There is no time, right?,
Time issues; time and again.
We all live in corona time now, or perhaps already in post-corona time. Don’t we? How come? What time is it? Is time up? Are we passing time to become past time? Are we losing or already lost in time? What is time anyway, what does it do?
Without always being aware of it, time is, at all times and all the time, both present and absent in our daily life; and it will remain so, also when trying to understand it. We attempt to grab it often but lose it at the same time. As soon as we try to capture its properties, time, at all times, escapes our full understanding. How does time act, and how does it affect us, and does it, really? And what to think about past time, present time and, of course, future time that has come under threat by the past, current and future climate crises, changing our notion of nature all the time? What remains of time when we want to conceive an image of future times? How long is our future? Just as long as time? Or do we all live in preemptive time, which, according to philosopher and theorist Armen Avanessian and reader in Critical Studies at Goldsmith MFa Suhal Malik, makes our present before we even have entered it ourselves? Which has lead, for instance, to the new phenomenon of the ‘preemptive personality’:
We know a version of this from Amazon[.com]: its algorithmic procedures give us recommendations for books associated with one’s actual choices but the preemptive personality is one step ahead: you get a product that you actually want. The company’s algorithms know your desires; they know your needs even before you become aware of them yourself.
And next to the pre-, the –post has also popped up many times in our time:
While the “pre-” indexes a kind of anticipatory deduction of the future that is acting in the present—so that future is already working within the now, again indicating how the present isn’t the primary category but is understood to be organized by the future—what the “post-” marks is how what’s happening now is in relationship to what has happened but is no longer. We are the future of something else. The “post-” is also a mark of the deprioritization of the present.1
The present we live in is, in short, no longer self-evident. It is future, it is past, is it not present?
Next to this notion of a pliable present, time is also going increasingly faster. Velocity has become crucial in and for modern life. As Hartmut Rosa has analysed in his Alienation and Acceleration, modern life (roughly the last two centuries) is a time of extreme acceleration.2 Time has become so dominant that space – which was for a long time dominant in our culture – shrank in significance and lost terrain. It does so in many ways for our orientation in the late modern world, Rosa emphasizes; deadlines and processes are for instance no longer localized. Real locations such as hotels, banks, universities and industrial complexes have become non-places, i.e. locations without a history, an identity or a connection, as Marc Augé has put forward in his influential book Non-Places.3 Space and place do not remain untouched by the speeding up of time.4 Although we all have the feeling that time is slipping out of our hands, in particular with the arrival of the internet and other digital means, Paul Virilio, known as the philosophical ‘high priest of speed’, argued that speeding up is not at all unique to the digital age. The history of modernity is to be seen as ‘a series of innovations in an ever-increasing time compression,’5 like nineteenth-century transport, which shortened travelling time, and twentieth-century media, such as the telegraph, telephone, radio and computer and satellite communications, which turned succession and duration into simultaneity and instantaneity. All technological innovations enhance the independence of the social relations of time from space and the body. The acceleration therefore in fact ‘transcend(s) humans’ biological capacity.’6 Technoscience is speeding up the world to such a degree that things, even reality, are starting to disappear. Real space is finally replaced by real time, and intensity supersedes extensity.
This rather negative evaluation of ICTs (although Virilio is not against technology as such but rather against the fundamentalist i.e. affirmative belief in it) is softened by Judy Wajcman’s statement – who, as a sociologist of work, researches ‘social time’ – that the supposed negative influence of ICTs on our personal time, i.e. the blurring of the boundary between work and home and colonizing all of our time, is not completely correct. She inquires instead how digital technologies shape people’s sense of time and stresses that ICTs are ‘fostering new patterns of social contacts, providing a new tool for intimacy’7 which is based on her notion that ‘Work is done in time, work is a temporal act.’8 Considering she wrote this before the increased use, or rather, the invasion of digital communications due to Covid-19, we should wonder, however, if she is still right about this ‘new tool for intimacy,’ because the general complaint, to which we almost all can testify, regards a lack of intimacy and the longing for touch and to be touched. Our current meetings and conversations on Zoom or Teams and the like has made the disappearance of space, in more than one sense, extremely palpable.
