November 22, 2012

Time and Consciousness?

We live in a world where everything seems to speed up. Everybody is pressed for time; the pressures to perform, to consume, to “manage” time effectively, or to “have fun,” overwhelm our need for rest and contemplation. Will the future bring us even more acceleration? Are we going somewhere with all this change? And further: what is our relationship to time itself? Can we become more conscious of the flow of time and thereby separate ourselves from the addictive absorption in current affairs?

At the root of the last 500 years of scientific and intellectual history lie the abstractions of space and time. The progress we witnessed over the last centuries begins with our ability to represent space three-dimensionally. 1 This historical progress began in the early 15th century.

  • Newtonian physics saw space, time and matter as separate; space and time are empty dimensions and matter moves within it according to laws of motion that separate mass, force, and momentum. Newton introduces a law of universal gravitation that describes the attraction of matter based on mass and distance. Newtonian Physics becomes the paradigm of science until the beginning of the 20th century. The separation of space, time, and matter also leads to an era of object-oriented thinking that manifests itself in all aspects of life.
  • In the art world we witness the breakthrough of perspectival representation of objects starting with the paintings of the early Renaissance (see Leonardo da Vinci.)
  • In philosophy, it manifests as the problem of an irreconcilable dualism between the subject that occupies the vantage point, and the perceived world. Subject and object become separated; mind and body cannot be integrated any more. This dualism is paradigmatically expressed in Descartes’ theory; he distinguishes between res extensa and res cogitans, or between matter and psyche. We still face it today when we try to reconcile objective knowledge and subjective truth, or when we search for the connection between natural and social sciences and the unity between them.

During the early 20th century a new paradigm of thinking begins to take hold; it is characterized by the inclusion of time in the representation of reality. Indications of the changing role of time can be found in the following phenomena:

  • Einstein elevated time to the fourth dimension in his concept of a space-time continuum. The speed of light is a constant, but time slows down or accelerates depending on the relative speed of the observer. This leads to the paradox that we can see “back” into time when we observe the light of a distant galaxy, but from the point of view of the photon that travelled at light speed for billions of years to reach us, no time passes between the moment of emission and the moment of absorption. Since it travels at light speed, it exists in a state of timelessness, but from our view it appears to open the span of time to a never-again reachable past. Much has been written about the implications of Einstein’s relativity theory; physicists today question whether the arrow of time (as we experience it) also exists on the smallest scales of reality.
  • With technological progress, higher speeds become accessible to us. Speed is accelerated time; this becomes especially clear in warfare – whoever is faster controls the territory. 2 For the future of our civilization, we depend on being able to accelerate objects beyond the “escape velocity,” approx. 25.000 miles/hour, which is the speed at which an object can break through the gravitational pull of the earth.
  • Technological innovations like the Internet allow us to shrink space to the point of collapsing it. Speed is the pulse of our time; it is crucial for information technology, stock trading, or the economy. A company that does not adapt fast enough to changing environments becomes obsolete very quickly, even if it is otherwise well-managed. In the past, we used to think of change as a process of transformation from one static state to another; now we think of change as a constant, a never-ending process that resurrects the thoughts of Heraclitus.
  • The shifting relationship to time creates different representations of objects. This change can be seen easily in the works of many modern artists. In Picasso’s later paintings the three-dimensionality of an object or body is broken up into a representation that integrates multiple perspectives into the object, as if it is perceived simultaneously from different angles. A similar shift occurs in modern literature: linear story-telling gets abandoned in favor of stream-of-consciousness techniques and a kaleidoscopic writing style. Examples for this writing can be found in Joyce’s Ulysses, Prousts’ In Search of Lost Time, or Musils Man Without Qualities.
  • Psychoanalysis treats the psyche as a layered process that condenses the life-time and the history of the subject into the structure of its unconscious, which then underlies its dreams, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. 3

The shift towards time in all these phenomena ruptures not only a static spatial thinking, but also the system of categories that we use to divide and parcel everything. Categorization is spatialization; it leads to divisions, differentiations and separations. When time gets used as a separating category by dividing processes and events into years, days, hours and seconds, it creates the fragmentations that most of us experience nowadays in our lives.  The current shift can be understood as an attempt to regain the organic unity in the experience of time. A holistic view emerges that sees time as an added dimension that allows us to integrate our lives differently. In this view, time is rhythm and intensity; it is no longer only the external time of the clock, but the time that is inherent in consciousness.  It unfolds organically within the process of understanding, which can be defined as the integration of knowledge within the subject.

We find ourselves today at the dawn of a new period of human history; it promises to bring a more unified and integrated way of thinking and perceiving that will enable us to overcome problems like political disorder and fragmentation, the increasing complexity of our social worlds, or the looming ecological disasters. The change is produced by a field of consciousness that re-configures itself holistically in relation to the environment; it manifests in the sciences, in art, or in social movements. The root of consciousness is not inherent in a subject, and it does not refer to particular objects. It is pre-reflective and impersonal, more like a field that permeates everything. It produces the great abstractions of space and time that order our thought processes and become the structure of our experiences. Most likely, the field of consciousness is itself an emergent phenomenon, a quality of complex systems of which we know almost nothing yet.


  1.   See Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin, Part One: Foundations of the Aperspectival World and Part Two: Manifestations of the Aperspectival World. 1st ed. Trans. Noel Barstad & Algis Mickunas. Ohio University Press, 1986. Print.
  2.  See  Virilio, Paul. Speed and Politics (Semiotex. 2nd ed. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. Semiotext(e), 2006. Print.
  3. Green, André. Time in Psychoanalysis : Some Contradictory Aspects. London ; New York: Free Association Books, 2002.

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