Thursday, 1 August 2019

"Surrealist time" part 1

A recent post by Merl Fluin reminded me of a couple of old essays of mine. Merl posted on her Gorgon In Furs blog here: and what especially struck my attention was this: "Granularity: Nothing in nature is continuous. There is no infinity and no eternity. Everything is granular, and there is always a minimum “grain” size beneath which things cannot shrink. This state of affairs includes gravity, which in turn means that spacetime is not the stretchy, rubbery sheet of continuous stuff familiar from pop science imagery. Instead, spacetime is a network of grains of gravity, all looped together like a kind of mesh or chainmail."
and this:
"Spacetime Origami
Rovelli shatters time’s arrow. Nevertheless, he is careful not to dismiss time as an illusion. He mourns friends he has lost, and he considers his own mortality. He is acutely sensitive to what it means for us humans to be creatures of time, even as he takes time out of the equation (so to speak) of reality."
Merl's point seems not especially about time, but  the nature of reality of which time is a necessary part, and my essays were specifically concerned with the nature of "surrealist time" but it was an interesting juncture. When I wrote the first of these essays The Gold Of Time around 2007 I was fumbling towards a basic concept of time because I was trying to write about the surrealist experience of space and place and sooner or later that means you have to deal with time as well. I decided that, given the apparent surrealist aversion to Bergson, and Bachelard's critique of Bergson in his Dialectic of Duration, I had a starting point. Bachelard proposes that Bergson's notion of 'elan vital' is flawed, because he sees time as a constant flow of durations. Bachelard claims that time is rather composed of 'instants' and the appearance of flow is rather like that of water, which is composed of molecules of water, which in turn, as eny fule no, is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. So, if we can break time down to instants that too can be seen as 'granular' and discontinuous.
From that point we can see the breaks and discontinuities as possibilities of freedom. Anybody iintererested enough can read my essay, which I shall attach as an appendix to this post. It's very imperfect, but it was  a first attempt to think 'surrealist time'. It grasps something of "the gold of time". It is also most certainly aiming at a state of 'profane illumination' in which to experience this time.
The Gold of Time: Surrealism, History and Time

Stuart Inman

On André Breton’s tomb is the inscription “Je cherche l’or du temp” – I seek the gold of time. This phrase dates from early in Breton’s career and reappears at its very end. It seems, therefore, a fitting phrase to open this discussion of the surrealist experience of time. In the course of this paper I want, by way of a lengthy detour, to tackle the question: what, for a surrealist, is the “gold of time”?

My research is fundamentally concerned with the surrealist experience of space and place, the subjective and intersubjective experiences engendered by wandering, drifting, the notion of objective chance, the atmospheres of real places and the evocation of imaginary geographies. I hope that it will be clear to you that such a discussion is incomplete without taking account of time, All experience, of place or anything else, can only be experienced in time, it has some kind of duration, it extends through time and it belongs, in another sense, to a time, an epoch or period.. Space without time is static, time is the movement of space and we can not move in space without time. On the other hand, time without space would be a static duration. While we are not really discussing, except for very brief references, the Einsteinian view of space and time, we cannot avoid the notion of space/time, there is no point at which they do not go together.

Don’t read...Bergson

A fairly early surrealist text consisted of two lists, “read” and “don’t read”. In the former we find Heraclitus, Hegel etc. Among the latter is included Henri Bergson. Given that this paper is concerned with some of the same issues as Bergson it is important to understand why he should be rejected by the surrealists. An obvious reason is that he was a symbol of the establishment to a very anti-establishment group, Bergson was probably the foremost academic philosopher of France in the first part of the twentieth century, consequently his actual status, regardless of the content of his philosophy, would be challenged by the surrealists, but it is the content of Bergsonism that must be examined to understand real objections and the surrealists never bothered with such an effort, he was dismissed in a phrase. In order come to an understanding of what is really at stake here I am going to refer to the work of a philosopher who does indeed have sympathies with surrealism as well as parallels in his later thought, and that is Gaston Bachelard.

