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temporality: web event 4

Celeste's picture

“Let any one try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.” – William James, The Principals of Psychology


As a little girl, I always dreamed of being a time traveler.  Everything belonged to me.   I would tie a dishcloth over my eyes and stand on the precipice of my bed and timber down onto the mattress.  It was simple.  As soon as my body hit the mattress, bouncing violently, I would be taken to Victorian England, or the raft of Lewis and Clark.  It happened! It must have.  I was always able to describe the worlds I saw, down to the smells and times I had to use the bathroom.  It may very well have all been real.  Sometimes on special occasions, I promised myself that I would fall through the bed sheets and land in space—tulips of embers would rest in my palms.  Flying through the dark past planets, the goddess of time, nothing would disappear ever again.  The power to conjure up worlds was mine and mine alone.  True loss was therefore impossible.  I was immortal—truly immortal—and could never die.


I’ve aged a bit, but the dream remains.  Now, wonder about not only the limits of time, but ways to think of it as a nebulous creature.  We perceive time as a divisible commodity, something that “happens” to objects and ideas.  The relationship between the subject and object is too often characterized as debilitating.  Normatively, there are the siblings of past, present, and future, only one of which considered to be “real”.  Our class has spent a sizable amount of time talking about the implications that go along with living with this model of time, as it affects our notions of productivity and identity.  More and more, I find it personally stifling to lock away everything outside of the immediate moment—storage for the nighttime ceremony of dreaming and daytime fantasy.  How could it no longer matter?  Do we become in the present, or does this only occur in the past? 


It seems like we often rely on presentism to make ourselves feel better—more relevant.  More alive?  We have lived before a thousand times, but for some reason, I have always been urged to live in the present.  For fear of losing control, for fear of becoming lost in the past, therefore not giving due fodder for the future.  Memory provides an intangible window to the past, but the moments we relive are never precise.  They have occurred.  It is true.  I’m often baffled by the presentist thought that notion exists but the current moment. I rely so heavily on emotion to consider progress and movement.  As I dive into the past, I recall the emotions of that memory and the “hindsight” emotions felt afterwards.  An entity that does not exist could never have that power.  One has merely moved beyond, distanced the body and mind from the constitution of that second, but it has not dissipated into nothingness.


Though something is not spacially present, does that indicate its death?  The remnants of a passing are often defined by their impact on the present, I have found.  In attempting to temporally locate these non-present objects, such as memories and dead bodies, it is undisputable that they are no longer here.  Yet there are events and happenings that are indeed the direct result of all things deemed non-existent by the presentists.  The study of history, therefore, is not only implausible but fiction in from the presentist perspective.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identifies that “. . . a third problem for the Presentist has to do with the very plausible principle that for every truth, there is a truth-maker.” (Markosian).  It is difficult to explain a score of events without believing the past to be real in some way: an explainable progression of human behavior after trauma (read: personal growth), the rise of technology in our society.  It would take an obscene amount of willpower to deny that much.


Instead of looking at time as a continuous arrow that changes space, I have invited myself to consider instead “block time”.  Block time imagines space-time as a four dimensional block.  Therefore, past, present, and future are equivalent and unchanging.  The idea of time “passing” becomes a synonym for the human tendency to look towards the future and expect change.  The butterfly effect, for example, becomes implausible because every fragment of the effect occurs continuously in time-space.  The theory initially seems ridiculous because we are so conditioned to view time as an agent of movement, rather than the hand that has placed all existences neatly in their spots in the block.  I find myself connecting block time with deism, in the sense that there is no changeable destiny to anything.  Instead of “making” the future one can only wait to become aware of it, as it has already been defined.  As a deist, I believe that God has set into motion the means to make everything exist the way it has and will: perhaps I do not have the right to mourn anything, then.


