Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Time's Machines

In honor of NCS and what Carolyn Dinshaw called the "multiple and
heterogeneous temporalities" of medieval culture in her admirable
paper, here is a short excerpt from Medieval Identity Machines (2003, but this particular chapter was initially composed in the wee hours of the morning about a year after Kid #1 was born, so c. 1998). In this initial section I was trying to survey some work on the subject and demonstrate how it might be of use to medievalists who'd like to think history outside of unidirectional models such as "time's arrow," as Stephen Hawking called that relentless figuration.

Note that these paragraphs are amply footnoted in the book, but I've lopped the notes off here for ease of reading.


How to think of direction or trajectory without being able
to anticipate a destination?
-- Elizabeth Grosz, "Thinking the New"

I confess to you, Lord, that I still do not know what time
is, and I further confess to you, Lord, that as I say this I know
myself to be conditioned by time.
-- Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

Although the adjective "exciting" is not often linked to the noun
"medieval studies" in the popular imagination, these are in fact
invigorating times in the field. Anyone who has kept abreast of the
recent proliferation in journal articles, edited collections and
monographs surely recognizes that as a discipline medieval studies is
critically engaged in a process of self-reinvention. A geography that
had begun to seem too familiar feels somehow new, capable of inspiring
that wonder (admiratio) so prized by medieval writers themselves. Yet
however occupied medievalists have been with rethinking interpretive
practices and idées reçues, we have yet to undertake a sustained
examination of the very thing which distances medieval studies from
more contemporary-focused disciplines. We have not yet approached
critically 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. "What then is
time?" Augustine of Hippo famously wondered. "Provided that no one
asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not
know" (Confessions XI.xiv). Few of us would dare second guess
Augustine, especially because whenever something new arrives in
critical theory, it so often turns out that the African bishop was
there long before. To speak of time is difficult, if not baffling, and
for that reason alone time deserves closer analysis.

Contemporaneous to but not yet intersecting with the recent vigor of
medieval studies is a burgeoning critical literature on temporality,
an interdisciplinary dialogue to which philosophers, feminists,
physicists, cultural theorists, social psychologists, and literary
scholars have been contributing. This chapter examines some of this
recent work in its potential relevance to the study of the Middle
Ages. Medieval writers were just as enamoured of investigating the
complexities of both temporality (the nature and working of time) and
history (the transformation of time into narrative) as recent
theorists have been. Medievalists have in turn adroitly examined the
topic in monographs, scholarly essays, and editions and translations
of texts. My aim here, however, is not to analyze medieval time "from
the inside," employing an authentic conceptual language drawn from
surviving treatises on the subject in an attempt to get medieval time
"right." This introductory chapter might instead be described as
Boethian in its methodological ambitions. The author of five orthodox
tractates on theology, Boethius decided in his Consolation of
Philosophy not to employ the language of Christian exegesis, but
utilized exclusively the terminology and imagery of classical
philosophoi and auctores. Within this estranging discourse he
meditated upon divine providence and the relation of a single man's
suffering to the eternity of time in which it is encased. By thinking
the system from its exterior, by employing an unfaithful conceptual
mode which could only by the fifth century be labeled anachronistic,
Boethius was able to ponder the structure of the world anew. More
humbly, my intention is to survey recent critical work on temporality
to discover 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
futures; 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. In fidelity to the
themes of this book, I am most interested in engagements with time
that stress the open-ended movements of becoming over the
immobililities of being, that stress mutating interconnections over
the stabilities of form.

By rethinking temporality as "unfinished," intimately entwining the
past within "the future we must live" (Lee Patterson, Negotiating
the Past
45), medieval studies can productively form alliances
with three closely related schools of analysis: critical temporal
studies, a field of inquiry which receives its inspiration from
sources as diverse as continental philosophy and particle physics;
postcolonial theory, not only in its traditionally invoked arena of
English India, but also within an analytical frame derived (for
example) from the study of the Caribbean; and corporeal theory, that
disparate field devoted to the exploration of the human body in all
its perverse potential. The common thread that I will follow through
these intertwined discourses is their shared interest in Gilles
Deleuze and Félix Guattari's work on machinic assemblages, on what I
have been calling identity machines, ever-active conglomerations of
animated parts which resist constitution into those bounded and
eternal wholes that fascinated Augustine and Boethius. One of the most
important texts on medieval chronology, Bede's Little Book
Concerning the Fleeting and Wave-tossed Course of Time
(known in
English succinctly but unpoetically as The Reckoning of Time)
concludes, naturally enough, with a discussion of "the eternal
stability and stable eternity" of paradise (71). Time's machines offer
no such "blessed repose," but operate in ceaseless motion, in strange
middle spaces unperturbed by questions of delineative beginnings or
definitive ends.

