Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Time Is But the Stream I Go A-Fishing In

[Special Note: File this under "weird" and "symbiotic." I composed this post this morning before I had a chance to read JJC's most recent post on "Time's Machines." My post was inspired by my re-reading last night of Thoreau's Walden and JJC's chapter "Time's Machines." Weird, man, just weird. Incidentally, Thoreau is so cool.]

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” (Henry David Thoreau, from Walden)

The subject of time is important to Prof. Cohen, especially in relation to postcolonial theory, critical temporal studies, and studies of the body and embodiment. In Medieval Identity Machines, JJC writes that what these three schools of thought have in common is “a shared fascination with time’s destinationless trajectory” and with “the effects of temporal openness on human flesh” (p. xxiv). In his chapter “Time’s Machines,” JJC writes that “we have not yet critically approached the question of time. With a few notable exceptions, time has been doomed to the vast realm of that which is unthought, perhaps because it at once seems so obvious (as did gender and race, until recently), and on closer examination seems impossible” (pp. 1-2). But there has been in recent years, as JJC has pointed out, “a burgeoning critical literature on temporality, an interdisciplinary dialogue to which philosophers, feminists, physicists, cultural theorists, social psychologists, and literary scholars have been contributing” (p. 2)—and I would add political theory, too, if one considers William Connolly’s excellent book, Neuropolitics: Culture, Thinking, Speed (Minnesota, 2002). Most important to JJC—at least, when he was writing MIM—is to discover, through critical thought, “how time might be thought beyond some of its conventional parameters, outside of reduction into a monologic history (especially when “history” is understood as either simple context or a chain of flat, serial causality), outside of enchainment into progress narratives, with their ‘ever upwards’ movement of evolutionary betterment and abandonment of the past for a predestined, superior future, and outside of linearization, the weary process through which a past is not encountered for its own possibilities, but either distanced as mere antecedent or explored only to understand better the present and to render predictable the future” (pp. 2-3). Finally, JJC writes that he is “most interested in engagements with time that stress the open-ended movements of becoming over the immobilities of being, that stress mutating interconnections over the stabilities of form” (p. 3).

For a long time now, I have also been very interested in various theories of temporality, mainly because of some extensive reading I did while working on my dissertation (from 2000-2001) in physics and science studies more generally (John Barrow, Heinz Pagels, Richard Dawkins, Isabelle Stengers & Ilya Prigione, David Deutsch, etc.)—the book that really stuck with me was Julian Barbour’s The End of Time (London, 1999), in which he argues, from the perspective of quantum physics, that the universe is made up of “instants of time” that “do not belong to something that flows relentlessly forward” (p. 9). These instants of time are, further, “instantaneous arrangements of all things in the universe. They are configurations of the universe,” and they are “perfectly static and timeless” (p. 9). The hitch, though, is that we, because our brains are self-sentient (and therefore are like “memory capsules”), perceive these static instants of time as dynamic and temporal. For Barbour, “being” is real, and “becoming” is the illusion, and everything that can possibly “be” has already “happened.” It would be like saying all possible episodes of history existed alongside each other in simultaneous stasis (and yet they are also completely separate from each other). It is also like saying we have already lived all of our possible lives. Somewhere out there is a configuration of matter in which Hitler exists, and another one where he was never even born, and another one where he is a member of the French Resistance. The same could be said of a Margery Kempe, or of a you and a me. It's all a question of how particles of matter ultimately arrange themselves into various "configurations"--the possibilities for which are seemingly infinite. In this sense, Robert Gluck's Margery Kempe is as real a "being" as the Margery Kempe who presents herself to us in the Norton Anthology, and also as the Margery Kempe we don't know at all and the one even she didn't know about but dreamed. The landscape of the universe is ultimately “timeless,” although Newtonian-type dynamics “paints paths” through and across it. Barbour is a beautiful writer, if a fabulist physicist. He calls his instants of times “Nows” and writes,

“Time is experienced as something linear. It seems to move forward relentlessly, through instants strung out continuously on a line. We ride on an everchanging Now like passengers on a train. Each point on the line is a new instant. But is time moving forward—and if so, through what—or are we moving forward through time?” (pp. 17-18)

The country, or universe, of Nows, Barbour calls Platonia:

