Saturday, 19 June 2021


"Time... is only something we have invented for ourselves. It's a trap. I wanted to destroy that trap."
- Nicholas Roeg

“Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.” 
- Marx

(A sort of sequel to this, though the order you read them doesn’t really matter.)

Chronic Argonauts 

There must have been a first time travel story. Even time travel has to have a starting point.

And that’s because the passage of time was originally held to be illusory, a trick caused by restricted perspective. Time isn’t really time at all, but just another dimension in space. “Second sight”, prophesying and all the rest wasn’t a form of travel but an enhanced ability to see. Another term for a shaman or a soothsayer is a seer. And the seer has an elevated viewpoint to see from, which allows him or her to see across time. It’s like we all live down in a deep valley, but they inhabit a tower. They can simply see further.

People can confuse this with predestination. But it’s not the same. Predestination presumes linear time, as if all is scripted in advance, your fate lying inexorably in wait for you like the station awaits the train. Here both time and space are part of the web of wyrd, where tugging on one part will cause waves across the rest. This is how Brian Bates had his sorcerer character Wulf explain it, in his novel ’The Way of Wyrd’ (1983):

“It is a mistake to assume that events far apart in time are thereby separate. All things are connected as in the finest web of a spider. The slightest movement on any thread can be discerned from all points in the web…

“Omens frighten the ordinary person because they believe them to be predictions of events that are bound to happen: warnings from the realm of destiny. But this is to mistake the true nature of omens. A sorcerer can read omens as pattern-pointers, from which the weaving of wyrd can be admired and from which connections between different parts of patterns can be assumed…

“There are no laws. The pattern of wyrd is like the grain in wood, or the flow of a stream; it is never repeated in exactly the same way. But the threads of wyrd pass through all things and we can open ourselves to its ripples as it passes by. When you see ripples in a pool, you know that something has dropped into the water.” 

Linear time, causal events, all arose later. Along with notions of social progress. Time travel, relying on linear time like a train needs tracks, became conceivable as a consequence of this. But whenever it was, it’s long since been lost to time. So let’s ask a more precise question – when was the first time machine story?

With time travel we’re time’s passengers, susceptible to its whims. If people crossed time it was often not through their own doing but by the whim of fate, by supernatural or just plain mysterious means. In Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle (1819) time literally runs away with him, he’s beguiled to discover years have passed in what to him was a night. In what’s become his signifying feature, even his beard has grown long. But that’s a more extreme version of an experience we all have. You have it every time you see a clock and say “what, quarter to five already?”

Which places Irving’s story in a strange interchange. It happens to Van Winkle essentially because he drinks magic mead. But he doesn’t just reappear in a later iteration of his home town, small children now adults and so on. In a much-forgotten feature, the American revolution happens in his absence. Time hasn’t just advanced, society has changed.

Things developed from there. But development is never even. Buck Rogers’ 1928 origin, for example, effectively rips off Rip Van Winkle to get its hero into the world of the future where the action is. Nevertheless, the time machine dictates to time, just as the car engine lets us dictate to space. If we have never invented an actual time machine, their fictional existence has always been linked to real contemporary levels of technology. Wells' 'The Time Machine' (1895) claimed to feature “the first of all Time Machines”, and this has since become a widespread belief. But though with ’Time Machine’ he may have coined the term, Wells himself had already written the shorter, lesser-known 'The Chronic Argonauts' (1888). And more timely still was Edward Page Mitchell, with 'The Clock That Went Backward' (1881).

As with Irving, Mitchell’s story inhabits an interchange. It’s based around a predestination paradox which enables the revolt of the Netherlands, which it strongly suggests was a precondition of American Independence – the path of progress being paved. It strongly links time travel with clocks, to the point of suggesting it could only be possible after clocks were invented.

Yet it only portrays time travel working backwards, through a clock whose two operatives are themselves elderly. (It’s said of the Aunt owner: “The old lady was surrounded by old-fashioned things. She seemed to live altogether in the past.”) And while time is only portrayed as linear, as if it has a reverse to be added to forward gear, there are also verbal hints of wyrd time: “Past, present, and future are woven together in one inextricable mesh.” Ultimately, though some pseudo-scientific explanations are offered up, it’s really a piece of weird fiction.

But it’s central feature, up there in the title, is a piece of magical thinking about technology - as if the thing that measures time could somehow also control it.