Bachelard’s critique of Bergsonism is contained in two books, only one of which is available in English and it is this work I wish to refer to, “The Dialectic of Duration”[1] Bachelard presents Bergson’s philosophy as
 “...a philosophy of fullness and his psychology is a psychology of plenitude. This psychology is so rich, so multifarious and mobile that it cannot be contradicted; it makes repose active and functions permanent; it can always draw on so many things that the psychological scene will never be empty and success also will be ensured. In these conditions, life cannot go in fear of some total failure.”[2]
He seems to present Bergsonian philosophy as an idealism:
“Thus, the soul is seen to be a thing behind the flux of its phenomena; it is not really contemporary with its own fluidity. And the Bergsonism that has been accused of a predilection for mobility has not set itself within duration’s very fluidity. It has maintained the solidarity of past and future and also the viscosity of duration, with the result that the past remains the substance of the present or to put it another way, that the present instant is never anything other than the phenomenon of the past.”[3]
If he is correct, then the present moment, the now, is robbed of its own fullness, it must have a secondary nature to that of the past and yet that past, being, as it were, a previous present, must also be similarly diminished except it be seen as an origin, but within a philosophy of endless flow, where can one inscribe a beginning? Bergson’s philosophy would seem to be riddled with contradictions that remain unresolved because they remain unacknowledged.

While Bachelard is giving an anti-Bergsonian view of time, it isn’t merely, shall we say, un-Bergsonian, it is rather that he accepts much of Bergson’s thinking on duration, but disagrees with his central thesis:
“...let us ay straightaway that of Bergsonism we accept everything but continuity. Indeed, to be even more precise, let us say that from our point of view also continuity – or continuities – can be presented as characteristics of the psyche, characteristics that cannot be regarded as complete, solid, or constant. They have to be constructed. They have to be maintained. Consequently, we do not in the end see the continuity of duration as an immediate datum but as a problem. We wish therefore to develop a discontinuous Bergsonism, showing the need to arithmetise Bergsonian duration so as to give it more fluidity, more numbers, and also more accuracy in the correspondence the phenomena of thought exhibit between themselves and the quantum characteristics of reality.”[4]

In a paper of this kind it isn’t possible to go into much detail as to how Bachelard develops his critique of Bergson. It must be sufficient to understand that Bachelard can propose an idea of discontinuous time in which duration is composed of instants, that such a notion is true in both the scientific view of time, that of physics as well as the psychological view in which our subjective and intersubjective experiences of time are also discontinuous, showing gaps, rhythms and lacunae.

I have made reference to Bachelard for several reasons. The first is, as I have said, he shows it is possible to understand time as something discontinuous on many levels, secondly, he uses the notion of dialectics in order to show both the contradictions in Bergson’s thought and the discontinuous nature of time. This is not, I would say, the all-embracing Dialectic, with a very capital “D” of a possibly misunderstood Hegelianism, but something like dialectics in a minor key, a series of dialectics that are particular to the problem. It is also of interest that he suggests that “Surrealist poetry would give good examples of this temporal dialectic, this purely psychic rhythm.” I have to say that he seems to reveal a very limited understanding of what surrealism is, but this comment of his does seem to indicate the growth of his sympathy with surrealist thought as he moves slowly towards his later concept of Surrationalism.

Breaking the Wheel of Time: Agamben’s Discontinuous History

According to Giorgio Agamben, a contemporary Italian philosopher:
“Every conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time which is implicit in it, conditions it, and therefore has to be elucidated. Similarly, every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without an alteration in this experience. The original task of a genuine revolution is never merely to ‘change the world’, but also – and above all – to ‘change time’. Modern political thought has concentrated its attention on history, and has not elaborated a corresponding concept of time. Even historical materialism has until now neglected to elaborate a concept of time that compares with its concept of history. Because of this omission it has been unwittingly compelled to have recourse to a concept of time dominant in Western culture for centuries, and so to harbour, side by side, a revolutionary concept of history and a traditional experience of time. The vulgar representation of time as a precise and homogeneous continuum has thus diluted the Marxist concept of history: it has become the hidden breach through which ideology has crept into the citadel of historical materialism. Benjamin had already warned of this danger in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. We now need to elucidate the concept of time implicit in the Marxist conception of history.”[5]

Agamben shows how, for instance, the ancient Greek idea of time was circular, thus Aristotle could say “Do those who lived at the time of the Trojan War come before us, and before them those who lived in an even more ancient time…if it is true, on the other hand, that the things that are closest to the beginning come before, what then prevents us from being closer to the beginning than those who lived at the time of the Trojan War?...if the sequence of events forms a circle, since the circle has indeed neither beginning nor end, we cannot, by being closer to the beginning, come before them any more than they can be said to come before us.”[6]

The Christian concept of time, on the other hand, is linear and runs from Genesis to Revelations and it is this notion of time that Agamben challenges in his critique of the Marxist idea of time. He proposes instead a broken or discontinuous model in which revolution can erupt as a moment rather than all time and history being geared to the revolution as an end-state. The rectilinear model of time dominates not only the Marxist concept of history, but the Hegelian which went before it and the idea of the end of history, after which nothing new can ever happen, is not without problems.