Nonlinear Dynamics
Time is not a whole, for the simple reason that it is
itself the instance that prevents the whole.
-- Gilles Deleuze, Proust & Signs

Time, it is often assumed, is an autonomous stream of unfolding
events, a unidirectional movement organizing past, present, and
future. This horizontal alignment is often referred to as "time's
arrow" or "clock time." In highly industrialized countries, the
omnipresent wristwatches, wall clocks, and digital displays attached
to everything from the exteriors of banks to microwave ovens and cell
phones assume that time is discrete and quantifiable. Time might flow
unceasingly in the chronologic model, but it can nonetheless be
arrested via division into measurable units of recordable duration and
regular repetition (I am writing these words at 5:17 AM, according to
the menu bar clock on my laptop, a time which will repeat in precisely
twenty-four hours, ad infinitum). Because it is part of a system of
culture, clock time can also be exchanged for other things which come
to be closely associated with it, such as money (via labor) or
redemption (via prayer). With its insistence on universality and
predictability, clock time is the indispensable base of any capitalist
society: how could interest be compounded or appointments kept without
a division of temporal flow into years, months, minutes, hours,
seconds? Jacques Le Goff labels the medieval version of clock time
"merchant's time," and sees in the twelfth century fairs of Champagne
an international nexus of commerce obsessed with precise temporal
measurement, integral to "the orderly conduct of business"
("Merchant's Time and Church's Time in the Middle Ages"). Merchants
who reaped profits from speculation and credit were condemned by
clerics for selling time, which belonged to God alone, but both groups
were united in their faith that time consisted of a past and present
organized by an immutable eschatology. The church and the laity
likewise agreed that lived time was knowable through computus, the
science of constructing an accurate calendar. Even if it could be
fragmented into potentially commidifiable pieces, medieval time was
ultimately a totalized system, bounded by eternity (Augustine's nunc
stans, the celestial "immutable now" from which temporal, created
beings were excluded) and guaranteed by an omniscient divinity who
dwelled, like all master signifiers, at that system's exterior.

Such standardized and reassuringly stable conceptualizations bear
little resemblance to temporality as described by contemporary
philosophers, scientists, and some non-Western societies. Clifford
Geertz argued that time in Balinese culture does not move, but exists
in a kind of eternal present (The Interpretation of Cultures). The
Kachin and the Hopi, according to Edward Hall, speak languages that do
not employ verb tenses. They represent time not as quantity but as
intensity ("summer is a condition: hot"). Biological time like the
circadian rhythms, pulsing in their primal regularity, is composed of
interlaced cycles that are not synchronous with the twenty-four hours
of the clock's day. Julia Kristeva uses a psychoanalytic framework to
argue that female subjectivity partakes of a uniquely gendered time
very different from the linear modalities of masculinist history and
civilization. Against "monumental temporality, without cleavage or
escape," Kristeva posits women's time, cyclic repetitions that are at
once extrasubjective, pre- or anti-human, and profoundly maternal
("Women's Time"). According to physics, time is irregular and not
strictly predictable in its flows. Relative rather than absolute, time
can speed up, slow down, grind almost to a standstill. Stephen Hawking
even writes of "imaginary time" in which there is no difference
between forward and backward (Brief History of Time 148). Bruno Latour
goes so far as to dismiss as a modernist fantasy the idea that time
ineluctably progresses. An effect rather than a cause, time (Latour
argues) is "not a general framework but a provisional result of the
connection among entities." History and periodization are therefore
the byproducts of such networks, "collectives of humans and nonhumans"
in which ideas and entities circulate, mutate, vanish and re-emerge
but do not inevitably ameliorate or evolve (We Have Never Been Modern
77). In Latour's formulation, time is unloosed from the flat space of
teleology, from determinative reference to origin and destiny. "No one
has ever been modern," he declares in his confidently nonprogressivist
mode, "Modernity has never begun" (47).

