Escaping time

I didn’t expect my thinking about the possibility of escaping time. It’s one of those age-old science-fiction dreams that people have. Time travel is perhaps the most imagined, the most commonly imagined form of escaping time. There is not only the philosophical question of why we would want to escape time, but also whether we can actually do it.

Every year, I’m looking forward to reading the questions for the BAC en philosophie here in France. The BAC is the French school leaving exam just before you go to university. This year, more than in previous years, I felt encouraged to try to respond to one of the questions, even if, perhaps, not in a very philosophical way.

Is it possible to escape time?

Philosophy teachers answered the question on radio at the time. It all seemed straightforward and easy. No, we cannot escape time. But is it really this simple? First of all, the question is tricky because it doesn’t say from which point-of-view you should approach the question. I assume that the question is aimed at being resolved by Western, secular thought only, but it’s not stated anywhere that this is what students should be going for. Let me ramble a bit and see where it takes me.

Time itself, as a word, does not have an easy definition. Natural time is (vastly) different from mechanical time. Natural time, or let’s call it simply nature, has an effect on how we make use of our mechanical time in different parts of the world. The time you live by is different if you’re a farmer than if you are an office worker. You probably have different (shorter) work hours on fields in really hot, southern countries than in the north. At the same time, living in the digital age, time has become abstract and confusing, contradictory even.

The sun rises, the sun sets. Nature has its laws and abides by it. We can’t do anything about it. We go to work from 9 to 5. Working society, too, has its laws, which we usually abide by, but we can tweak the oppression by mechanical time. We change jobs to change our work hours. We can work flexible hours. We can become self-employed and become even more flexible (albeit also more stressed). Digital life, the digital world that has replaced much of our natural world around us (in term of awareness) has its own time. For lack of a better word, we call this time, but it has nothing to do with a continuous progress of time the way we know it. The digital is time assembled. It’s Stop & Go all the time. It’s manipulation, adjustment, repetition. And this, like natural time, we cannot change. The digital seems to have its own life. In the 21st century, natural time and digital “time” bracket our life. In between, we live every day by the mechanical clock that is in sync with no other time form.

If we want to discuss whether we can escape time, we first need to clarify which time form we’re speaking of. Before the advent of the clock, the answer to the question would have been a straightforward “no”. It is true that we cannot escape death, which means that we cannot escape time. Yet this perhaps only really holds true in our societies where, post-Christian belief, death is the literal end of something. The Buddhist belief in rebirth, I would be inclined to say, complicates the thought of death as a stoppage of time. If we began to consider death as merely another phase in our being, then it would no longer appear as the ultimate escape from time. At the same time, the philosophers on the radio argued that we couldn’t escape time because death would always catch up with us. If we continued this Western thought, would death then not be the ultimate escape from time, meaning that, in fact, we all achieve it and that this could, perhaps, even be the sense of life in our post-everything world?

There is little doubt that we can escape mechanical time. Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea is a wonderful example: leave society behind, live in the woods, according to nature’s principles and its own time. Forget about standard hours for doing certain things. Simply be. It doesn’t come as a surprise that villagers on a small Norwegian island plan to abolish the mechanical clock. The island of Sommarøy wants to become the world’s first time-free zone. Of course, the island cannot be free of time. But it can free itself from the chains of mechanical time. The argument behind this is simple. If there are no traditional nights during the summer period high up in the north, everything becomes the same. If you mow the lawn at 4am or 2pm is not a question to be had. It’s broad daylight, so go for it!

So, the answer to the question of whether we can escape natural time depends on the philosophy you follow in life. It is much easier to affirm that we can escape mechanical time. In fact, I believe that we have been escaping time since the advent of photography, and later cinema. But how about digital/virtual time? I would be inclined to say that virtual time behaves like mechanical time. It is artificial, it is imposed on us by ourselves. This also means that yes, we can escape it. It is us who created it, it is us who can abolish it. But perhaps this is too easy?