Agamben says: “Whether it is conceived as linear or circular, in Western thought time invariably has the point as its dominating feature. Lived time is represented through a metaphysical-geometric concept (the discrete point or instant) and it is then taken as if this concept were itself the real time of experience.  Vico’s words on the geometric point could also be applied to the instant as a ‘point’ in time. This is the opening through which the eternity of metaphysics insinuates itself into the human experience of time, and irreparably splits it. Any attempt to conceive of time differently must inevitably come into conflict with this concept, and a critique of the instant is the logical condition for a new experience of time.”[7]

He finds that “The elements for a different concept of time lie scattered among the folds and shadows of the Western cultural tradition…It is in Gnosticism, that failed religion of the West, that there appears an experience of time in radical opposition to both the Greek and the Christian versions. In opposition to the Greek circle of experience and the straight line of Christianity, it posits a concept whose spatial model can be represented by a broken line. In this way it strikes directly at what remains unaltered in classical Antiquity and Christianity alike: duration, precise and continuous time.”[8]

This “time of Gnosticism” is: “…an incoherent and unhomogeneous time, whose truth is in the moment of abrupt interruption, when man, in a sudden act of consciousness, takes possession of his own condition of being resurrected…in keeping with this experience of interrupted time, the Gnostic attitude is resolutely revolutionary: it refuses the past while valuing in it, through an exemplary sense of the present, precisely what was condemned as negative (Cain, Esau, the inhabitants of Sodom), and expecting nothing from the future.”[9]

From this point Agamben finds it is “…certainly no accident that every time modern thought has come to reconceptualise time, it has inevitably had to begin with a critique of continuous, quantified time. Such a critique underlies both Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ and Heidegger’s incomplete analysis of temporality in Being and Time.” [10] he points out how, with Benjamin, “Against the empty, quantified instant, he sets a ‘time of now’, Jetzt-Zeit, construed as a messianic cessation of happening, which ‘comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgement.’’[11]

Benjamin’s critique seems especially relevant in section XIV of the Theses – ‘Origin is the Goal’.
“History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate.”[12]

Thus, the French Revolution is not merely a re-enactment of the Roman Republic, but is it reborn in a new form, thus breaking through the single rectilinear line of history and inscribing itself on the now. Perhaps, though, the subsequent Napoleonic Empire was precisely a re-enactment of the Roman Empire?  No doubt Benjamin was thinking also of the Russian Revolution as having the same relationship to the French revolution as it had done to the Roman Republic.

Once time has been conceived in these terms, as something other than continuous, rectilinear and homogeneous, it becomes possible to start to think more concretely as to what the gold of time might be. Agamben finishes his essay by suggesting that there is “an immediate and available experience on which a new concept of time could be founded”[13] and this experience is pleasure. The “…true site of pleasure, as man’s primary dimension, is neither precise, continuous time nor eternity, but history.”[14]  “Just as the full, discontinuous, finite and complete time of pleasure must be set against the empty, continuous and infinite time of vulgar historicism, so the chronological time of pseudo-history must be opposed by the cairological time of authentic history.”[15]

L’Age D’Or: Surrealist revolutionary play against utilitarian time

Agamben’s conclusion is that “True historical materialism does not pursue an empty mirage of continuous progress along infinite linear time, but is ready at any moment to stop time, because it holds the memory that man’s original home is pleasure.”[16] It is here that his thinking seems especially relevant to the surrealist conceptualization of play.

The time of play opposes utilitarian time. In the world of work all time is turned towards usefulness and productivity, even leisure is bent towards becoming part of a single and homogeneous duration as leisure is commodified and as such has to be serviced. Leisure becomes mediated by the market and is consequently another industry of production. Play ceases to be play and pleasure and play become other forms of work. A professional footballer does not play football, it is his job. To use a term coined by the Situationists play is recuperated into the totality that is the world of work.