Let’s return to our time again. What do we mean by the pronoun our in ‘our time’? This is the how the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy in his The Birth to Presence (1993) describes it:
“Our time” means precisely, first of all, a certain suspension of time, of time conceived as always flowing. A pure flow of time could not be “ours”. The appropriation that the “our” indicates … is something like an immobilization – or, better, it indicates that some aspect of time, without stopping time, or without stopping to be time, that some aspects of temporality, as temporality, becomes something like a certain space, a certain field, which could be for us the domain, in a very strange, uncanny fashion, of property.
And with space, he continues, ‘the points of temporality itself, which are nothing but the always becoming and disappearing presents of time.’9 Between these presents, between the flow and itself ‘a happening happens.’ Nancy’s our time is thus time that has been taken in possession by us, that has been halted by us and picked up by us out of the continuous stream of time. In the latter time, all presents follow each other.
Using the word property Nancy does not seem to refer to the contemporary, however, but more to the modernistic attitude of trying to get hold of the present to become possessor of the future. How does this relate to the contemporary, which is used today much more often than the word modern or modernistic? The contemporary as a notion – although it is not a recent term, and has already been in use for a long time – came to the fore in the last thirty or forty years, or so, when we started talking about contemporary art, contemporary music, contemporary theatre, contemporary dance, and contemporary architecture, instead of modern art, etc. Our modern time has, also in general, gradually been taken over by the contemporary. But what does this entail? Art historian Hal Foster says that
[w]hat is new is the sense that, in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment. Such paradigms as ‘the neo-avant-garde’ and ‘postmodernism,’ which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand, and, arguably, no models of much explanatory reach or intellectual force have risen in their stead.10
In short, Foster’s time is a time that has left history behind – and in that sense modernism – and thus any kind of ideological framing. Time has become contemporary, which is explicitly not a specific time period or a time moved by an inner urge (whatsoever). In his book Brouhaha, Lionel Ruffel emphasizes that contemporary ‘has only been very recently … become a substantive, and, consequently, has increased in substance to become the contemporary, charged with multiple meanings. And the more it became the contemporary, in the singular, the more those meanings proliferated.’11 With the expression ‘brouhaha,’ Ruffel tries to catch ‘the messiness that is the contemporary,’12 which is thus not to be confused with the modern anymore. In his statement that the contemporary is a replacement of the modern, Ruffel tries to avoid at all cost any chronology or analysis that might be seen as a modernist approach that neatly tries to box everything in. …
[W]e clearly don’t live in a modernist, future-orientated society anymore, but in a contemporary one that is chaotic and messy in its multiplicity, being multidisciplinary and thus undisciplined, but therefore also extremely rich.13
The idea of a linear internal development of time, which came to expression in, for instance, different historical domains/sciences that were developed in the 19th century, like the history of music, the history of art, et cetera (seconded by a constantly disciplining of and objectifying of the other) seems to have departed. We are now left with another our time, the contemporary, which is a rich, but unordered, chaotic and multifaceted muddle. Expressions like chaos, mess and muddle reminds us of the idea of the ‘thick present,’ which Donna Haraway has put forward in her Staying with the Trouble, which indicates exactly the mess that we have to stay with and not flee from (anymore): a mess that excludes the former future-oriented characteristic of modernism that presumed a hidden teleological drive.
Contemporariness, our time, is thus connected to a specific relationship to history in its appearance as a future driven force. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben has proposed, inspired by Nietzsche, that contemporariness is
a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism. Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.14
Being of your time is thus being able to not only being in your time. Agamben also articulates the notion that the contemporary is an ahistorical concept, and thus not a label of periodization; it should be seen as an ‘existential marker’. The second definition he gives of the contemporary is more personalized, it is
he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure[,] … as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him[,] … struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.15
He compares this with the blackness that surrounds all our stars and milky ways. The black, he stresses here, is not the absence of light but is the light that stars that are flying away from us cannot give anymore because their speed is too high for their light to arrive to us. Through this analogue, Agamben arrives at a new description of the contemporary, now formulated as a verb: ‘To perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot – this is what it means to be contemporary[:] … it is being on time for an appointment that one cannot but miss.’16 In this sense, contemporariness becomes a kind of timelessness. It does not take place within chronological time, he concludes, but ‘is something that, working within chronological time, urges, presses, and transforms it.’17
For us, the question of how to pierce this unapproachable darkness of the now remains, or, should we rather, instead, follow Édouard Glissant, and start producing opacity and preventing transparency, for opacity is a category ‘of active visualization, of a visualization however, that is rendered unintelligible, beyond understanding.’18 And what to think about another neologism that had recently been forged by Timothy Morton, the hyperobject, which represents an unreachable phenomenon as well, such as climate change, which is too big and stretches out too far through time for us to see and understand?
