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MONTHLY BLOG 76, HUMANS AS COLLECTIVE TIME-TRAVELLERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Particularly in troubled times, it’s enticing to think of escaping not just to another place but to another time: a temporal bridge over troubled waters. In the old folk stories, an individual falls very soundly asleep … and then awakens, to his or her surprise, in another epoch completely. What a relief? Or perhaps not. There’s a myriad of potential destinations both past and future.

Sleeping Beauty, cursed by an evil fairy, lies dormant for one hundred years.1 (Sometimes her hand-maids sleep alongside her too). When she awakes, the Beauty is as young and bonny as ever. The world has grown older but she has not. Moreover, she is being kissed by a young and handsome prince (technically, one hundred years her junior), with whom she falls in love. The story is charming, with many potential meanings, both erotic and otherwise. But what if (a) she recoils from the kiss? or (b) she suddenly shrivels and dies, since she must be well over one hundred years old. That fate befalls ‘She’ in Rider Haggard’s She (1886): the enigmatic and imperious beauty has lived, by dark magic, for endless aeons but, once her real age catches up with her, she ages with extreme rapidity and expires.2 So much for tarrying outside Time.

2017-04 No1 sleeping beauty william breakspeare
In another variant from an American author in 1819, Rip Van Winkle drinks too heavily and falls asleep for over twenty years. (Hangovers sometimes feel like that). But no-one is kissing him welcome. Van Winkle wakes to find that his beard is long and matted, his rifle rusty, his neighbours changed, and his faithful dog disappeared.3 The story is an updating of a very old folk tale, which appears in many variants in different cultures. It makes a personal drama about change over time. Rip falls asleep as a subject of George III but awakes to find that he an American citizen. There is another change too. His ‘nagging’ wife is dead. In the tale, other ‘henpecked’ husbands in the village wish that they had a similar chance to escape. Ho ho (sarcastically): the benefits of time travel.

2017-04 No2 RipvanwinkleInterestingly, however, there are very obvious conceptual limitations within this imaginary process. Time itself hasn’t actually been stopped or reversed or turned into something different. It’s the individual who has, notionally, jumped from one epoch to another. Within the entire time-travel genre, which was greatly boosted by H.G. Wells’s ingenious Time Machine (1895), it’s axiomatic that the travelling is done by humans while Time continues to unfold as a unidirectional force, in its own mysterious but unalterable style. Its trajectory is often referred to as temporal ‘flow’. Or, more poetically, as ‘Time’s arrow’.

That non-stop background quality is needed to make time-travel stories work. The individual time-jumpers arrive in a new temporal location, either in the past or in the future. Generally, they are unharmed, if sometimes shaken or bemused (or naked, as in the husband of The Time Traveller’s Wife).4 Their subsequent encounters with other humans in either earlier or later worlds then lend themselves to comedy, romance, adventure, satire, terror, political philosophy, prophesy, and/or any combination of such reactions.5

Nonetheless, once in the new situation, the time-travellers find that Time is still flowing on equably. The aberrant circumstances which have permitted their personal shift has not stopped or otherwise disrupted the rest of the cosmos.6

One experiment with reversed-time living was imagined enjoyably by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871). The scatty White Chess-Queen experiences some of her life backwards. She cries: ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ first, and then pricks her finger painfully. Yet the White Queen does her time-reversal only fitfully. She doesn’t cry ‘Ho, ho, ho!’, as she would if she were yelling in a completely reversed temporal framework. Instead, she carries on talking to Alice in the normal way – not sdrawkcab.7
2017-04-No3-White-Queens-in-Looking-GlassIt’s virtually impossible to envisage absolutely everything in the world happening in total temporal reversal. When we run films backwards, often to amusing effect, we are still watching a sequence of images appear in the normal ‘onwards’ time-frame. We are not reversing Time or stepping outside our own temporal framework. If we were, then everything would be utterly transformed. Conversations, which unfold ‘onwards’, would be impossible in reverse-Time. We’d be getting younger, as well as speaking in reverse, thinking in reverse … including, no doubt, speaking before we think.8

Indeed, if Time did something totally astonishing, like disappearing down a cosmic black-plug-hole, then Space and everyone within Space-time would go there too. To our collective amazement and, no doubt, total consternation.