Unlike Mitchell’s august Aunt, Wells made his protagonists respectively a brilliant but remote inventor and a Victorian explorer. But there’s the same emphasis on time travel as if it were another direction in space. In ’The Time Machine’ the original working model is even described as the size of a clock. All of which reflects the increased prevalence of clocks in our lives by that point. Its controls are literally a forward and a reverse gear.

The globe had become increasingly demarcated and colonised. So, after space, time was next to fall under human dominion. The shift from agricultural to industrial work brought with it the imposition of clock time onto the working day, to a degree not previously conceived. Standardised 'railway time', co-ordinated between towns, was introduced between 1840 and 1855. The first commercial telegraph arrived in 1837, with early lines often running beside railways. By 1861 the coasts of America had been connected. But there’s more...

Eadward Muybridge's photographic motion studies had started in 1878, just before Mitchell’s story. Previously, anything moving too fast for the human eye was simply ungraspable. Cameras still couldn’t snap in such rapid succession. But by setting them up in series, triggered to click seconds apart, he found he could break actions down into analysable steps. For the first time, we could for example figure out how a horse actually ran (see above). And it turned out artistic depictions had been doing it wrong all along. The essence of time had been that it passed, a succession of moments which slipped inexorably through your fingers. Now it could be grasped, could be scrutinised.

The Royal Academy’s ‘Degas And the Ballet’ exhibition associated Impressionist art with photography, and in particular with Muybridge. This movement gained its name from Monet’s ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1874, above). Which was itself named because, in the early morning haze, so little of the topography of the harbour could be discerned. It wasn’t a mapping of a place, but an impression of a scene. The sun didn’t light the subject, like a spotlight on a stage or table lamp above a writing desk. The sunrise and the light effects it produced, these were the subject of the work.

Colours were sometimes placed adjacently on the canvas, to mix together in the viewer’s eye, duplicating the way we perceive the real world. As said another time Monet often painted the same subject in series, at different times and under different conditions, purely to capture the changes.

This fed from twin developments. Modernism was about developing the subjective view of the artist, art’s job no longer to reflect a supposedly objective reality. But at the same time, scientific enquiry had become increasingly interested in the effect of light upon vision. Griselda Murray Brown argued:”Many of the artistic movements of the early Twentieth century were in essence an attempt to open visual art up to the dimension of time.” (’Music to the Eyes’, Art Quarterly, Summer ‘15). True, but too late. This was something which started in the late Nineteenth.

Nature had previously been thought of as timeless. Yes of course seasons passed, but as part of the eternal round. Time was circular, it simply served up more of the same. Whereas Impressionism was described as “the discovery of the present moment.” The world was no longer set, endlessly reiterating according to custom and precedent, but transitory.

Think of time as people passing you on a crowded street, a succession of moments, each with its unique character, swiftly replaced by the next. Once our activities just seemed to reproduce what had already happened, like adding another sedimentary layer to the weight of history. Now everything was happening fleetingly, for the first time, and soon to be replaced by something else. To misquote Dylan, whatever you needed to paint, you’d better paint it fast.

And Impressionism spread quickly. Pissarro recalled feeling encouraged when he first encountered Monet’s work, but always maintained he’d already been entertaining the same notions. So it may not be co-incidental that, much like Muybridge, this new approach relied on technical innovations. Earlier generations of painters had made at most preparatory sketches in situ, then knocked the painting up back in the safe confines of the studio. Now, newly built trains took the Impressionists to newly accessible country locations. And the technology that took them there also gave them new tools to depict what they saw, such as paint in portable metal tubes. Containing new manufactured paints, literally brighter than before. Those vibrant colours we all exalt in, partly they just can out of a can.

Gombrich, in ’The Story of Art’, commented “the painter was a man who could defeat the transitory nature of things, and preserve… any object for posterity”. Abandoning that to try and capture the moment was like relinquishing your main power. 

Yet it’s analogous to the way that, pre-Romanticism, few saw anything aesthetic in nature. When crossing the Alps, it was common to draw the shutters on your carriage, to keep out the awful sights. It was human technological developments which made nature seem comparatively less threatening, to the point it could be framed as a scenic view. A similar thing is true of transience. Before it could be captured, it was best not thought of. Now Monet could talk of “the instability of a universe that changes constantly under our very eyes”, not from fear but relish for the challenge.