For me, the earlier references to mess and trouble are better and nearer and more touchable metaphors for taking a critical look at our present, our contemporary, than the darkness of fading and escaping light. To be living in a thick present, stuffed with more than one contemporality and many layers of the past contains more (future) possibilities, and offers the possibility to dig deeper in its past and forgotten potentialities, such as are made apparent in the recent archival turn in the arts, which has also made its way to postcolonial archives: ‘…visual artists and writers across geographic locations have looked to alternative ways of representing past and present events by imagining the events and stories that were once silenced in those archives.’19 The thick present also applies to these ‘thick’ archives, now used by ‘visual artists and writers [to develop] modes of archiving “counter-memory”, that is, memory that contradicts or revises official history, offered as a result a critical reflection upon the limitations encountered in colonial and post-colonial archives.’20 The future of our present will change because of these findings, making new futures possible by passing different pasts into the present. A thick present thus also feels literal, and is arguably more touchable and, in a way, at the same time even obscure in an Agambian way, because that which had not been documented within archival matter is also part of it in its absence.
The past looks like a malleable part of the thick present, which also applies to the distant past, the past of earth itself. Our relation to the latter has become acute, culminating in the newly-forged notion of the Anthropocene, which has revealed and exposed our vulnerable ecological relationship with the earth, or even more generally, with the non-human. For not only geology refers to a non-human time: our other non-human ‘counterparts’ also have their own temporalities, which do not match our human understanding as well. Humans and non-humans are contemporary but do not coincide. Our time has dominated for a long time, but is slowly losing its grip, and it should also to make other relationships in and with the world possible.
This APRIA-issue, Time Matters, with 17 contributions by artists and scholars, is the outcome of a four-part seminar with the same name, which was organized in 2019-2020, by researchers of the professorship in Theory in the Arts (ArtEZ University of the Arts).21 We inquired into and discussed all kinds of questions, suggestions, topics and issues concerning time. One of the goals was to discuss the topic of time with participants from different fields, i.e. from the arts, sciences and humanities, thereby emphasizing that theoretical issues move along all kinds of research domains, including the arts.
The first seminar put forward the idea of Casting Futures in the Thick Present.22 It inquired into what Helga Nowotny identified in 1989 as the tensions arising between a ‘…subjective local time that sees itself confronted with a public world time.’23 We seem to be moving towards an unbearable pressure on our being-in-the-present. The complex industrial and technological systems that have been set in motion – economic, energy extraction, agricultural, mobility, connectivity – have extended, sending their fibres beyond our current time position and wrapping back toward us, determining our imminent responsiveness in an ever-accelerating need for pre-emptive action to avoid negative future probabilities. Caught up in this system, an individual can easily feel there is no stopping or diverting these networked, vast and embedded machinic systems, rising up like a deterministic wave to crash back at us, swallowing our futures. We are surviving, but how? From Haraway we learn to remain tenaciously enmeshed in our mutual living and dying on a damaged earth:
In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.24
Through new stories, stories of our past and stories by means of which we give shape to possible futures, we can start practices of casting futures in a thick present. Imminent and embedded futures. The short way forwards, backwards, and in-between.