There is a cosmic ‘Chronology Protection Agency’, in the words of physicist Stephen Hawking.9 It binds each era into its own time, preventing it from overlapping or tangling with any other. And given that Time and Space constitute an integral continuum, it means that there is simultaneously a ‘Space-Time Protection Agency’ within the cosmos. Different experiences of motion and speed may occur within its ambit. At ultra-supersonic speeds, the process of time dilation will slow things down, affecting relative time measurements.10 None of those conditions, however, occur outside the framework Space-time.

Two observations follow. One is that we are all time-travellers, travelling collectively at the pace of Time, nano-second by nano-second – or, more accurately, at the pace of Space-time. We can’t jump off on our own. But we do have company for the ride.

And secondly, because we live in Space-time, we can study its manifestations. We are synchro-meshed into the immediate moment: the ever-changing Now! And we are also diachro-meshed into the long term, which means that we can think about both past and future.11 Time is our medium, around us, within us: in all our bodies and in our minds.

Sleeping Beauty began as a traditional folk tale, conveyed in classic form by Charles Perrault (1697), adapted by the Brothers Grimm (1812), and much reworked in literature, dance and film: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeping_Beauty.

H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure, first published in The Graphic (1886/7).

3 From W. Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819). For antecedents and cultural variants, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rip_Van_Winkle.

4 A. Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife: A Novel (2004; 2014).

5 See A. Roberts, Science Fiction (2000); D. Wittenberg, Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (New York, 2013); J. Gleick, Time Travel: A History (2016).

6 P. Davies, How to Build a Time Machine (2001); J.R. Gott, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time (2001); E. Everett and T. Roman, Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Time and Space (Chicago, 2012); and M. Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism: Applying Laws of Physics to Faster-than-Light Travel, Psychic Phenomena, Telepathy, Time Travel, UFOs and Other Pseudoscientific Claims (Buffalo, NY., 1988).

7 L. Carroll, Alice through the Looking Glass (1871).

8 Incidentally, not all cultural systems describe Time as flowing ‘onwards’ or ‘backwards’. Some reverse those directions, identifying Time as coming from ‘in front’ and disappearing ‘behind’. And others prefer ‘upwards’ and ‘downwards’. In all cases, however, there is one prime direction and its reverse.

9 S. Hawking, ‘The Future of the Universe’, in L. Howe and A. Wain (eds), Predicting the Future (Cambridge, 1993), p. 22.

10 P. Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (1995), pp. 57-8.

11 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. xiv-xv, 19-25.

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MONTHLY BLOG 74, WHY CAN’T WE THINK ABOUT SPACE WITHOUT TIME?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Well, why not? Why can’t we think about Space without Time? It’s been tried before. A persistent, though small, minority of philosophers and physicists deny the ‘reality’ of Time.1 True, they have not yet made much headway in winning the arguments. But it’s an intriguing challenge.

Space is so manifestly here and now. Look around at people, buildings, trees, clouds, the sun, the sky, the stars … And, after all what is Time? There is no agreed definition from physicists. No simple (or even complex) formula to announce that T = whatever? Why can’t we just banish it? Think of the advantages. No Time … so no hurry to finish an essay to a temporal deadline which does not ‘really’ exist. No Time … so no need to worry about getting older as the years unfold in a temporal sequence which isn’t ‘really’ happening. In the 1980s and 1990s – a time of intellectual doubt in some Western left-leaning philosophical circles – a determined onslaught upon the concept of Time was attempted by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). He became the high-priest of temporal rejectionism. His cause could be registered somewhere under the postmodernist banner, since postmodernist thought was very hostile to the idea of history as a subject of study. It viewed it as endlessly malleable and subjective. That attitude was close to Derrida’s attitude to temporality, although not all postmodernist thinkers endorsed Derrida’s theories.2 His brand of ultra-subjective linguistic analysis, termed ‘Deconstruction’, sounded, as dramatist Yasmina Reza jokes in Art, as though it was a tough technique straight out of an engineering manual. In fact, it allowed for an endless play of subjective meanings.

For Derrida, Time was/is a purely ‘metaphysical’ concept – and he clearly did not intend that description as a compliment. Instead, he evoked an atemporal spatiality, named khōra (borrowing a term from Plato). This timeless state, which pervades the cosmos, is supposed to act both as a receptor and as a germinator of meanings. It is an eternal Present, into which all apparent temporality is absorbed.4 Any interim thoughts or feelings about Time on the part of humans would relate purely to a subjective illusion. Its meanings would, of course, have validity for them, but not necessarily for others.