“The name reflects its mathematical perfection and timeless landscape. Nothing changes in Platonia. Its points are all the instants of time, all the Nows; they are simply there, given once and for all. . . . There are no paths with unique starting points conceived as creation events. Indeed, there are no paths at all. Instead, the different points of Platonia, each of which represents a different possible configuration of the universe at present—as potentialities at least—in different quantities. . . . Imagine that Platonia is covered by a mist. Its intensity does not vary in time—it is static—but it does vary from position to position. Its intensity at each given point is a measure of how many configurations . . . corresponding to that point are present. . . . The land of possible things has one absolute end, where it abuts onto mere nothing, but it is unbounded the other way, for there is no limit to the richness of being. Who knows what experiences are possible in the oases of richly structured Nows strung out along the trade routes that cross the deserts of Platonia?” (pp. 44, 45, 50-51, 55)

Finally, Barbour writes,

“In a very real sense, our memories make us present in what we call the past, and our anticipations give us a foretaste of what we call the future. Why do we need time machines if our very existence is a kind of being present everywhere in what can be? . . . We are each just the totality of things seen from our own viewpoint” (p. 329)

I actually presented a paper for the Old English division of the MLA (back in 2001 or 2002—can’t quite recall and too lazy to check my c.v.) that applied chaos theory and Barbour’s ideas about time to the intellectual history of Beowulf scholarship, in which essay I tried to link the image of the Beowulf manuscript flying out of the window of the Ashburnham House during the 1731 fire (Kevin Kiernan has surmised from its damage and placement on the shelves that it was likely one of the MSS. thrown out the window) with an image of a prisoner in Sierra Leone (during the recent civil war there--1999) wresting photographs away from an R.U.F. photographer who had just been killed by a bomb dropped by Nigerian forces (the photographs were of atrocities committed by R.U.F. soldiers on their prisoners—everyone might recall that the R.U.F. was responsible for hacking off the limbs of their victims, including children; the prisoner was actually about to have his throat cut when, miraculously, the Nigerian planes appeared and started dropping bombs on the rebel encampment). I wanted to show how these two incidents could be seen as passing through each other in a kind of arc of time, relative to a point I wanted to make about how certain historical artifacts are preserved through chaos, not purposeful recovery. I brought in a lot of theory on photography and history as "becoming" from Siegfried Kracauer, Eduardo Cadava, Walter Benjamin, Jean Luc Nancy, etc. Blah blah blah. Looking back on it, the argument looks kind of crazy and should likely be blamed on dissertation ennui. Plus, I got some really strange looks from the audience at the MLA meeting. Needless to say, there were no questions, but as my friend Betsy likes to say, when you don’t get any questions, you must be doing something good. Well, at least, original.

Can I make this already long post even longer? You bet! Basically, I just wanted to share with JJC and the readers of his blog that I, too, am fascinated with temporality theory and its possible relevance to literary-historical studies, and I recently put together a paper proposal for the 2005 MLA meeting on temporality and Beowulf studies, which was rejected, but what the hell? I share it with you here as a prospectus for a possible future essay:

“All Mouth and Teeth and Motion: Ten Models of Time for a Future History of Beowulf Studies”

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now.
—Walter Benjamin

Would you sacrifice history if it made your mom happy? Freedom? Your own country?
—tagline on movie poster for Goodbye, Lenin!

In his book Thinking About Beowulf, James Earl wrote that “the systems of relations—of us to Beowulf, of Beowulf to the Anglo-Saxons, and of the Anglo-Saxons to us—constitutes the meaning of Beowulf” (p. 168). This is a statement, I would argue, that very much resonates with the argument of Edward Said, in his essay “The World, the Text, and the Critic,” that “texts have a way of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence, worldly.” Further, Said argued that cultural critics bear a special responsibility to delineate the processes whereby a text expresses both “historical contingency” and the “sensuous particularity” of each present is which it is received. And yet, in the ten or so years since the publication of Earl’s book (and also since Allen Frantzen’s 1990 book Desire for Origins), while we have had some noteworthy work on the ways in which Beowulf expresses the historical and ideological contingencies of an Anglo-Saxon past (e.g., the recent scholarship of John Hill, Nicholas Howe, Jeffrey Cohen, Seth Lerer, and John Niles, to cite what I believe are the most prominent examples), we have had relatively little scholarship that has focused upon what might be called Beowulf’s “sensuous presentness.”