In the second seminar, we focused on Deep Surface, Geological and Atmospheric Time.25 The 20th century was the century of space. Before the last war, we saw three-dimensional Cartesian space as the condition for a rationalistic aesthetic organization of life. In architecture the vertical city showed itself to be the outcome of scientifically steered zoning and planning processes. After the war a more phenomenologically tainted approach took over, in a humanistic effort to concretize space as unfolding from place: the work of art as the generative power creating surroundings for the participation of creative man. In the last decades, a new form of space has announced itself: shallow space (Collin Rowe), shallow depth (Gilles Deleuze) or deep surface (Lars Spuybroek). It is the skin or bas-relief in which the forces of formation, persistence and deformation are inscribed in the surface resulting in textures, relief, rustication, tectonics, posture and gesture. Stressing the still unfulfilled powers of materials, the artist challenges their possibilities in stretching and deforming their properties. Materials behave like Protean matter, full of images. The artist becomes a ‘cosmic artisan’: a virtuoso evocating and celebrating the creative powers of the earth. In the modern interior (Frank Lloyd Wright, Carlo Scarpa, Marcel Wanders, Peter Zumthor) we live in a mannerist grotto, atmospherically participating in this geological time.
Another aspect that was addressed was the relation between nature and culture. We increasingly realize that we cannot separate culture from nature anymore. Mehdi Belhaj Kacem’s statement, ‘I can’t even eat any more without confusing myself with the very substance of the food,’ makes this quite apparent. Nature and culture do mix, as certain ‘natural works of art’ show. In artistic research practices theory and practice are no longer strictly separated, as shown by works of art in which text disintegrates.
Seminar III focused on Ecological Time and started with the following quote, by Michel Serres: ‘Above all, we surely don’t know how to think the relations between time and weather, temps and temps: a single French word for two seemingly disparate realities.’ In times of ecological crisis, time itself seems to be out of joint. What could once be thought of as a linear concept, aimed at ever accelerating speed towards growth and progress, now seems to curl and twist into strangely interacting cycles and ever more complex feedback loops. Facing the slow violence of environmental catastrophe, contemporary art and philosophy re-think the traditional temporal categories of past, present and future. In addition, artists and thinkers imagine profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. More than ever, reality appears as a vast timescape, in which things and species have their own time in a multi-temporality mesh. Is art, including music, capable of fostering a deeply felt experience of ecological time? And what about time in artistic activities that no longer concentrate on the work but on process?
The fourth and last Seminar, Ecological Time: Natures that Matter in Activism and Art, concentrated on the meaning of nature in different discourses. At a time when ecological catastrophes are becoming ever more manifest, and the term Anthropocene connects the symptoms of this crisis, as we have seen – it has become clear that modern culture has only ostensibly been cut off from the multifarious web of intimate relations we call nature. Perception is changed by knowledge and art, shifting what and how things touch and move us. Art makes sensible that the way we treat nature is also the way we treat each other, and subversively practices and presents different perspectives and relations, by interrupting conventionalized routines and tempos in order to attune to other lifeforms. Likewise, art relates to knowledge to evoke actions, alternatives and care.
The issue contains contributions from speakers at the seminars and other invitees to further elaborate their view on ‘time matters.’ The contributions are woven into the text and can be read randomly. There is no linear sequence. Although we still do not know what time is, the issue offers instances of many of its workings and re-workings. We see how art(ists) react to it, how scholars deal with it and how we, personally or collectively, could relate to it. Time is not over, but it’s about time to take our time seriously and treat it as an urgent matter, which includes many temporalities. It has also become time to develop ‘long-termism’, to save the earth and future generations from our (nuclear and petrocapitalist) behaviour; we need a new history of the future. We now know scarcely anything about the future, and we are not at all experienced in long-term thinking, but
timespans ranging from a few months to a few years determine most formal planning and decision-making – by corporations, governments … quarterly reporting by companies[,] … planning horizons of one to five years[,] … these are the usual temporal boundaries of our hot, crowded, and flattened little world[:] … short-termism,
as Vincent Ialenti describes our time planning experience. He therefore stresses the need to get away from short-term thinking and acting. We should become ‘a time-literate society’ in which one asks oneself ‘How can I be a good ancestor?’
Time is time, it is urgent.
Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik, “The Speculative Time Complex,” The Time Complex: Post-Contemporary (Miami, FL: [NAME] Publications, 2016), p. 11.
Hartmut Rosa, Leven in tijden van versnelling: Een pleidooi voor resonantie (Amsterdam: Boom, 2016), passim.
Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995).