"Do we live in the same time or different times?" With this
disarmingly simple question Rita Felski identifies what might be
called the temporal crux: is time universal and uniform, or
multiplicitous and particular? Do we inhabit shared or incommensurable
worlds, coeval or discontinuous moments? "Is it possible," Felski
wonders, "to carve up the continuum of time into segments, to talk
meaningfully about men's time and women's time, Western time and
non-Western time?" (Doing Time 1). Such an articulation of temporality
may seem postmodern, with its delight in difference and the power of
the partial. Yet postmodernism, Felski argues, disavows "overarching
laws of development governing temporal processes" while nonetheless
deploying a problematic model of history. Conceptualizing time as a
triumphal succession of epochal stages (medieval to modern to
postmodern) and attendant sequences of enlightenment, postmodernism
has been unjust to women and minorities because it has for the most
part denied these groups temporal depth. Time might lose its arrow in
the postmodern model, lose its unidirectional purposivenes, yet
postmodernism's new and "dazzling plurality" is, according to Felski,
content to imagine that the disenfranchised possess only a present,
never a deep history (3). Felski's feminist intervention into the
problem of doing justice to the past is to advance a vertical model of
temporality. Like Latour, she rejects the purity of periodization and
the isolating force of epochs for a messy but mappable interlacement:
Individual groups have their own distinct histories, rhythms, and temporalities quite apart from traditional forms of periodization. History is not one broad river, but a number of distinct and separate streams, each moving at its own pace and tempo … Women qua women, for example, have a unique relationship to time outside conventional, male-centered forms. Feminine difference pervades the entirety of history rather than being confined to a particular epoch. (Doing Time 3)

Felski refuses the traditional metaphor of a singular "river of time"
because the narrow banks of such a waterway would reduce the world's
immensity into a normative evolutionary framework. Yet Felski's
alternative figuration of numerous but "distinct and separate"
temporal streams fails an argument which stresses sameness within
difference. Her interpretive frame implies temporal contiguities while
metaphorically disallowing them. Streams, after all, have both an
origin and a clearly discernable end, the arche of a mountainous
source and the telos of the ocean's embrace.

Perhaps time is not in fact possessed of some fluvial purity, but
finds its companion element in the liquid solidity of lava, in
geological strata, in sedimentations of rocks. Hybridizing physics and
history, Manuel De Landa argues that time is possessed of a nonlinear
dynamic. History, in this formulation, does not have an exterior, is
not possessed by goals outside itself such as evolutionary progress,
equilibrium, or a drive towards advanced civilization. De Landa labels
the familiar stages of human culture (hunter-gatherer,
agriculturalist, city dweller) as phase transitions which are not
amenable to a simple developmental hierarchy:
Much as water's solid, liquid, and gas phases may coexist, so each new human phase simply added itself to the other ones, coexisting and interacting with them without leaving them in the past. Moreover, much as given material may solidify in alternative ways (as ice or snowflake, as crystal or glass), so humanity liquefied and later solidified in different forms … In other words, human history did not follow a straight line, as if everything pointed toward civilized societies as humanity's ultimate goal. On the contrary, at each bifurcation alternative stable states were possible, and once actualized, they coexisted and interacted with one another. (A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History)

Time, according to De Landa, can therefore be described as geological.
It flows in places, hardens in others, irregularly, with frequent
crystalizations (individuated moments of self-organization), drift,
unpredictable movements toward increased or decreased complexity. As
the sheer materiality of these images makes clear, this
conceptualization of time contains within it the possibility for
temporal short circuits. The present, always a work in progress, might
encounter within itself the sedimented past, thence to erupt with the
intensity of an unanticipated future. Gilles Deleuze, a philosopher
instrumental to De Landa's work, has similarly argued that "the past
and the present do not denote two successive moments, but two elements
which coexist: One is the present, which does not cease to pass, and
the other is the past, which does not cease to be but through which
all presents pass" (Bergsonism 59).