Austerlitz’s time

What is Austerlitz’s time, and where do I get this from? Well, I didn’t expect my wanting to write a blog post about Jacques Austerlitz when I picked up W.G. Sebald’s magnificent book Austerlitz. It’s Sebald’s last novel, published in 2001, and focuses on a man who is simply called Austerlitz most of the time in the book. Austerlitz is haunted by a past he doesn’t know. For most of his life he had ignored where he was from. Or rather, he frankly didn’t know. His memory blocked a very essential part of his life, his childhood, but this blockage was the cause of his being haunted by a past he could never clearly see. For him, as he says, “the world stopped for me at the end of the 19th century.”

At some point in the book, when Austerlitz meets the author again and continues telling his story or his accounts of fascinating historical facts or architectural designs, Austerlitz makes a couple of remarkable statements about the subject of time. Overall, there is so much you can take from this book that it has become, for me at least, one of the best books I have read in my life.

Austerlitz proposes the thought-provoking argument that “time is of all our inventions the most artificial one”. This might sound strange at first, but it sort of accompanies what I had been writing about on this blog in the early days regarding time, as we know it, as an artificial construct that has nothing to do with nature. What Austerlitz describes here, without directly mentioning it in the paragraph that follows, is man’s invention of the mechanical clock that divided a day into 24 equal hours, each hour into 60 equal minutes, and every minute into 60 equal seconds. Before the invention of the mechanical clock, people lived according to the natural cycle of the sun. That was especially true for farmers who got up when the sun rose and stopped their work when the sun set. I strongly believe that was also true for cave men who ventured out in daylight to hunt (another vital factor here is the aspect of darkness as posing a threat to man, which changed when street lamps were introduced much later).

I also remember Lav Diaz saying that life in the Philippines changed drastically when the Spanish colonisers introduced the mechanical clock. All of a sudden, time was linear and not, as the Chinese, for instance, believed, a river with many different arms and therefore directions, waves, and ripples. Time became a constantly progressing entity that, as you might also remember from my writing, becomes completely obsolete when someone suffers from PTSD. It is PTSD that disrupts the linear time we have created with the invention and introduction of the mechanical clock, but I wonder whether it’s not this concept of linear time that reinforces this traumatic stress because it is expected of us (and time) to persistently move forward. So if a person is stuck in the past, or if the past repeatedly resurfaces (because this is how life is anyway – a mixture of past and present that leads to the future), then this is not an acceptable development. (NB: My PhD thesis explores the themes of duration and time in the context of post-trauma in more detail.)

The mechanical clock turned time into something that can be measured, that can be divided, and that only ever follows a linear progression. Austerlitz continues, “if Newton really thought that time progresses like the current in the river Thames, then where is its origin and which sea does it flow into?” But Austerlitz isn’t done. He asks, “everyone knows that a river has two shores. But what are, then, the two borders of time? What are its specific characteristics that correspond approximatively to that of water, which is liquid, pretty heavy and transparent?”

I don’t have an answer to this question, but I marvel about it and have been thinking about it since the first time I read it. It all makes me think of Chinese philosophy again, and its perception of and approach to time that differs so greatly from our Western standards. In particular, the idea of time having different speeds, different directions – simply put, varying and various characteristics – is something that pops up in my head over and over again when I read about prisons and the concentrationary system in which the concept of time is used as punishment and torture. What happens in those circumstances, especially in solitary confinement, is that people are taken “out of time”. In some cases, imprisonment becomes a place where the linear progression of time no longer applies, but where time instead becomes an utterly confusing, anxiety-inducing construct used for the sake of extracting information from prisoners. This “being out of time” is also mentioned in Austerlitz’s monologue, but in a different context.