Cf. Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity (Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000), p. 9: ‘Thanks to its newly acquired flexibility and expansiveness, mod¬ern time has become, first and foremost, the weapon in the con¬quest of space. In the modern struggle between time and space, space was the solid and stolid, unwieldy and inert side, capable of waging only a defensive, trench war – being an obstacle to the resilient advances of time. Time was the active and dynamic side in the battle, the side always on the offensive: the invading, conquering and colonizing force. Velocity of movement and access to faster means of mobility steadily rose in modern times to the position of the principal tool of power and domination.’
Judy Wajcman, “Life in the Fast Lane? Towards a Sociology of Technology and Time,” The British Journal of Sociology 59 (March 2008): p. 59-77. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00182.x.
Marli Huijer, review of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, by Judy Wajcman, Time & Society 28, no. 3 (2019), pp. 1-4.
Judy Wajcman, “Keynote Capture All_Work”, keynote lecture, Haus der Kunst, video, 29:31 (29 January 2015), https://youtu.be/Q0FVbHwonLI.
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth of Presence (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 150 ff.
Hal Foster, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” October 130 (Autumn 2009), p. 3. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40368571.
Lionel Ruffel, Brouhaha: Worlds of the Contemporary (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), p. 3 ff.
Edith Doove, review of Brouhaha: Worlds of the Contemporary, by Lionel Ruffel, Leonardo 52, no. 2 (2019), pp. 197-198, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/721929.
Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 41 ff.
Renate Lorenz, “Introduction,” in Not Now! Now!: Chronopolitics, Art & Research, ed. Renate Lorenz, Publication Series of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, vol. 15 (Vienna: Sternberg Press, 2014), p. 17.
See for instance Marta Fernandez Campa’s dissertation: Fragmented Memories: The Archival Turn in Contemporary Caribbean Literature and Visual Culture (PhD Diss., University of Miami, 2013), https://scholarship.miami.edu/discovery/fulldisplay/alma991031447241002976/01UOML_INST:ResearchRepository.
Organised by Sharon Stewart and Peter Sonderen. Contributors: Eric Kluitenberg, Ximena Alarcón-Díaz, Peter Sonderen and Sharon Stewart.
Helga Nowotny, Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), p. 18-19.
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 1.
Organised by Marieke de Jong, Saskia Korsten and Frans Sturkenboom. Contributors: Sema Bekirović, Sjoerd van Tuinen, Korsten&DeJong and Frans Sturkenboom.
- Agamben, Giorgio, What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.
- Augé, Marc, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, translated by John Howe, London: Verso, 1995.
- Avanessian, Armen and Suhail Malik, “The Speculative Time Complex,” The Time Complex: Post-Contemporary, Miami, FL: [NAME] Publications, 2016, pp. 7-56.
- Bauman, Zygmunt, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000.
- Doove, Edith, review of Brouhaha: Worlds of the Contemporary, by Lionel Ruffel, Leonardo 52, no. 2 (2019), pp. 197-198, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/721929.
- Foster, Hal, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary,’” October 130 (Autumn 2009), pp. 3-124. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40368571.
- Haraway, Donna, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.
- Huijer, Marli, review of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, by Judy Wajcman, Time & Society 28, no. 3 (2019), pp. 1-4.
- Ialenti, Vincent, Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020.
- Kacem, Medhi Belhaj. “1993 (extrait/excerpt),” Sites: Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 2, no. 1 (1998), pp. 193-209, https://doi.org/10.1080/10260219808455937.
- Krznaric, Roman, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World, London: WH Allen, 2020.
- Lorenz, Renate, “Introduction,” in Not Now! Now!: Chronopolitics, Art & Research, ed. Renate Lorenz, Publication Series of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, vol. 15 (Vienna: Sternberg Press, 2014), pp. 14-24.
- Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Birth of Presence, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993.
- Nowotny, Helga, Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.
- Rosa, Hartmut, Leven in tijden van versnelling: Een pleidooi voor resonantie, Amsterdam: Boom, 2016.
- Ruffel, Lionel, Brouhaha: Worlds of the Contemporary, London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
- Wajcman, Judy, “Keynote Capture All_Work”, keynote lecture, Haus der Kunst, video, 29:31 (29 January 2015), https://youtu.be/Q0FVbHwonLI.
- ———, “Life in the Fast Lane? Towards a Sociology of Technology and Time,” The British Journal of Sociology 59 (March 2008): p. 59-77. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00182.x.