What, then, is a temporal border? An expiration date?  Much of the time, there is so much prejudice associated with not completing life events within certain time frames.  Just last week, I heard somebody call a student who took a year off from school “a late bloomer”.  The sun does not place us in such cycles—society does.  News flash: almost nobody deals with it well.  Everybody works against that same tick-tock of mortality.  On a larger scale, we all work against the rising levels of entropy in the universe.  Entropy is a means by which a thermodynamic system’s level of disorder can be recorded.  According to theoretical physics, the level of entropy in the universe was far lower thirteen point seven billion years ago than it is now.  All things (with the exception of atoms, molecules, and other units of particle physics) tend to move naturally towards a pattern of disorder and destruction.  There is no clear reason why, but this trend obviously enforces the idea of time as an arrow moving away from one point to another.  There is nothing in this universe that reverses its own entropy levels.  As a constant agent of movement, time uses its destructive forces to give way to the continuation of all things.


  We fear death because it is often views as the “end”.  Consider it a crossing into—the borderlands of that unknown dimension.  Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” comes to mind.  The speaker could not stop for death, so “he kindly stopped for me” (Dickinson, line 2).  The speaker then reflects,  “Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
 / Feels shorter than the day
 / I first surmised the horses' heads
 / Were toward eternity” (Dickinson, lines 20-24)”.  Convinced of their own mortality, humans suffer an immense amount of anxiety to feel as though they have accomplished something in their lives.   Our choices are calculated to prevent that failure, invested in with degrees and careers, laid out in curriculums, meal plans, mortgages.  A lot of the time, we run away from it, rather than use it as a tool of empowerment to inform ourselves and feel more human.  Have we nothing else to lose but to live? 



A psychology writer by the name of Claudia Hammond has written about mind time.  She writes, “We construct the experience of time in our minds, so it follows that we are able to change the elements we find troubling — whether it’s trying to stop the years racing past, or speeding up time when we’re stuck in a queue, trying to live more in the present, or working out how long ago we last saw our old friends. Time can be a friend, but it can also be an enemy. The trick is to harness it, whether at home, at work, or even in social policy, and to work in line with our conception of time. Time perception matters because it is the experience of time that roots us in our mental reality. Time is not only at the heart of the way we organize life, but the way we experience it.” (Hammond).



Wait, so are we all time travelers, then?  I never considered that in conjuring worlds, real and imaginary, I was consciously affecting my perception of time.  By remembering and “mourning” in the way Brown mourns second wave feminism, perhaps she was merely queering the nature of living in the present.  In understanding the differences between then and now, here and there, she creates a new awareness that feels timeless—consistently aware of itself and its implications in academic thought—that fulfills her.  Skewing one’s own temporality is too often deemed unproductive.  But in the case of politics, social justice, event art…how could we not immediately examine past events and their impacts on the present? 


This place I am in, this body, this mind.  I am not privy to the mystery of how my life has happened, but I do know that I have been here for it.  A non-stop television.  I know what has influenced me, what has been important, even if I cannot understand why the block-time of my life is built the way it is.    I’m sick of the idea that academic thinking is separate from emotionally interacting with what the subject a person is studying, or that in having emotionally feelings toward a subject, a person has veered into the ‘artistic’. 



But back to Hammond.  Outside of our socially constructed “time”, the brain itself attempts to take memories and analyze them based on our emotions towards them, temperature, the amount of pressure a task placed on us, and constructs its own sense of how long ago certain events occurred.  Memory is heavily linked to this process.  Hammond explains: “We know that time has an impact on memory, but it is also memory that creates and shapes our experience of time. Our perception of the past moulds our experience of time in the present to a greater degree than we might realize. It is memory that creates the peculiar, elastic properties of time. It not only gives us the ability to conjure up a past experience at will, but to reflect on those thoughts through autonoetic consciousness — the sense that we have of ourselves as existing across time — allowing us to re-experience a situation mentally and to step outside those memories to consider their accuracy.” (Hammond).  To exist across time.  In remembering ourselves, I feel that we do enter a timelessness.  In letting go of the present, it seems that we are no longer the people we recollect in our memories, but we still exist in the bodies we inhabit at the time of remembering. 


The idea that time moves slower or faster based on our emotional reactions to it is thrilling.  In some moments, I have counted seconds as four seconds, a minute as two and so on in order to get through a tough moment, e.g. a vaccine or panic attack.  It all divides out. I declare that time! Now where is my universe?


