Time isn't space.
Movies, photography, TV, and all kinds of visual mass-media do crazy things to our grasp of time.
This piece is more speculative and out-there even than my usual cave wall scribbling. I wouldn’t blame you for skipping it. You probably shouldn’t read it.
Here’s a short paragraph from Dune by Frank Herbert:
Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little bit to test that it’s a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain.
You may not see it but there’s a basket of pessimistic conclusions baked into those three sentences of Bene Gesserit wisdom.
Knowledge of an object requires a certain distance from it. Only a spectator can see the thing properly. Getting too familiar with your subject-matter is blindness. The best you can do is run circles around the thing, poke and prod and push, and see what it sends back.
Ignorance is desire. Schopenhauer wrote that there is no consciousness which is not also a consciousness of what is lacking. Knowing and wanting suppose a gap between where we are and where we ought to be.
Freedom requires ignorance. Reach the summit of the mountain and you close the circuit of wanting. There’s no more to learn — you’re blind to the mountain — and no more to do — the journey is finished. Degrees of freedom shrink to zero.
Satisfied desire is death. You can look, but don’t touch. Life is consciousness, and consciousness is the distance between subject and object. Once the difference collapses, living motion stops and becomes like the stone. Dead.
I don’t agree with any of this. I appreciate the masterful depth of ideas and the thinking behind it, but I don’t agree with it.
As fascinating as I find Frank Herbert’s fictional dives into Korzybski’s General Semantics and ecological systems and the rougher edges of Husserl and Heidegger, this way of thinking is prompted by a deeper pessimism and fatalistic attitude.
I suggest that this is all a consequence of the on-going shift from a literate to a visual culture.
Here’s a few examples of what I mean.
The image is the dominant mental category. Visual representations are the primary “stuff” of thinking and our mental access to reality, as opposed to the word. This was already true pre-internet. Now see the impact of TV streaming, Youtube, Instagram, Tik-Tok, video games — and compare those numbers with how many read anything.
Images are spatial. The mountain seen at a distance has a definite presence. It can be measured, photographed, climbed, and sampled for its chemical structure. An image has definite relations and boundaries in space.
Space and spatial relationships are fundamental. In the beginning was the object. The object extended through space with definite dimensions, at a definite location on a Cartesian plane, with a definite quantity of mass. Mental processes in a visual culture concern space first. Time and change are secondary matters extracted from a field of space-like stuff.
Language itself can be captured in space-like visual symbols. You’re looking at them right now.
Now twist your mind around and consider a different way of understanding your understanding.
The written-down word stored safely on a page is the product of mental activity, not its primary form. That crown belongs to speech in dialogue with other human beings.
Language in its native form is a most un-space-like activity. Language happens in time through our actions.
The linguist Saussure distinguished between the two aspects of language, langue and parole, which is the difference between language used in real time and a language as a finished body of words — like a dictionary.
I wrote recently that this idea was the real meaning behind Plato’s warnings about the poets and their bewitching words. Plato mistrusted writing, though he acknowledged speech as a necessary evil, being the vehicle for true inner understanding.
The logos, the living activity of language, is that inner being.
I don’t see that the gap between word and object, which so preoccupies scientists and postmodernist skeptics, is either insurmountable or a terribly serious rupture in reality.
The central postmodernist conceit—that there is no stable, non-contextual relation between the linguistic sign and its referent—now that I find dubious.
Postmodernists express their ideas on how things are, which are presumably meant to be true descriptions of how things are. That belief can’t be contextual or relative without losing all its force. If it’s only relative, then who cares what they say? It’s only noise. If it’s true, then the gap between word/object has at least one exception. This belief is true.
But they do make a good point about the flexibility and fluidity of meaning. Context does contribute to meaning. The View From Nowhere is an illusion.
The bigger issue lies in the priority of the literal description. Language is assumed to be for the assertion of truths in declarative sentences. The many expressive and figurative uses of language, which employ metaphor rather than accuracy, would be nothing more than corruptions of that purpose.
Expression and figuring and metaphor are at least as important to the human use of words as the uttering of literal truths.
The priority of literal prose starts from an ideal of language that puts itself first. If we circle back to the difference between images and words, this involves a theory of words and word-uses that treat them as space-like images.
Mirroring external nature in the medium of words requires fixing the object in thought. If words are nothing more than an instrument for the accurate depiction of non-linguistic reality, then the words fall out of time and become a set of objects in space.
The image is primary.
Meaning becomes an image.
The effect is like taking a snapshot of fast-flowing white-water rapids during melt season. The photo gets you something like the thing, but you’d never confuse the image for what you saw — or your own experience of being there.
Now if language operates, camera-like, to take ‘thought pictures’ of fast-flowing reality, then it will always fail to live up to the expectations. Hence the postmodernist’s skepticism of language is entirely justified. Standing on the mountain summit, experiencing it as a place by being there, can only be a kind of blindness to the abstract mind of the spectator. Being with the object collapses the gap necessary to treat it as an object of knowledge.
Do you really think you know less about the mountain for being there with it?
More to the point, even if you don’t know what the spectator knows, consider that you have understood something in your direct acquaintance which cannot be known by a distant observer.
Comprehending the thing by experiencing it in real time involves a totally different set of mental attitudes than apprehending it like a dissected insect. Language can depict reality, but that’s not all language does. Words allow us to see and experience differently. Images contribute to this imaginative process, of course, but expression in thought gives them their sense. They depend on language.
Visual culture can only give us a world of dead objects. Linguistic culture takes time as its primary dimension.
There’s another trap. The time of language is not the space-like time of visual culture.
Ever since Back to the Future gave us our default philosophy of time, time has become space. Really it’s an older idea than that but the metaphysics of a time-traveling Delorean had a much greater impact on pop culture.
In the world of images, time is like the mountain. Time is grasped as a complete object with definite boundaries and measurable properties as seen from afar. Time is a one-dimensional line of successive moments. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, one after the other.
This has led to such goofiness as the “block universe”, wherein time is an infinite line receding off into the infinite darkness of the past and the future. All events are, in an odd way of speaking, already done. Even the future is “in the past”. The strangeness with tense and aspect is one way you can tell that things are fishy.
Like the mountain, if you get too close to the block-time, you blind yourself to it. But this is not how time exists for us.
Stop reading this for a moment. Take five deep breaths all the way into your lungs and exhale slowly. Notice where you are. The position of your body. The focal point of your attention. What’s around you, near and far, front and behind, left and right, above and below, present and absent.
Your sense of place isn’t a snapshot of the space around you. It moves.
There is no place which is not happening through time. No time which is not unfolding in a place.
Time is alive. Being alive is being in time.
And so it is with language. The Word abounds with living meanings, from which further cognitive processing derives objects and space-like relationships.
Time as it unfolds in lived life is the venue of language.
Read more on this confusing idea
Thanks for reading.