Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, Time

“Ah Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time”: on time from Plato to Latour

‘Time’ seems to be very important for a (and the 20th century) understanding of modernity, that is: the understanding of the cosmos, society, the self, change and the relation between mind and matter. With Charles Taylor I would like to see, very briefly, how we could understand the history of philosophical thought by conceptualising a certain worldview as a time-designation. Without a doubt this idea is not mine; many philosophers in the 20th century defined modernity by means of ‘modern time’ (and subsequently, the secular by ‘secular time’, religion by ‘eternity’). I first would like to look at Taylor’s remarks on the development of time designations from ancient times until now and after that at Latour’s quite strange idea of time as having a ‘double axis’.

Taylor in his A Secular Age (p. 54 – 61) distinguishes roughly five different understandings of time. (i) In ancient times there exists – in line with the distinction between Ideas and matter – a seperation between the things that happen in time and the Things that are ‘in’ the timeless. According to Platonism with respect to Time, time would be of a necessary character: time exists independent of anything that happens in time. (2) Following Taylor, christianity mainly adopts this view by giving Time the name of ‘eternity’. The big difference is that, giving the character of christianity as a more or less personal relation with God, that what happens in time matters. As Taylor says: ‘God enters into the drama’ (p. 56) This statement is quite uncontroversial since the Crucifixion, sins or rituals happen(ed) in time. With Augustinus the ancient ‘objectivist’ view on time changed into a ‘lived time’ and a full-focus on the present. So up till now we have Time/Eternity in two ways: as Plato’s immobility and as a religious connection between God’s eternity and men’s present duties/faithfulness. Deviating from Taylor for a second, these can be seen as the two kinds of Higher Time in which immanence and transcendence are related (in ancient times as marginal/canonical, in religious times as mutually influenced)

(3) As a ‘modernist’ scientific interpretation we must mention Newton’s absolute time. Following Newton we could imagine time as a big container in which all matter exists, as a sort of holistic, enduring bulk. The important consequence is that time isn’t necessarily vertical anymore, but is that what contains all existence. Absolute time could be seen as a sort of secular God in that sense that all matter exists ‘in it’, but absolute time hasn’t created relative time.

(4) Ofcourse Kant is Newton’s most famous contender (when it comes to the philosophical adoptation of Newton). For Kant time isn’t that in which everything exists, but time must be seen as (together with space) the a priori condition for existence as such. For Kant time is neither empirical nor discursive: it is a metaphysical condition that makes empirical, discursive knowledge possible; it is the a priori condition for both our inner experience as outer phenomena. As Kant states, ‘[time] doesn’t belong to the objects themselves, but only to the subject that perceives them.‘ (Kant, KdrV, p.134) So time doesn’t exist in a Newtonian way, because it always functions as a condition for the objects, insofar as these are being perceived. So: time is presupossed in all (human) experience (perceiving), but not because it is in some way or another inherent in the nature of things apart from the subject’s consciousness: time is an a priori form of inner sense which makes possible the cognition of objects qua appearance. So, comparing it to the two Higher Times: things in time can’t be less real than the timeless, since time exists only as an a priori condition of things as such.

(5) We’re now moving towards what Taylor calls ‘secular time’ and what we could call ‘2oth century time’, that is: ‘living the life of ordinary time’ (Taylor, SA, 55) fully cut loose of what eternity, transcendental time whatsoever. This means that, compared to Higher Times, there isn’t a time any longer that (re)orders the secular, ordinary time. We are here plunged in the soup of the immanent passing of time. The 20th century, according to Taylor, could be characterized by being ‘horizontal’ and ‘flat’: nothing is filling our space apart from its existence and time doesn’t relate to anything outside/above of time. As Taylor notes: ‘what happens in it is no longer indifferent to its placing.‘ (58) In our times the order of things in the cosmos isn’t that humanly meaningful as in ancient or fully religious times. 

I would like to turn to Heidegger here for a moment to deepen this historical designation of 20th century time. Heidegger states in his short essay ‘The Thing’: ‘All distances in time and space are shrinking’..’Man puts the longest distances behind him in the shortest time.‘ (p. 1) It seems to be important that time (here I’m following Taylor again) in the 20th century becomes more and more related to space, to such an extend that it implicates a new understanding of the spatio-temporal. Time more or less becomes more ‘space-like’ and space becomes more ‘time-like’. The designation of time as flat and horizontal seem to indicate a fluidity of the range of time and the range of space. We could relate this to Deleuze’s ‘folding’ and Sloterdijk’s ‘airconditioning’ (in the sense that he envisions homes as being ‘spoiling-machines’, a ‘non-working’ area, a comfort space: evidently a way of trying to seperate the ‘inside’ from the ‘outside’, the ‘individuation’ from the ‘collectivation’) (See Sloterdijk ‘Spheres: Foam 392).

Apart from Deleuze and Sloterdijk, we have seen more extensively that Latour has a particularly interesting stance in the explication of the relation between time and space. There is first his retroactive understanding of time (this is an argument he develops in the course of Pandora’s Hope): Latour tries to show how time is, apart from it’s lineair movement also a retroactive devise, that is: the year 1867 is never something stable, something fixed, but changes identity in the year 1868. So we have seconds, minutes and hours to explicate the passing of time, but there is something more abstract happening: when Pasteur discovers the existence of microbes 1864 we can, according to Latour, without being philosophically absurd that microbes were discovered in 1864 and that, since that day in ’64 they were there all along. So, seen from the year 1864 in 1848 microbes were there despite the fact that they weren’t discovered yet. How to call this understanding of time? Together with Latour’s apparant (and according to me, probable) notion of the spatial folding of time (that is: time or the course of action of an actor is always materialized if it ‘wants’ to stay in existence: networks are groups of differences we can trace) we have here a (6) performative notion of time (from this moment on: spatio-temporal). Time and space are ‘things’ that have to be created by actions; they don’t exist either as a Higher Form/Time, as Eternity, as Absolute or as A Priori but as immanent a posteriori’s. Ofcourse there are minutes and hours, places and geographical degrees and scales, but, giving the network/sphere character of things, time and space are always modified in their identity in the course of action. Space comes about, is given its shape in architectural buildings: it is material loaded with meanings.

In a forthcoming post I would like to discuss Sloterdijk’s understanding of time as the spatio-temporal designation of the airconditioned space.