17.12.2019 | Words by: Aldo KempenAn omnipresent neoliberal discourse emphasises our responsibility to be, or rather, to become better, more moral and more productive citizens. As such, we are asked to invest, now, in our future selves. This is set perpendicular to the ever more alluring interfaces that are designed to distract us into the momentary amnesia of social media. Split between distraction into an oblivious now and labouring for a better future, the contemporary subject inhabits a bipolar temporality. Intervening in this bipolarity, What About Now is a night that takes you on an aural exploration of what it could mean to inhabit the fleeting present — a night that breaks with the current obsession with the future. On the 19th of December, various artists guide the listeners away from the daily distractions and into a contemplative state. Through music, it surveys the many forms that the now can take. But as obvious and given ‘the now’ seems, what do we mean when we talk about- or experience this now? Here on the blog, (perpetually in becoming) philosopher Aldo Kempen lifts a glimpse of the veil of the framing lecture that he will deliver on this night:
While the future is shrouded in uncertainty and the past is only retrievable through relics and memories, the now seems to have a certain givenness and clarity to it. The now seems to be the most given and obvious — in a way, it’s all we have. However, if we look closer, this seeming givenness of the present seeps steadily away, because how long does this now last? How long is an instance? If this evening is musically intervening into a ‘now’, when is this ‘now’ and how long will it take? Does it last a second or a millisecond; is it even expressible in clock-time?
The absolute existence of time (as existing outside of the perceived phenomena, as something that predates these phenomena) was something that was long sought after within philosophical circles. Commenting on- and rejecting this debate, Marx came to a conclusion that time was not something existing outside of the material reality but something that was constructed within this. Time was something that was created, differently, in different eras and cultures. Marxist scholars scrutinised our current conception of time as sequential, successive and discrete - where a unit (a second) is followed by another (second). From this Marxist perspective, they argued that this is not an inherent property of time but, merely, a culturally contingent way of looking at it.
Illustrating this point, anthropologists have surveyed different cultures where time is experienced in radically different ways. For instance, in Madagascar, the anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard observed how the cooking of rice (about half an hour) was used as an indicator of time. Here, time was not perceived as developing outside of the practices of daily life but was measured through theses practices and was experienced as cyclical rather than linear. Time was happening outside of the phenomena but was happening within them.
Another example could be gained from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, as he observed the Kabyle people in Algeria. He noted how they had a distinct disregard to clock time — the clock was referred to as “the devil’s mill”. The notion of an exact appointment was foreign to them and rather they planned to “meet at the next market”. Such imprecise ways of differentiating time can only make sense, according to Bourdieu, in a crofting society whose division of labour is minimal and in which the day’s tasks disclose themselves out of the rhythm of the seasons. These social-scientists, together with Marx, concluded that time-scales and ways to differentiate time are relative to the needs of a society and not necessarily existing beyond this.
Marxist historian E.D Thompson takes this premise, of the social construction of time, to analyse our capitalist mode of production. He argues that the emergence of sequential time is tied to the dissemination of clock-time in the labour process. With clocks becoming more prevalent in the 18th century, it allowed the labour process to become more intricate and divided. Individual processes of labour could now be coordinated more precisely and effectively. As acts and practices could be clocked down to the second, labour began to be exploited more thoroughly since it could be better measured, studied and perfected. For example, Michel Foucault spotlights how in the 18th-century France descriptions of how a worker should execute their specific task became dramatically more specific and elaborate.
This aided the mainstreaming of the idea that time was not happening inside the practices of daily life (like in the example of Madagascar) but happening outside of it. Furthermore, as time began to be seen as something that happened outside of these practices, they could now be ‘objectively’ studied, transformed and sped up. Moreover, E.D Thompson argues that as practices did no longer have their own specific duration but could be sped up when studied, this undergirded the move from a more cyclical understanding of time towards a linear teleological understanding of time. The future was no longer an iteration of the past but became the space where the present could be perfected.
Building on the above insights, theorists like Hito Steyerl have argued that this normative goal of perfectibility and the linear, sequential, discrete and absolute conception of time has become even more hegemonic in our contemporary moment. Through smart technologies, everything and anything is measurable into quantifiable and seemingly absolute entities. Not only the practices of work are measured but also your daily run, your blood pressure, your ‘headspace’ etc. More and more, we are measuring in quantifiable units that are related to the object measured, yet, somehow, outside of it. Time has become a linear, discrete entity and this has transformed the now in a place that can be and should be, perfected for a possibly better future.
However, time is not fully captured in this sequential view on it, according to the early 20th-century French philosopher Henri Bergson. In his critique of Einstein, Bergson stated that we have ‘temps’ (scientific/rationalised time) on the one hand and ‘durée’ (duration or lived time) on the other hand. He claimed that there are infinite many rhythms that make up the passing of time of the world and that scientific time, or ‘temps’, is only one of them. For Bergson, every entity had its own lived time and thus its own distinct rhythm. The blossoming of a flower, the decay of a body but also the chorus of a song; each has its own rhythm, pace and thus ‘durée’. He stated: “there is no one rhythm of duration; it is possible to imagine many different rhythms” (Bergson, Matter and memory
207) Although each thing has its own rhythm (and thus also people), these rhythms are not static or happening in isolation to one another — each duration “has the power to disclose other durations, to encompass the others, and to encompass itself ad infinitum
” (Deleuze, Bergsonism
It could be argued that what we have seen in the past 200 years is that the internal duration of people has been influenced by the duration of the clock or scientific time. We have come to self-identify and mirror our own distinct duration with that of the clock. The specific duration of clock-time has become hegemonic in our thinking of what it means for time to pass. The clock time has become an absolute measure of our own durations.
However, this is where music (and its possible power) comes in. Music, and maybe more specifically music that has no one static beat to it, discloses a plurality of rhythms and passages of time. It can reveal a polyphony of durations, beyond that of the clock. Some rhythms mirror clock time (like a four to the floor), others are more erratic. Some are slow and drag out, some are fast and condense.
And the beauty is, if we follow the quote above, that durations are influencing other durations. A duration of music can thus influence the listener. The flows of time of music can influence the flows of time of a listening subject. We all have experienced, probably, how music can lure you in and make time speed up dramatically. But also the contrary where it stretches out time — vivifying your inner consciousness.
And this is maybe what What About Now is about. During What About Now, the listener will be taken on a tour through a magnitude of rhythms. Some rhythms lure the listener into a quickening of duration, of clock-time speeding up. Others slow it down, allowing for more introspection. But all rhythms invite one to look beyond the shortsighted view of time as one. They explore a world where the now is not a static instance but a place where personal ‘nows’ can elongate or shorten in relation to the environment — an exciting, more plural place than the singularity of the clock. Tickets for What About Now are still available here.