Where Are the Banks of Time?

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“Where are the banks of time?” On time, place, memory and our relationship to history’s victims “And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in everchanging form, and evolves in no one knows what direction?”1 I was going through some photos I too
  “Where are the banks of time?” “And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less bytime than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable dimension whichdisregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves ineddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction?” 1 I was going through some photos I took a few years back on a trip to Pragueand Icame upon this image (Fig 1) of a public sculpture, which, if I recall correctly, lay atthe foot of Petrin hill. Who knows what the creator of this sculpture had in mind? Imyself can discern a kind of movement-image, perhaps a bit like those captured in thevery early days of cinema. But something is grimly amiss in this image. The furtheraway the gaunt, emaciated human figures are from our viewpoint the more theybecome fragmented until we reach the figure nearest the very top of the staircase, of whom there is nothing present except a solitary human leg. As man lurches forward inthis movement image then, it seems as though hispast breaks up, disintegrates anddisassemblesbehind him. Compare this with the early zoopraxiscope images taken byEadweard Muybridge (Fig 2) which expressed the confidence of an emergingmodernity exultant at having last conquered life’s movement through time which untilthen had probably seemed impossible to represent.Our relationship to time has not always been as it isnow of course. Whereas we oncemay have imagined time as cyclical, we now have, certainly since the early capitalistperiod but probablyearlier than this, an idea of it as a straight linethat we are movingthrough. Near the very beginning of W.G Sebald’s magnificent work   Austerlitz (a textI will be referring to throughout this paper) when the author has only recently met thepeculiar but captivating character that is Austerlitz himself, the two characters standunderneath a giant clock in the station atAntwerp. The clock is placed inacentralposition so that it can survey all the commuters who dash to and forth and,conversely, as Austerlitz notes, “all travellers had to look up at the clock and were On time, place, memory and our relationshipto history’svictims  Fig 1 Public sculpture in Prague Fig 2 Early motion capture by Eadweard Muybridge  obliged to adjust their activities to its demands.” 2 To Austerlitz all time seemsillusionary. For him, the past is everywhere present, and this is what, more often thannot, gives him a bad case of vertigo. “For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quietcourtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, thecurrent of time slowing down in the gravitational fieldof oblivion. It seems tome then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if futureevents already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them atlast” 3 I want to delve a bit deeper into our relationship with time and space. It is clear thathumans have, over the centuries, negotiated with the landscape, made it matter, bycharting it, graphing it, naming it, and dividing it, be it a parish boundary, a kingdomor a nation-state. Underneath, all that has changed is the scale involved, at oncebecoming increasingly magnified (we seek to join up the world though instantaneouscommunications) and simultaneously dwindling to ever more microscopic areas (weseek to name, discipline and patent even the fundamental building blocks oflife). Viathis networking of the human and the non-human, the macroscopic and themicroscopic, space fluxes between the smooth and the striated, as some of ourtechnologies encode and territorialize space whilst others disrupt and deterritorializespace once again. Generally speaking, man has had the continuing impulse to encode,order and discipline what he has viewed as an unruly space.With time, things are perhaps a little more difficult for us to get our heads around.Continuing with our Deleuzian detour, I would suggest that we have long had a quiteerroneous conception of our relationship with time. Austerlitz is right to believe timeillusionary. At least since enlightenment times we have had the tendency to think of time as being a sort of medium which the present, our lived present, moves through. Amedium divided up into discrete units. With a past we are moving away from and afixed future that we are running towards as an athlete lunges towards his finish line.But of course this conception of alinear time is something superimposed onto life byhuman consciousness. What we see as a medium stretching between past and future israther a continuous emergent unfolding, a becoming, an emerging from the virtual  plane of things that could be. That is, acreation of difference. The best way we canthink of time from this perspective is the intensive force that pushes movement andlife along, that makes difference happen, that makes life happen. We tend to think of being first then have it move throughtime, but in this reworking we think of time firstas an active force and have being becoming through and via time.The universe knows no chronology, and thus has no need for remembrance, for, likeAusterlitz, all of its pasts and futures are togetherat once. We can see this in the waythat a particle on one side of the universe can be perceived by a particle at the otherside in no time at all. However, the slowness between perception and responsethatoccurs in humans (slower then that of particles,and of plants and of animals, whomust experience time quite differently) means that we posit a medium called time thatwe then assume all of life must flow through. While standing in the observation roomat Greenwich (what a stroke of genius, to have this thought expressed here, in thenucleus of humanity’s drive toorder all of space and time), Austerlitz puts it like this:“if Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then where is itssource and into what sea does it finally flow? Every river, as we know, must havebanks on both sides, so where, seen in those terms, where are the banks of time?” 4 Doour relationshipsto space and time have ethical and political import? I wouldclaimthat they quite intrinsically do. The impulse to graph, order and divide spaceand time and to dismiss space and time as mediums through which we simply movecan lead, I fear, to the voices of those who are not assumed to be part of the presenttobe unheard. These voices are, namely, the dead, and those others in more unruly areasof the world who exist in a present that has not quite caught up with ours but may welldo once apologies for our past actions are paid and structural adjustment plans arelaid. Our relationship to time and space has a lot to sayabout how we rememberhistory’svictims. If we think ourselves to be in a  present  rushing headlong into a  future then it will surely lead to us become willingly forgetful. We might believe thatonce reparation is made with our victims then we can forget about the past, contain itin a memorial, and move on in our present that I imagine,with a slight smile,to be abit like a big bubble, through time. Yet who is to say that this forgetfulness might notresult in the past being repeated? Surely the past should be our constant watchguard?Might not a nonlinearnotion of space and time like the one hinted at above punctuate
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