De Landa is among a growing cadre of philosophers engaged in a
rigorous rethinking of temporality by abandoning traditional
chronometrics and chronology, describing time instead as movement and
becoming. Building on the work of Nietzsche, Bergson, and (of course)
Deleuze, Elizabeth Grosz likewise writes that clock time is not
abstracted from scientific observation or analysis, but is instead the
imposition of a regularizing structure ("Thinking the New" 17). She
argues that time is activity, difference, and "a repetition [which] is
never the generation of the same but the motor of the new" ("Becoming"
5). A model which is at once "wholistic and fragmentary," Grosz's
articulation of temporality has as its main strength the ability to
conceptualize outside of some pregiven relation the interlacement of
past, present, and future. Time becomes an "intrication and
elaboration … that frees up, undetermines, and deflects rather than
causes" or mechanistically repeats ("Thinking the New" 28), opening
the present to difference, upsetting and resorting a past which is
many-layered, complex, too full, as well as pregnant with possible

To "free up" and "undetermine" the Middle Ages is precisely the goal
of those medievalists who have begun to realize that in order to
transform their discipline, they will have to supplant the
predictability of history with philosophically complex notions of
temporality. In the memorable words of Lee Patterson, historicism, the
dominant impulse in the field, "is always discontented" (Negotiating
the Past xiii). D. Vance Smith has therefore called for what he
describes as "irregular histories," accounts of oblivion rather than
of memory, of the possible rather than of the predictable or the
supposedly inevitable. "To think differently about the Middle Ages,"
he writes, "may amount to thinking differently about the world"
("Irregular Histories" 178). Louise O. A. Fradenburg argues that
psychoanalysis can move medievalists, "specialists in temporal
alterity," to a more complex engagement with the past than the
boundary-drawing mediations of historicism ("Psychoanalysis, Medieval
Studies and Religion"). Carolyn Dinshaw argues for time-bending "queer
histories," glossed as "affective relations across time" (Getting
Medieval 142) which touch the past "to build selves and communities
now and into the future" (206). Nicholas Watson likewise negotiates
the temporal intricacies of the past's life in and for the present
through an affective "zigzag" reading which embraces history's
tactility ("Desire for the Past"), while Paul Strohm argues that
medieval texts like Chaucer's Troilus are composed of multiple, "alien
temporalities," or "residues of an unexhausted past" provocatively
conjoined to "intimations of an uncompleted or unrealized future"
(Chaucer's Troilus as Temporal Archive"). Michelle Warren locates
medieval historiography in a border zone that is as temporal as
geographic(History on the Edge). Catherine Brown in a special issue of
the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies devoted to
"Decolonizing the Middle Ages" convolutes the temporal trajectory of
the journal's theme and ponders what it would "feel like to be
colonized by the Middle Ages" ("In the Middle" 551). What if "time
turns around on itself," she asks, what if the medieval and modern are
coeval? After all, having careful studied the dynamics of chronology
(consideratis temporibus), Augustine concluded that Plato took all his
good ideas from Christ.

Critical temporal studies holds much promise for renewing the
medieval, but as an emergent discipline it has both weaknesses and
blind spots, especially in its unthought presentism and its difficulty
relating time to historical bodies. Grosz tends to privilege the
unforeseen future and the emergence of the new to such an extent that
she deracinates both. The past is often either wholly omitted from
consideration or becomes so abstract that it lacks any particular
content. Manuel De Landa argues that time is not only geological but
biological, a circulation of flesh, genes, and "biomass," yet the
section of A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History on
"Biological History" (103-79) is mainly about medieval towns in their
dependence upon nonhuman life and their "conversion of the world into
a supply region to fuel economic growth" (106). The flesh and genes
which he describes includes bodies, plants, and microorganisms in
their relation to urban structures, climate, ecosystem -- an exuberant
commingling in which some of the raced and gendered specificities of
human bodies are unfortunately lost. I would like to conclude this
section on critical temporal studies by considering an apparently
minor episode in a recent, best-selling book on time's malleability to
reassert the medievalist mantra that history matters. Even when
certain transtemporal claims have been accepted about time (about its
openness, about its lack of a fixed trajectory or eschatos), the
localized cultural matrix or meshwork within which time moves cannot
be disregarded. Time unfolds and enfolds within "individuations,"
creating what Duns Scotus called "haecceities," historical
differentiations and particulars. Time therefore cannot be divorced
from the material and social world, from particular significations and
from particular bodies.