Further, there has been an explosion in recent years in the fields of history, art history, and cultural studies in what might be termed “time, history and memory” studies, and there has been, at the same time, a reemergence of the monument and the memorial as major modes of aesthetic, historical, and spatial expression, all of which has led to various crises—theoretical and otherwise—over the ways in which temporality and cultural memory are or ought to be articulated in institutions, theory, art, and literature. To quote Andreas Huyssens, from his book Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia:

“The undisputed waning of history and historical consciousness, the lament about social, political, and cultural amnesia, and the varied discourses, celebratory or apocalyptic, about posthistoire have been accompanied in the past decade and a half by a memory boom of unprecedented proportions. There are widespread debates about memory in the cultural, social, and natural sciences. . . . How do we understand this newest obsession with memory? How do we evaluate the paradox that novelty in our culture is ever more associated with memory and the past rather than with future expectation? Clearly, it is related to the evident crisis of the ideology of progress and modernization and to the fading of a whole tradition of teleological philosophies of history. Thus, the shift from history to memory represents a welcome critique of compromised teleological notions of history rather than being simply anti-historical, relativistic, or subjective. . . . the current obsession with memory is not simply a function of fin-de-siècle syndrome, another symptom of postmodern pastiche. Instead, it is a sign of the crisis of that structure of temporality that marked the age of modernity with its celebration of the new as utopian, as radically and irreducibly other.” (pp. 5-6)

How might Beowulf scholarship address this “crisis” of the structure of temporality and also join a series of conversations long in progress in other fields about the relationships between time, memory, and history? In this paper, I want to pose that question and offer ten models of temporality whereby Old English scholars might “rethink” Beowulf’s relationship to the past of its écriture and to our present. I offer below a very brief listing of those ten models:

1. The Langolier Model (derived from Stephen King’s short story, “The Langoliers,” in which time is represented by disembodied, whirling and gnashing mouths with steel teeth that devour the materiality of the past while also leaving behind material “scraps”—the past is a menacing and dangerous place as a result and nothing “works” there, matches don’t light, engines can’t start, etc.; Beowulf doesn’t “work” in the past anymore and can only be made to work in the present)

2. The Andrei Rublev Model (derived from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of the same name; the past as contemporary Brechtian political parable: Beowulf set in the rubble of Grozny)

3. The Goodbye, Lenin! Model (derived from Wolfgang Becker’s film; the past as sentimental, or is it heroic [?] “family romance”; Beowulf studies is having a difficult time moving forward because it still loves its “fathers” too much)

4. The Wrinkle-in-Time Model (“the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line”; Beowulf, via Grendel, blasts a hole in the continuum of historical time; the “time of terrorism” = “the time of Beowulf”)

5. The Post-Apocalyptic Model (derived from James Berger’s work in After The End: Representations of the Post-apocalypse; Beowulf meets Morrison’s Beloved in the post-histoire Potter's Field)

6. The Monumental Model (the architectonics of monumental, sculpted time, à la Pierre Nora’s “lieux de memoire” and the Long Now Foundation’s “Long Now Clock”; Beowulf as part of the mechanical “works” of our “long now” clock)

7. The End-of-Time Model (derived from Julian Barbour’s The End of Time, a work in quantum physics; there are “many worlds,” existing, not behind and in front of each other—teleology—but side-by-side in a static, frozen present, what Barbour calls “Platonia”: “Who knows what experiences are possible in the oases of richly structured Nows strung along the trade routes that cross the deserts of Platonia?”; Beowulf MS. as a material object existing “beside us” yet “separate”)

8. The Phantom Model (Beowulf as a “phantom limb” of the present)

9. The Secret Heliotropism Model (“As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward the sun that is rising in the sky of history”—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”; Beowulf’s final request for a memorial as this heliotropic “turning”)

10. The Temps L’Autre Model (the past as Emmanuel Levinas’s “time of the other” through which “futuration” is enacted; the character of Beowulf as the figure of “futuration” par excellence)


J J Cohen said...

Great stuff! Clearly Professor Joy and I were separated at birth: she was the smarter twin. (I would also add "better looking" but since we have never occupied the same or even a proximate timespace I can't say that).

It's too bad (though not at all surprising) that the MLA proposal didn't fly. It would have been very interesting to see how that session came together, and how many Anglo-Saxonists would take it seriously.