Time is analogous to change, really. The obvious truth of it is that time does move as an arrow through space.  It changes everything, really.  Every four years at Bryn Mawr, there is a completely different student body walking the campus.  With time, institutions evolve—we are hardly the pearl-wearing ladies of the forties and fifties that typified the college culture.  As an institutional structure, Bryn Mawr is very involved with keeping time and revisitng itself through time.  We have an extensive collection of archives and photographs detailing the growth of this school.  There are even plaques in every dorm room (save for Erdman, Batten, etc) with names of various students who have previously inhabited them.  As a liberal arts institution, Bryn Mawr seems to cherish the relative timelessness of learning.  New information is always at hand, new ideas are always to be discussed, and there is proof in the archives that the Bryn Mawr community has been hard at work for over one hundred and twenty nine years to achieve consistently productive excellence in the class room.


But as I’ve talked about in a previous web event, there is an uncertain temporality to learning that cannot be commodified or universally defined.  Something I find problematic is the nature of the deadline, so rigid and closed in its flexibility.  If only we could find a way to harness time and enjoy it in ways that make us more productive, less afraid of change and less frightened by the notion of the future.  What if the past could be as bright as the future?  The present weaves its way between the two.  I find myself mediating my present desires with my desires for the future, such as, “I’d love to write something, but I must do homework first, because later on I would like a degree from Bryn Mawr College.”.  If only I could spend my time as I wanted in the moment! But alas, I’ve been warned that such thinking is reckless hedonism.  If I live like that, I’ll end up in a box, and who wants that?


As academics, we are forever in the state of becoming.  To be aware of the moment and “present” desires may be a form of genius in itself, placed far beyond the intelligence of planning and reflection on past ideas.  Are we anywhere else but the present?  I pick up a pencil, I put down the pencil.  I have done work.  Some memories feels as though they are yesterday, others I cannot believe occurred more than ten years ago.  Questioning the notion of the present is asking how important movement is to living.  In normative time, it takes ten seconds for me to write this sentence.  Is that ten separate presents, each whole and unreachable once fulfilled forever?  I suppose so.  Sometimes, it seems clear that the past, the present and the future are really just mosaics of moments—each equally valid and able to be analyzed with equal importance.


Movement is beautiful.  Disorder and entropy is beautiful—perhaps not worth describing, as it is so infinite and unstoppable.  Though memory, we find windows into temporalities that rarely reveal themselves on their own.  We live in freedom by transcending the present, moving through worlds and tasting them more than once.  We live twice.  The first life is our lives before we know that we are going to die—become something else one day.  The second is everything after that.  I would like to share an important poem to me—it is relevant to memory, to hindsight, other worldly discoveries.  The poem is Memorandum, by W.S. Merwin:

“Save these words for a while because

of something they remind you of

although you cannot remember

what that is a sense that is part

dust and part the light of morning


you were about to say a name

and it is not there I forget

them too I am learning to pray

to Perdita to whom I said

nothing at the time and now she

cannot hear me as far as I

know but the day goes on looking


the names often change more slowly

than the meanings whole families

grow up in them and then are gone

into the anonymous sky

oh Perdita does the hope go on

after the names are forgotten


and is the pain of the past done

when the calling has stopped and those

betrayals so long repeated

that they are taken for granted

as the shepherd does with the sheep” (Merwin).  I pray not to forget. I pray only to know and remember, to hear and taste once more.  Perhaps Merwin’s “anonymous sky” (Merwin 16) will open up to me one day. 


I would like to thank this course for opening up the opportunity to think of time as a malleable object.  Being so rigid in thought, it has been confusing and frustrating to deconstruct the nature of a second to ten years, and even more difficult to accept the equality of these timespans in relevance to my personal growth.  Travelling through times of pain or joy make the world more honest, albeit entirely more mysterious.  Though I cannot understand time, it is a privilege to lay back and merely feel it.  It is the right of all humans.  It may be the one of the only truths I know.