.” One struggles to imagine what it would mean for time to not be marked or stamped by events. We might as well say “food is a colourless neutral entity, as long as it is not marked or stamped by specific flavours.” Of course time is a social thing, a thing with colour and texture. Of course, then, we can politicise its conception. Time is not impervious to our ideas about it.

A. A. Milne’s 1928 book The House at Pooh Corner features a game called Poohsticks which has since made its way into the popular folklore of English children’s games. The players all stand on a bridge and simultaneously drop sticks into the upstream side of a river, and then they wait at the other side of the bridge. The winner is the person whose stick first appears from under the other side of the bridge. There is pretty much no strategy involved: like pulling a Christmas cracker, the win condition is incidental to the site specific ritual of playing the game. It is a process which engenders, or is engendered by, the mise-en-scène of a woodland stream with a bridge over it.

Time is often described in metaphor as a stream. But is time the water or is it the riverbed? It is the water itself that produces the immediate flux of the river, and it is the relative high pressure of the fluid that produces the buoyancy the stick needs to stay afloat. But it is only the gradient of the riverbed that causes the flow of the water, producing a relative direction that allows the stick’s coherent movement from upstream to downstream. But the riverbed itself was carved out by the flux of the water. But the water that carved out the bed is not the same water that carries the stick, and it is only the relative plasticity and topography of the Earth that allows the river to form the path it does (a low elevation of loose soil or soft clay), and not some other path. Heraclitus said that no one may step in the same river twice. We can do one better: no one can ever step in a river even once, because the river is not a space occupying object but a series of reciprocal processes that occupies time. It is for this reason (and not, as is commonly thought, the river’s unidirectionality) that makes the river a good metaphorical description for time. Time is not a line, but a reciprocal series of processes: it is the dialectic between the physical contortion of material reality by mass and the collection of ideas that consciousness has (or is capable of having) about it.

This essay is the first part of a longer piece I am writing about the philosophy of time called Against Anonymous Time. When it is finished, this first section will be followed by three more parts. The second part will be a positive description of what time is, to compliment this negative one that says what it is not. The third part will use a general discussion about music and phenomenology to outline how these ideas might be used in writing, and the fourth part will follow that example by applying the ideas to individual pieces of music concretely.

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