A Brief History of Real Time

A Brief History of Real Time (very brief, very real)

            Hawking’s well known A Brief History of Time provides for us a cosmology, through really, more a biography, than a history, of the career of the scientific understanding of temporality, time in the abstract and as an abstraction. It is astonishing that the human mind, historical through and through and with no conception of being without time in both senses – not having it as well as being outside of it – could conceptualize cosmic time in such an intimate fashion. Even so, it is of limited usefulness to mortal consciousness to be able to contemplate the infinite in any form or by any formula. Heidegger, in his much earlier History of the Concept of Time, the prolegomena to his masterwork, Being and Time, provides a more down to earth set of proposals. That which is closest to us, the history within which we are compelled by the happenstance of birth to live and in-dwell, is generally that which is least well known to us, in part, due to the drama of the cosmic, which science sets out to script in a comprehendible manner. The perhaps bastard child of religion, science seeks to take hold in the same territory as did its somewhat absent parent explain. This is its truer limit: that modernity accepts the fruits of science, its applied innovations, and rejects its methods, as Sagan aptly stated. In doing so, we find ourselves inhabiting a kind of divided time; one half shot through with superstition, the other shot up with technology.

            The evidence of this temporal schism is all around us. The creationist drives his SUV, the cybernetician attends church, the pilgrim hops on a commercial jet, the hermit is a virtual globetrotter, the atheist worships nature, the most avid of empirical religions. It is a challenge, in our day, to know what time actually is, hence the projection of cosmological narrative in an effort to overtake mere history, human and thus passing. While Hawking’s book was a best-seller – and who among us is a physicist, after all? – Heidegger’s book remained unpublished for many years after it being written in 1925. It is fair to say that no one reads philosophy either – who among us is a philosopher, after all – but there is more to it. In the effort to assuage our anxious doubt about the exact time in which we live, we have reconstructed temporality as a mere fact of nature; something to be observed and explained, rather than witnessed and understood.

            On the one hand, it is a case of ‘plus ca change’, as is said. Science is indeed new wine but its bottles are ancient. The life-blood of the redeemer is no longer poured from them, but something of the sort remains as an aftertaste, just as God Himself maintains an afterlife as we speak. Real time, that which humans in-dwell, begins only with history itself. Before this, time had no serious meaning. In the original human groups, the only division of labor was that of age and thus experience. The legend of the Fall contains the recognizance that man and woman are different, and we are ashamed of this fact, not because of the difference, but rather due to its self-discovery. For in social contract cultures, sex and gender were oddly irrelevant to social reproduction. The realization that the beginning of surplus altered the very fabric of what it meant to be a social animal is certainly a source of shame, and we bear that stigma to this day, and the more so. Men and women were distanciated from one another from this point onward, further dividing the human sense of time. As production gradually outgrew reproduction, these divisions only multiplied, if not exactly in the same sense as the edict given voice by the eviction.

            For we were not so much expelled from a place but rather from a time which was non-time, ahistorical and not even prehistory, for the latter term implies that history has already begun and thus we are able to recognize what came beforehand. This kind of timeless time is yet better thought of as non-historical, and thus also as non-human. The social contract is the real world expression of Eden, and so it was seen by the Enlightenment thinkers, though for moral reasons and not those temporal. In any case, temporality today consists of a dual flight from the shame of being so divided. On the one hand, we delude ourselves that we still have some connection with our origins in the primordial primavera of the garden, by prevaricating the mythos associated with non-history. In doing so, we ignore the that there exists an essential and qualitative break between our beings and the Being made choate in primordial non-time, preferring instead to imagine that Edenic life was simply present on the horizon of a remote antiquity, which is nevertheless somehow measurable. Biblical chronology is only the most literal example of this delusion. On the other hand, we demand of ourselves a Neuzeit, to borrow from Koselleck, which promotes a much too recent chasm, that associated with the revolutions of the eighteenth century.

            This divided temporal selfhood is experienced as subjection to the either/or of the vapid ‘culture’ wars, and the misuse, or rather, abuse, of terms such as ‘ideology, ‘value’, and ‘truth’. That one is ‘traditional’, that another is ‘contemporary’, that one is reactionary and another progressive, that one is conservative or liberal, fascist or anti-fascist, when in reality all exist in the insularity of their own self-imposed fascist reactions to all things which might offer an ounce of perspective. Yet if the divided temporality were not present as a phenomenological structure, as a foundation for schismosis of institutional and political life the both, such symptoms as ‘value’ conflict would be at most agues rather than the plagues they have become. In the effort to avoid living in our own time as it is, both the grand and the grandiose shift their process of self-validation onto the culture of our long-dead cousins or, those others who have not yet lived at all.

            Heidegger stressed the need to live in real time. The transition from Mythos to Logos, the most important process in the history of consciousness, could only be made itself real by experiencing life as an ongoingness, in its fullest presence, and called to conscience by that which is nearest to me. If mine ownmost death occupies such a salient rhetorical place in Heidegger, such is it that mine ownmost life, in the meanwhile, receives its most encouraging support from every less studied page of the great thinker’s works. Truly more of an ethics than an ontology, Being and Time recognizes the ‘andness’ of these two conceptions as essential humanity. Our very beings are historical, nothing more but also nothing less. Therefore, it is the Logos which is the fitting metaphysics for any historical being, and not the Mythos. That we remain so entertained by the latter is also a symptom of what he refers to as ‘entanglement’. Instead, I have reiterated that the new mythology is demythology, nothing more, but also nothing less. The Neuzeit actually begins some 2500+ years ago, and even if it has not quite yet come to its fullest expression, the process of demythology is as a force of nature, equally cosmic, but thus far wholly human and hence providing us with the only certain relevancy in our otherwise divided times.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 57 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.