So how should we think of this all-encompassing khōra? What would Space be like without Time? When asked in 1986, Derrida boldly sketched an image of khōra as a sort of sieve-like receptacle (see Fig.1).5 It was physical and tangible. Yet it was also intended to be fluid and open. Thus the receptacle would simultaneously catch, make and filter all the meanings of the world. The following extract from an explanatory letter by Derrida by no means recounts the full complexity of Derrida’s concept but gives some of the flavour:6

I propose then […] a gilded metallic object (there is gold in the passage from [Plato’s] Timaeus on the khōra […]), to be planted obliquely in the earth. Neither vertical, nor horizontal, a extremely solid frame that would resemble at once a web, a sieve, or a grill (grid) and a stringed musical instrument (piano, harp, lyre?): strings, stringed instrument, vocal chord, etc. As a grill, grid, etc., it would have a certain relationship with the filter (a telescope, or a photographic acid bath, or a machine, which has fallen from the sky, having photographed or X-rayed – filtered – an aerial view). …
2017-02-No1b-Derrida's-sketch-and-Khora

Fig. 1 (L) Derrida’s 1986 sketch of Spatiality without Time, also (R) rendered more schematically
© Centre Canadien d’Architecture/
Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

In 1987, the cerebral American architect Peter Eisenman (1932- ), whose stark works are often described as ‘deconstructive’, launched into dialogue with Derrida. They discussed giving architectural specificity to Derrida’s khōra in a public garden in Paris.8   One cannot but admire Eisenman’s daring, given the nebulousness of the key concept. Anyway, the plan (see Fig. 2) was not realised. Perhaps there was, after all, something too metaphysical in Derrida’s own vision. Moreover, the installation, if erected, would have soon shown signs of ageing: losing its gilt, weathering, acquiring moss as well as perhaps graffiti – in other words, exhibiting the handiwork of the allegedly banished Time.2017-02-No2-Model-of-Choral-Works

Fig.2 Model of Choral Works by Peter Eisenman
© Eisenman Architects. New York

So the saga took seriously the idea of banishing Time but couldn’t do it. The very words, which Derrida enjoyed deconstructing into fragmentary components, can surely convey multiple potential messages. Yet they do so in consecutive sequences, whether spoke or written, which unfold their meanings concurrently through Time.

In fact, ever since Einstein’s conceptual break-through with his theories of Relativity, we should be thinking about Time and Space as integrally linked in one continuum. Hermann Minkowski, Einstein’s intellectual ally and former tutor, made that clear: ‘Henceforth Space by itself, and Time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality’. In practice, it’s taken the world one hundred years post-Einstein to internalise the view that propositions about Time refer to Space and vice versa. Thus had Derrida managed to abolish temporality, he would have abolished spatiality along with it. It also means that scientists should not be seeking a formula for Time alone but rather for Space-Time: S-T = whatever?

Lastly, if we do want a physical monument to either Space or Time, there’s no need for a special trip to Paris. We need only look around us. The unfolding Space-Time, in which we all live, looks exactly like the entire cosmos, or, in a detailed segment of the whole, like our local home: Planet Earth.
2017-02 No3 Earth-from-Space-Vector

Fig.3 View of Planet Earth from Space
© http://boxist.com/view-of-planet-earth-in-space/

1 For anti-Time, see J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe (1999), esp. pp. 324-5. And the reverse in R. Healey, ‘Can Physics Coherently Deny the Reality of Time?’ in C. Callender (ed.), Time, Reality and Experience (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 293-316.

2 B. Stocker, Derrida on Deconstruction (2006); A. Weiner and S.M. Wortham (eds), Encountering Derrida: Legacies and Futures of Deconstruction (2007).

3 Line of dialogue from play by Y. Reza, Art (1994).

4 D. Wood, The Deconstruction of Time (Evanstown, Ill., 2001), pp. 260-1, 269, 270-3; J. Hodge, Derrida on Time (2007); pp. ix-x, 196-203, 205-6, 213-14.

5 R. Wilken, ‘Diagrammatology’, Electronic Book Review, 2007-05-09 (2007): http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/intermingled

6 Letter from Derrida to Peter Eisenman, 30 May 1986, as cited in N. Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory (1997), pp. 342-3. See also for formal diagram based on Derrida’s sketch, G. Bennington and J. Derrida, Jacques Derrida (1993), p. 406.

7 A.E. Taylor, A Commentary of Plato’s Timaeus (Oxford, 1928).

8 J. Derrida and P. Eisenman, Chora L Works, ed. J. Kipnis and T. Leeser (New York, 19997).

9 Cited in P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), p. 9.

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