Our linear, utilitarian view of time may be simply a construct of this modern, materialist civilization. What's the rush? What does it mean?
BUENOS AIRES — Our conception of time is based on certain unresolved paradoxes. On the one hand, there is Saint Augustine's classic proposition that capturing the present is impossible, that this very instant is inconceivable. While our binary logic thinks through definitions that create limits between what is and what is not, the moment flows and becomes, being and not being simultaneously. Every time I want to conceptualize the now, it has ceased to be. Time always evades us.
Then, as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur would say, there is the impossibility of resolving the question of whether time is subjective or objective. We are in fact conscious of time subjectively, in terms of "my" or your past, present and future. Yet time surpasses us. We neither create nor dominate it. It comes and goes. There is an objective time, but we access it subjectively.
Thus our culture has gradually normalized a linear image of time that is also associated with a string of established values like productivity, profit and efficiency. What is linear time? It is the idea of time as a progressive line with a certain continuity of meaning, as if the progression ensured the completion of a whole. It is the purposeful vision philosophers call teleology. Instants here are like road markers or sign posts that mean nothing yet, but will acquire meaning when seen from the end of the linear stretch. We are thus fulfilling a purpose in the course of our time. It is like an assembly line whose only glitch is that we are its final product.
There is clearly a Christian root to this idea. After the original sin, worldly time appeared to be nothing more than an attempt to reconcile ourselves with the Divine. Living is carrying out commands that assure salvation. Beyond the religious story, the linear, teleological matrix persists in the modern world. To live is to be here for a purpose you must fulfill: The meaning of life is to ensure life has a meaning. And Capitalism will duly turn any remaining time on our hands into a productive investment, even if at the end, whatever its returns, the production chain will stop.
Could we live the time experience another way? Perhaps less quantitatively, and more qualitatively? We could perhaps think of our time not from an economic, but from an artistic perspective wherein time becomes a poem or a song whose every verse is valid in itself and within the whole, and whose last chord terminates and completes the opus. Escaping the productivity matrix, we thus reformulate notions of profit and loss. Instead of making use of time one could discard it, and make the inversion a doorway to let in the unforeseen.
Alternative pace, different directions — Photo: John Bastoen
Walter Benjamin suggested that a single historical course or direction could be equally viewed as progressive or calamitous. The Jewish Sabbath interrupts the work week to create a space that is unproductive, and existential. The Latin carpe diem advice to "seize the day" on the other hand seeks to fragment that time line in order to give depth and significance to every instant.
But as some of the great thinkers have pointed out, the definition and duration of a moment is an open question. Moments do not last, but express another means of relating to time. When we sit "awhile" to read or do nothing, we are making a break in our linear conception of time, or interrupting its putative progression. But does time move, or run or even "run out?" Does it have inherent meaning, or does our conscience seek a meaning we know to be absent? Where does this leave the notion of haste? Indeed, what's the hurry since we are all heading straight for oblivion.