Another science-y book on time that I'm fond of is Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality . Greene is a physicist who attempts to make string theory, spacetime, relativity and all those tough to imagine phenomena comprehesible to those of us who prefer words and pictures over mathematical equations. The diagrams and metaphors crazily proliferate; sometimes it is fun, and sometimes my tiny brain comes very close to exploding. There's a great chapter called "The Frozen River: Does Time Flow?" and it's followed by another, "Chance and the Arrow: Does Time Have a Direction?"

I've also just finished reading a popular book written by a well regarded cognitive psychologist, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert does a superb and hilarious job of detailing why the human procilivity to spatialize time gets us into so much trouble. He's also got much to say about how the only futures we seem capable of imagining are infinite extensions of the present, and he does a great read of our future selves as ungrateful temporal progeny. My favorite poolside book of the summer.

Eileen Joy said...

First of all, I am neither better looking nor smarter than JJC. Since I have not yet met him in person, I know this to be absolutely true. As to the how seriously other Anglo-Saxonists might take some of my ideas--well, likely not at all. And that's why I stay in that tribe, even though they're always trying to shove me into the forest with rations and a compass. I go exploring and then come right back. Why? Because I love the company of philologist curmudgeons! I can't get enough of them! [And please note that one reason I make a point of never blogging anonymously is . . . no one scares me. It's important, I think, to somehow work on eliminating the "intimidation factor" and elitism--institutional and otherwise--that is so much a part of our "business," and that is why one of my eternal mottoes is Simone Weil's statement, "I will consider termination to be the culmination of my career."]

All kidding aside [and "not so kidding"] aside, I have also read Brian Green--The Elegant Universe--and my tiny brain was also overwhelmed. In fact, with Julian Barbour, I can only read parts of his book, not all of it. And thanks, JJC, for tip on Daniel Gilbert--I had not known of him. After perusing reviews of the book, it sounds like something Emile B. would also like, since his main argument is that "happiness," as well as other human emotions, can be studied scientifically. If we lived in the present more, maybe we wouldn't be ungrateful temporal progeny in the future? But perhaps the way in which our brains are wired make it very difficult to *be* in the present, 100%? I've often been torn between the idea that we're either only ever in the present [Barbour's Platonia] and we simply create past & future as useful constructs for putting "motion" & "direction" into our lives, or that, conversely, we're always in the transition between past and future--i.e., a transitive temporal space that is always in flux between thinking backwads while also thinking forward [I guess this brings us back to "being" versus "becoming"].

As far as medieval studies is concerned, I simply want to embrace any kind of re-thinking of temporality that gets us out of the hermeneutic of only being able to think about history as some kind of teleological "chain" of events. Also, I sometimes despair over all the ways in which we want to say that medieval persons and medieval life/culture were completely "alter" to us "moderns." In the grand scheme of world history, don't people realize what a SHORT span of time 1,000 years [or 700 or 800 years] actually is? As a regular reviewer of articles on Old English poetry for "The Year's Work on Old English Studies," I can't believe how many essays I have to read written by OE scholars who want to "prove" that we "do damage" to our understanding of Old English poetry when we "ignore philology" in favor of pressing our "contemporary" concerns with sex, race, gender, whathaveyou upon our translations. Because, um, you know, in Anglo-Saxon England, they didn't have sex, or if they did, they didn't think about it. Yeah, that's it. Uh-huh.

emile blauche said...

I too enjoyed Gilbert's book. I read it right after Phillips's Going Sane: Maps of Happiness. If you haven't read Phillips on happiness, you should...he's a wonderful opponent of "happiness studies" (a la Seligman).

Medieval Happiness. The Happy Middle Ages. Future Sessions?

My own sense is that the media is digging the happiness component--they can understand it and, perhaps most importantly, we seem to be historically situated for another Bobby Mcferrin "Don't Worry, Be Happy" moment--and no one much cares about the "drudge" work that is being in psychology and ethics on the virtues more generally. This latter shit fascinates me not least because it links back the post-WWII thinkers I value most, e.g., Carl Rogers, Maslow, Goodman, Mills, Mumford, Marcuse, Alinsky, May, Fromm, and the ever-radiantly smart Ricketts.

I am devoting the next year, maybe two, to putting some of this down on paper and out in words. It was after a recent reread of Lacan's 7th Seminar that I decided to do this. Go figure.

langolier said...

My avatar should be representative of the Langolier Model.......