And what happens when we apply this new concentrated sight not to nature but human society? Scientific enquiry was no longer broad in scope, like mapping a new continent, but acute – aiming to home in on something. Producers of goods had originally been independent craftsmen. Merchants were essentially their customers, even if their intent was to sell on what they bought to other customers further down the line. 

But by increments the craftsmen would fall under the employment of the merchants. Who would now supply their raw materials, own their premises and pay them at guaranteed fixed rates. In this way the relationship of worker to capitalist, which now seems so inherent to production, was first founded.

Yet there’s a twist to this. The early capitalist’s motive was to regularise supply, to maintain profits. But, lacking the producer’s craft skills, he could at most stand and watch the worker work. His control was really only over input and output. How the worker worked still lay under his own control. Gradually, mechanisation changed that.

Marx referred to this as the formal subsumption of labour by capital yielding to the actual. He wrote: “Through the subordination of humanity to the machine the situation arises in which men are effaced by their labour; in which the pendulum of the clock has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives.”

Ever prescient, he was writing in 1863. But it reached it’s apogee with Taylorism, named after Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theories of ‘scientific management’, which effectively began in 1882. What Muybridge did to the horse, break a previously unanalysable blur of activity down into a discrete set of measurable steps, just a few years later Taylor was doing to the craft worker. The gestation of the production line is here. And with it time and money became inextricably entwined. Phrases like “I can’t spare the time” became common parlance. As EP Thompson said of the era: “Time is now currency, not passed but spent.” (‘Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, 1967.)

Time On Tracks

George Pal's film adaption of Wells' 'The Time Machine' (well, sort of) came out in 1960. Let’s focus here on the time travel scene itself. (Elaborated from a much briefer sequence in the novella.) The machine itself (barely described by Wells) is of course made to look deliberately quaint and Victorian, essentially an easy chair with a clock, calendar and gears attached to it. The brass plate with the manufacturer’s name is a particularly nice touch. (Even if it raises the question how an extended warranty would work.)

But it all accentuates the notion of the time machine being stationary in space, sitting still in the basement as all changes around it. Like the machine, time only has a forward and reverse gear. Time’s a direction, just a different kind of forward to the one space has. Imagine instead of reading down a page of a book you pressed through it. You’d come out at the same point on another page, further along. And where the time machine will take you is just as pre-set as skipping ahead in a book.

An earlier post looked at how the Hartnell era of ‘Doctor Who’ butted against the limits of Fordist time. What was there accentuated is here assumed.

But there’s another element… look less at the chief barometer of his travel – the shop front mannequin, with her raising and lowering hemline – than how it’s shown. Its double framed, first through his own window and then the shop window across the street. These devices are used to convey the passing of time, they happen to a character in the film. 

Yet at those points he's not really within the film at all. He's an observer. He's like a member of the audience who managed to get the most front of front row seats, but screens still separates him from the action. Pretty much every member of the 1960 audience would have seen fast-froward and time-lapse film. But pretty much all would have witnessed it passively, something that wouldn’t change until the first video recorders two decades later.

Which encounters and over-rides the most obvious objection. Of course the time travel section is simply built around the technical possibilities of the day. Fast forward film and time lapse photography was what they had. How else could they have done it? They filmed it not to convey any kind of temporal philosophy they may have conceived of, but simply in a way they could.

But the framing shows that’s the point. It’s not that these kind of technical developments constrain our perceptions. In many ways they do the opposite, enable us to see things in a new way. But by enabling they restrict them to what’s thinkable. It’s like building a road network. You can drive places you couldn’t before. But the places you can’t drive, you’re less liable to think about.

To quote Marx again: “The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness.” 

And that one direction was now… well, directional. It had a forward and back. We’ve seen in the previous instalment how that related to working life. But it was equally true of our leisure pursuits. TV, for example, then had just one channel to choose from.

A Remote Control For Reality

But if linear time was a conception of the Fordist era, of a job-for-life endured on a production line, how do we tell time today? A more recent development is bullet time. Defined by Wikipedia as “a visual effect or visual impression of detaching the time and space of a camera (or viewer) from that of its visible subject.” In general, it’s used to describe two film effects at once - slow motion combined with camera pan, so we traverse moving objects as if they were effectively still.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be captured on film. Take Cornelia Parker’s 'Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View' (1991), of which she said “it’s not the explosion, it’s more the contemplation, you know, the quiet contemplation of these things in the air.” It’s hard to think of anything more reactive than an explosion. Yet here we can stand in a gallery and mull it over, even wander around it.