He argues that despite our lives being seemingly governed by the mechanical clock, it is and remains the cosmos that really structures our lives, an “unquantifiable vastness” that does not comply with linear progression but that progresses more in the form of swirls, precisely what the Chinese proposed centuries and centuries ago. Time is not linear but circular. This, Austerlitz says, is what governs life in “lesser developed countries” but also exists in large metropolitan cities, such as London. “Aren’t the dead out of time? Or the dying? Or those who are sick and confined to their bed in hospital?” Time stops for them, or progresses differently than the way prescribed by our mechanical clock.

The question I pose (more or less to myself) is to what extent film can help us understand this, can help us see that time is not a linear progression or that there are several people who live “out of time”? Can film, as a time-based medium, do this at all, or will it always fail because film, just like time, is an artificial construct?

The River Used to be a Man

It’s been a while that I watched a good slow film. My head rarely thinks ouside Lav Diaz’s films at the moment. I’m trying to re-watch Florentina Hubaldo (and will post a review here later), but it’s a lot tougher than I had first experienced. So I’m taking it slow.

I came across The River used to be a man by accident. It’s a German film by Jan Zabeil that was released last year in its home country. I don’t think it has ever made its way to the UK, and IMDB agrees with me on this point.

The river Used to be a Man

The film tells the story of a German, who, after the apparent death of his guide, gets lost in the Botswanan wilderness. It is a slow-paced film, though not a painterly slow film the way I would study it. However, The River that used to be a man confirmed a few things that I realised only a short while ago, and which still make me think as to how I could fit this into my writing.

The film is wonderful at depicting the African wilderness, the loneliness it evokes. But also the untouched nature we can hardly find these days, especially in our regions. We see peaceful sunsets and smooth rivers. The main character, for me, in this film is nature. And strikingly, the native who initially travels with the German explains to him: “Here’s the house of the animals. It’s the house of all the animals … we’re on their island”. Nature is the host; man is merely a guest, as is the case in many other slow films.

The River Used to be a Man

What made me think is the subtle point on modernity, and the way in which we humans, especially from the First World, have forgotten how to live in a simple manner. When the native dies, the German is on his own, in the middle of nowhere. He struggles to manouvre the canoe-like boat, and falls into the river because he cannot keep his balance. He cannot hunt. At night he hears a lot of sounds from animals, but he cannot identify whether or not the animals around him could be dangerous as he possibly has never learned to identify them in the first place. He didn’t need to, living in a city. Finally, he can’t light a fire because his lighter doesn’t work. The first thing he asks for when he wakes up in an unknown village after he had been picked up by a native when unconscious, is a telephone and a shop.

It sounds like the typical ignorant Westerner. And yet, it is only a subtle theme that runs through the film. This very theme brought me back to an earlier thought that a substantial amount of slow films are in some ways connected to the Third World, or in more specific terms to developing countries. They are made by directors from developing countries, or deal with issues that touch upon those regions. This doesn’t apply to all slow films, but it is nevertheless quite a large number.

We have Lav Diaz from the Philippines; Yulene Olaizola, Nicolas Pereda, Carlos Reygadas and Francisco Vargas from Mexico; Lisandro Alonso from Argentina; Abbas Kiarostami from Iran; Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand. Michela Occipinti’s film Letters from the Desert is set in India. The River is set in Africa.

I wouldn’t go as far as terming these films Third Cinema, but I find this development striking. Other slow films come from what we call the Second World. Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokurov are the most known examples. I’m not trying to put the films into boxes. However, this is where the term “slowness” comes in again. For whom are those films slow? For the audience, and the audience comes mainly from the capitalist, speedy First World. From urban areas with bustling streets. From hyper-modern civilisations, whose days are structured by the mechanical clock.

Considering the geographical backgrounds of those directors, it is inadequate to term the films slow. The term can be derogative, and in this case, I would say that, indeed, it is. It is merely looking down from our big modern horse on countries that are still a bit “behind”. But behind what? What is the merit?