Real play, in order to subvert this situation, needs to renounce usefulness. As Roger Caillois, an ex-surrealist, puts it, play is defined in part by being unproductive: creating neither goods nor wealth[17]. In his book “Man, Play and Games” Caillois theorizes on the nature of play, partly as a critique of Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens”. Both authors agree that play has its own time and is, in the ordinary sense, unproductive. Caillois develops four categories of games.

Agôn: competitive games
Alea: games of chance
Mimicry: games of imitation, illusion and make-believe[18]
Ilinx: games of vertigo.

In surrealism the competitive game is almost unknown and games of chance and vertigo predominate. For instance, in one of the earliest and best known surrealist games, Cadavre exquis, a game based on Consequences, each player draws or writes in ignorance of their fellow players contributions. Fragments of images or phrases make chance associations that defeat intentionality.

In games of place and wandering one might take chance or random directions, so, for instance, Marcel Mariën travelled around London using a Paris street map. In one game played by some colleagues and friends, we had a set of directions such as turn left, take the second right and so on, each player taking the same walk in a different place. Such abandonment of purpose and surrender to the dictates of chance is precisely in the hope of prompting the experience of vertigo, the promotion of objective chance in which uncanny, but meaningful coincidences can happen.

The ur-texts of this exemplary wandering are André Breton’s ‘Nadja’ and Louis Aragon’s ‘Paris Peasant’. In the former, Breton describes a series of uncanny encounters culminating in his meeting with the eponymous Nadja, a strange woman who seems possessed of prophetic powers but who succumbs to madness. Aragon’s text takes a minutely detailed tour of the Passage de l’Opera in which the realism of the description breaks down under the sheer weight of that detail.

On reading these texts it can be said that not all surrealist play is pleasurable, sometimes it seems to enter a strange realm of anxiety, even fear, more rarely of actual danger. But this is the price paid for the desired vertigo, the experience of convulsive beauty. Surrealist wandering is essentially an exploration of the commonplace in order to render it unfamiliar, terra incognita.

In this break with utilitarian time we can experience time as something other than capitalist, consumerist duration. Conceived as a break in the continuum, surrealist play allows Utopia to emerge, not as somebody’s projected perfect society – and it is always somebody else’s perfect society – but as a moment, a tiny fragment of a different order of time in which play and pleasure form their own duration.

While this can not be a self-sufficient revolutionary theory, it is the necessary corollary to revolution. For as long as workers remain only workers they remain within the realm of utilitarian time, they serve the duration of work. By creating a gap, a space in the utilitarian order one discovers the means of demolishing the misery of work. Thus conceived, the useless becomes the most useful thing of all. As Agamben puts it:

“But a revolution from which there springs not a new chronology, but a qualitative alteration of time (a cairology), would have the weightiest consequence and would alone be immune to absorption into the reflux of restoration. He who, in the epochē of pleasure, has remembered history as he would remember his original home, will bring this memory to everything, will exact this promise from each instant: he is the true revolutionary and the true seer, released from time not at the millennium, but now.”[19]

[1] Bachelard, Gaston: The Dialectic of Duration. Translated and annotated by Mary McAllester Jones, Clinamen Press, Manchester. 2000.
[2] Ibid. p.23.
[3] Ibid. p. 24.
[4] Ibid. pp. 28-9.
[5] Agamben, Giorgio: Time and History: critique of the instant and the continuum. In: Infancy and History, Essays on the Destruction of Experience. Translated by Liz Heron. Verso, London. 1993.
[6] Ibid. pp. 92-3.
[7] Ibid. p. 100.
[8] Ibid. pp.100-101.
[9] p. 101.
[10] Ibid.  p.102.
[11] Ibid. p.102.
[12] Benjamin, Walter: Theses on the Philosophy of History In: Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Fontana Press, London. 1992.
[13] Op. cit. p. 104.
[14] Ibid. p.104.
[15] Ibid. p. 104-5.
[16] Ibid. p.105.
[17] Caillois, Roger: Man, play and games. Translated by Meyer Barash. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago. 2001. p.10.
[18] He uses the English word ‘mimicry’ rather than mimesis
[19] Op.cit. p.105.

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