It could theoretically have been made at any time, all you really need are debris and string. (Plus, presumably, enough patience to assemble it.) She genuinely tried to recreate a moment from the explosion, presumably captured from some hi-res photograph. True the artwork doesn’t rely on this, just as galloping horses could be painted before Muybridge. But the work comes from a culture which has absorbed those technologies.

A more popular example would be the Centre Parcs ad which recited the WH Davies poem ’Leisure’, (1916) (“What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare”) as squirrels’ leaps and swans' wing-flaps are soothingly slowed down. The poem is of course a cod-Romantic chill pill, not worth examination. Its conceit is that we live a “poor life”, but the poem itself can act as medicine for this, allowing us “to stand and stare”. But what’s significant about it here is the context, it’s combination with a technical innovation. What if you could hold a remote up to life and press freeze frame, every time life gets too hectic?

However, in general use bullet time has another element. In what’s almost a reversal of Pal’s film sequence its most used to insert a character into the drama, who has the same slo-mo perspective as the viewer. A character so likely to be found dodging bullets that it became named after such a thing.

You can see an early use in the video to Roni Size and Reprazent's 1997 track 'Brown Paper Bag'. With its payphones and box TVs it may now look of its era. But then the first Matrix film was only two years later. It lacks the whiplash pan and most of the time just ‘scratches’ time back and forth like a DJ cueing vinyl, a kind of 'budget bullet time'.

But the basis is here. It sets up a busy bustling city-time, which is buffered for everyone but our hero. And he manages this by technology, by possessing a kind of remote control for reality. Which looks like a cosmic version of a Kinder egg. The key image comes and is gone in a few seconds, of a car hurtling by a traffic queue.

Imagine chronokinesis (power over time) and time travel have become distinct things. Time was once seen as the ultimate levelling measure. Exam contestants needed to be allocated the same amount of it wherever they sat, and so on. But now we have the notion that time can somehow work for you differently to the way it works on others. Time is not universally speeded or slowed, like a record played at different speeds. Time has become subjective. Yet the irony is that these impossibly fast reflexes are also those of us, the passive viewer. The protagonist is identified with us not just from their character or actions, but in a material way.

It’s the Matrix films with which bullet time is most associated. And instead of a power-granting device Neo evolves the ability to see in bullet time - just as he sees past the consensus-reality world of illusory slumber he's been in. And this becomes more literal still with Quicksilver in the X-Men films. Time constrains others, while allowing you to pass idly through it, picking its fruits. Which is underlined by his slacker character (a break from previous depictions), his ability to mix work and leisure by goofing off mid-mission. His role in the film even works like this, he’s not a full-time worker like a regular team member but a hired contractor. He's analogous to Kevin Bacon’s superior mobile connection allowing him to avoid “buffer face”, while others freeze-frame in the street.

Perhaps what’s bizarre is that a form of viewing, which is of course shared by the whole cinema audience, in this way becomes individualised. The remote control is of course not a device you have in the cinema, it’s confined to the home. This is achieved by its becoming associated with the perspective of a single character – in fact it becomes a super-power of the hero. As TV Tropes put it: “It is a convenient way to depict Super Reflexes, by allowing the audience to experience the same powers of enhanced perception that the protagonist is using.”

The Time Machine’s fast-forward worked by a lever. Yes, it took a genius inventor to create it, but now it’s built anyone could pull that lever. Davies’ poem is predicated on its curative powers for anyone who cares to read it. Roni Size had a cosmic Kinder egg. Whereas bullet time by definition divides up the frame, into those inherently endowed with chronokinetic powers and those without.

Neo-liberalism isn't sold on the notion that we can adapt to these new social conditions we find ourselves in, but that you can - that this is your chance to get ahead and leave the bewildered herd behind. The Victorians had seen time frugality and ‘industriousness’ as a form of virtue, which would benefit any who applied it to their lives. Now society is like a lottery, predicated on winners and losers. So even social conditions come to be seen as individualised, where the side we’re on is determined not by morality so much as identification. The elect few gain the perspective of bullet time against the mass still stuck in their Fordist linear time tracks.

But if that doesn't convince you, consider this. Bullet time is simultaneously a description of our modern perception of time and a registered trademark of Warner Brothers. What could be more neoliberal than that?

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