The Power of Time

People who prefer slowness in their lives argue that we’re all slaves of the clock. Those who can’t live without the constant rush of adrenaline argue that this is grossly exaggerated. However, the concept of being a slave of the clock has a history most of us may not at all be aware of. There are three aspects to it (I will do this only briefly here, more details in my actual thesis):

1) Christianity was the first religion that was focused heavily on doing religious services at the ‘correct time’. This was initially indicated by sun clocks, or water clocks, until the mechanical clock was invented. The pursuit of religious services became more rigorous and were a must for devoted and time-obedient Christians. In a way, then, it was from the beginning the clock that ruled when to pray (Aventi 1995; Landes 1983).

2) The mechanical clock was an ideal instrument to exercise power. Take Charles V of France, for instance. At the end of the 14th century, he had a clock installed in his palace, and requested that all other clocks be adjusted to his time. With that being the case, he also ruled when his inferiors were allowed to do certain things. They were thus enslaved by the clock (and by Charles V) (Scattergood 2003).

3) Finally, the power of time on a larger scale; colonialism. European powers introduced mechanical clocks to those countries they conquered. The technically advanced clocks were seen to be an ideal example to show the superiority of European cultures. I mentioned elsewhere that Lav Diaz explained that the Filipino’s perception of time had changed when the Spanish colonisers conquered the islands and introduced the mechanical clock. In a way you can apply my second point from above here; the ruling power introduces her ‘time’ and the colonised have to obey (Geißler 2012).

In general, the mechanical clock allowed it Man to detach time from Nature. This meant that he was in control, and what would prevent him from using this tool to exercise power on his fellows to secure his dominant position?

Part of the landscape

The invention and widespread use of the mechanical clock in the middle of the last millennium has not only changed our understanding of time. It also altered our perception of time and space as entities. In the 15th century the minute hand was added to the clock face, in the 1690s the second hand helped to measure time in even smaller intervals. The clock became a symbol of Western efficiency, of the hunt for profit and productivity. Nature, which had long been a satisfying time teller, was gradually replaced by technology. Karlheinz Geißler, having researched the history of time measurement and its effects on society, argues that while time had long belonged to God, Man seized this power with the invention of the mechanical clock.

With an artificially created time, the ‘mean time’ which consists of 24 equal hours as opposed to ‘temporal time’ which is based on nature and its seasons, we have also altered our perception of space. I think we can agree on the fact that the clock was a decisive factor in the Industrial Revolution, in the speeding up of Man’s activities. It is telling that David Landes stresses the term ‘watch’ for portable clock, emphasising that time is something we need to pay attention to at any moment.

In any case, let’s consider for a moment an argument by German writer Heinrich Heine, who, in 1843, was saddened by the locomotive “killing” space and leaving us with nothing but time. Geißler explains this in more detail. If we sit in a train, we travel through space, but we don’t stop at a place to rest. We merely rush forward in order to travel through even more space. We, the passengers, are therefore not part of the landscape anymore. We merely travel through it. We’re independent of space in a way. All that is left is time, and our view on the landscape, but we’re not part of it anymore.

This separation of time and space is more evident than ever before these days. In manipulating natural time, we have disconnected it from space. This is obvious in films, which use flashbacks and flash-forwards. Time is something we have control over, it’s something we can manipulate to our liking. With that, space changes, too. In Fergus Daly’s wonderful documentary “The Art of Time“, Russian director Alexandr Sokurov explains that he attempts to re-connect time and space. Sokurov is one of the many ‘slow-film’ directors. His film Russian Ark is perhaps a great illustration of this, a film made up of a single long-take, therefore ‘recording’ time as well as space in their natural appearance.

The very characteristic of slow films in general is a way to return to the pre-mechanical clock, pre-Industrial age era in that it is concerned with the natural way of time and space. It is about returning the control over time, and therefore over space, to nature. Just as in the era prior to the mechanical clock, we simply watch what is happening. We’re no longer sitting in a train speeding past the landscape. We’re part of it again.