The social psychologist Robert Levine has gained an international
reputation for his studies of how various cultures keep time
differently. In A Geography of Time, Levine concludes that
time is variable across culture because tempo ("the pace of life" "the
flow or movement of time") is culturally relative. Temporal flow is
quickest, Levine concludes, within industrialized cities possessed of
booming economies, large populations, cool climates, and "a cultural
orientation toward individualism" (Geography of Time 9). Tempo for
Levine is a measurable phenomenon, extracted via observation of
quotidian events like the speed at which a randomly selected
pedestrian traverses a crowded street. If time is discernable in the
movement of bodies across space, we should expect Levine to conclude
that time is, therefore, an embodied phenomenon. As he details the
different temporal flows of Rio, Boston, Japan, African villages,
however, one of the surprises of Levine's research is that his
devotion to detailing the velocity of human bodies in abstract
aggregates prevents him from examining the contingent and the local.
In New York, for example, the researcher encounters insurmountable
resistance as he attempts to replicate one of his standardized
transactions for measuring time, a protest which when taken seriously
casts his project of transforming bodies into temporal quantities in a
very different light. In an experiment conducted in numerous cities
throughout the United States and in thirty other countries, a single
postage stamp of standard denomination is purchased using a
handwritten note in the local language. Payment is always made with
the equivalent of a five dollar bill. The transaction is timed,
recorded, and compared with the identical transactions which have been
performed elsewhere in order to discover which locales have the
fastest tempo. When conducted at a post office in New York City,
however, the experiment does not unfold according to plan:
In the main post office (the proud owner of zip code 10001), one clerk held my note over her head, and proceeded to announce, very slowly and very loudly, to the line behind me and to much of midtown Manhattan: "YOU … MEAN … TO … TELL … ME … THAT … YOU …WANT … ONE … LOUSY … STAMP … AND … YOU'RE … GIVING … ME … A …[speaking even more slowly and loudly now, her cadence beginning to sound like the score from Bolero] … FIVE … DOLLAR … BILL?" After a short pause, and a handful of double takes at both the note and me, she cranked up the volume a few more decibels, announcing "GOD, HOW I HATE THIS CITY." Not only was this my most embarrassing moment as a researcher, but her speech so frightened me I forgot to time her progress. (133-34)

The episode is presented in Levine's text as a humorous anecdote, and
indeed it is quite amusing in context. But anyone who, like Levine,
bought a postage stamp in midtown Manhattan during the early 1990s is
likely to suspect something more lies behind the story than a typical
illustration of infamous "New Yawker" rudeness. Levine steps to the
woman's window and says nothing. He presents her with a note asking
for a single stamp and pays with a large sum of money relative to the
meager purchase. He expects her to comply without question, comment,
or evaluation (she is not supposed to have input into his experiment;
she exists purely in order to record the amount of time her body
consumes in order to fulfill a task, and within the parameters of the
exercise possesses no history or desires). One gets the feeling that
what Levine really wants from this postal worker in New York City is
the "luxury service" which he encountered in Japan, where clerks
wrapped stamps in little packages and provided receipts, unbidden
(133). What he receives instead are the angry words of a specific
person in a specific place whose refusal to play along with his demand
for silence and obedient service condemns his abstract experiment's
blindness to its context of gender, of class, and -- more likely than
not -- of race at an especially troubled time in the city's history.
Levine exorcises the embodied rebuke of this New York moment to the
abstract time in which the experiment supposedly unfolds by
transforming it into a humorous anecdote, by dissipating its force
into dismissive laughter.

Despite absorption into decorporealized abstraction, time remains a
phenomenon of the body, a possibility and a constraint of specific
bodies in historically explicable relations. These are lessons in
temporality which Levine could have learned from that burgeoning
conglomeration of fields known as postcolonial studies, a loosely
affiliated set of disciplinary practices that finds as one common
value the necessity of localizing identity machines, of excavating
their embedment in histories of race and gender and unequal
distributions of power, of seeing in their functioning processes of
cultural admixture, conflict, hybridization.


[The chapter continues with a discussion of postcolonial theory and temporality, then concludes with a consideration of a Foucault's fascination with a madman's lethal temporal-material-inscription device, a calibene]

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