The Tyranny of Time

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Tyranny of Time

‘Here we are…trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.’1
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Jean-Marie Le Bris’s flying machine1868

Jean-Marie Le Bris’s flying machine

Time is an almost universal human concept and a central one for nearly every culture.2  Competing models of time have co-existed for millennia sometimes within the same society, for example Baer references the ancient Greeks as viewing time both as a flowing river (from Heraclitus) and a vast rainfall (Democritus).3 More recently western models of linear time co-existed with eastern ideas about its cyclicity in countries like India and China. Gradually however one model has come to be almost absolute: the historicist view of time as linear. This is an idea which according to McQuire ‘saturates the modern concept of progress, conditioning belief in the endless growth of productive capacities and intellectual capabilities, the march of progress as cumulative, the order of time as successive and irreversible’.4

This model of time as progress creates the demand for a narrative into which memories, histories and artifacts can be neatly slotted to explain the world as it is and, even more problematically, where it is going.  At the same time, it safely isolates the past and absolves us from responsibility for shaping the future. The linearisation of time and its connection to progress also have the effect of promoting the pursuit of speed which in turn has the result that ‘technological developments which regulate social velocity to an unprecedented degree have themselves become subject to shorter and shorter lifespans’.5 From the daguerreotype to the digital smartphone, photography is just one of many examples of the surging speed of human experience, one which gets closer to a physical and perceptual terminal velocity with each innovation.

However, progress and speed have also helped to undermine the narratives that made them possible. Baer suggests that photography was complicit in this, because as much as reinforcing the idea of time as ever passing, its unique way of seeing and showing things also ‘seems to reveal a world in which time is fractured, splintered, blown apart’.6 Similarly McQuire compares the invention in 1765 of the first clock accurate to a second a day, to the latest atomic clock accurate to a second in three hundred thousand years, and suggests that the ‘perceived failure of the “grand narratives” is not only a crisis of reference…but also of dimension: the continual hemorrhaging of orders of magnitude, the blurring of micro and macros, the telescoping of near and far’.7

1 Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade, (New York, 1991) p. 55
2 But not all, the South American Piraha tribe for example are believed to be one of the very few with no conception of numbers, time, or creation myth: Elizabeth Davies, Unlocking the Secret Sounds of Language: Life Without Time or Numbers, published 6th May 2006, accessed 29th October 2012, available at
3 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 3-4
4 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 114
5 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 114
6 Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence (Athens, 2002) p. 4
7 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 118

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