Time

By Denisa Botescu • BSc Anthropology

Street art in Buenos Aires, Barracas neighbourhood (Source: Kaja Seruga)

Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river which sweeps me along but I am the river; it is a tiger which mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.

J.L. Borges 1947 A New Refutation of time. p. 64

When I was eighteen… I mean, when I had been alive on this planet for eighteen years… or do you better understand 216 months of the Gregorian calendar? After having been alive for 6570 days, which you could also say ‘having seen the sun rise 6570 times’? Maybe if I don’t relate it to myself you will understand better. Here we go: in the summer of 2015… I mean, it was in a time when it was very warm compared to other times and when it had been 2015 years since… Ah. At a moment in my life right after the Romanian legal system had considered I had the necessary maturity to leave the country by myself, I decided to go on a bike-tour from Romania to Spain. 

After almost a week… I mean, after having cycled for almost 7 days, 7 sunrises, 604800 seconds, 60480000 moments of blinking, of presentness that had passed, I arrived in Hortobágyi, a Natural Park in the east of Hungary. It is one of the flattest areas in eastern Europe, which means that you can cycle for a long time… a lot of miles, a lot of repeated rotation of your pedals, of your foot touching the same point of the circumference made by the pedal for many repeated instances, without seeing any land formation around you, it is just you, the road under your wheel and the sky. I got very sunburned, lonely, hungry and lost, but above all, what happened is that after two days (after…) of cycling in that infinite nothingness, I started losing track of time. I could not tell if I was here or there, now or then, today or yesterday, if my thoughts had passed or are still happening now. Of course, I was progressing, moving, passing, being, but I could not tell. Besides my memories and my watch, I had no index, no trace, no external way of seeing that passage. My watch was irrelevant, because the only helpful thing it did was tell me that time had indeed passed outside my self, and my memories were getting so deeply confused that they were no longer a reliable source of chronology, of the logos of time, of the discourse, the understanding of time. Time per se had disintegrated for me. 

Source: Hortobágy

Such disintegration is what Jorge Luis Borges is attempting in his 1944/46 article “A New Refutation of Time”, the originary place where the quote titling this article comes from. However, before introducing Borges’ refutation, I find it useful to jump towards Alfred Gell (1992) and his exposition of the philosophical problematizing of time. Bear with me, there will be some abstract letters emerging, but I promise the end is worth it. 

Gell starts with McTaggart’s division of time between A-series and B-series. McTaggart is using this division to demonstrate that time is not real and his argument put succinctly goes as follows: There is an A-series categorization of time based on a differentiation in the subjective perception of a past/present/future, and a B-series categorization of time based on whether events occur before/ after each other. The B-series is always derived from the A-series as the A-series is the only one that accounts for change. Change is the fundamental feature of time’s reality, while the B-series is just a “row of [dated] events strung together, like the beads on a necklace” (Gell 1992:151) with no space for real change. Now, if the B-series is derived from the A-series, what accounts for the reality of the change explained by the A-series? This is where the paradox emerges. Let me illustrate using a spatial analogy (I acknowledge that I am problematically reducing time to space). If there are three houses on a street and I bike along them, there must be a moment when I am present in front of a house and another when I am present in front of another. No matter when I am narrating this passage, it is impossible for me to be in front of two houses at the same time. Thus, past, present and future can never be simultaneous, they must change. But for this to be true there have to be houses, dates, moments externally fixed. Hence, A-series’ reality depends on the B-series dated events, which in turn depend on the A-series change. This circularity is what allows McTaggart to say that time is not real. 

Now, the novelty in Gell’s ‘moderate B-series’ perspective is that he does the derivation in the different direction. There is something real and that is B-series time, which is objective and non-perspective dependant; what is derived in the form of a subjective ‘tense’ is the A-series categorization of time into past/present/future. Thus, Gell is not negating that change lays at the fundament of real time, Aristotle’s idea of time as the measurement of change is still standing, what he is negating is that the B-series derives from the A-series. If it had been Gell coining the two series, they would have been inversed. 

Why enter such complexities and in such a short space? Because I believe it key to understand them in order to see where is Borges coming from in his refutation of time. Borges negates the reality of B-series and also the need for an A-series to be based on change, real successive change. Ergo, he is negating what Gell and McTaggart had taken for granted, time as the measurement of change. I find Borges’ attempt courageous, he is going back to Aristotle. 

Street art in Buenos Aires, Barracas neighbourhood (Source: Kaja Seruga)

Thus, what is needed in order to negate succession is a moment of abstraction where one can be in front of two houses at once. But the problem lies in the analogy itself, why do we need houses/dates/references in the first place? What if I am cycling in a space of nothingness, a plain in Hortobágyi, what if Borges is walking on a street in Barracas and passes in front of the wall that he had seen yesterday and has the exact same thought as he had yesterday? What makes it a now, different from a then? “If we can intuit that identity, time is a delusion. The indifference and inseparability of one moment in time’s apparent yesterday from another moment in time’s apparent today are enough to cause time’s disintegration” (Borges 1947:55). We are back where we jumped from. With the two ethnographic instances in mind, my cycle and Borge’s walk in Barracas, we might be able to say that indeed, see, there are moments when time is a delusion. 

And yet, and yet (…)Time is the substance of which I am made  (Borges 1947:64). Borges’ refutation of time remains “confined, in confessed irresolution, to [his] sheet of paper” (ibid.:56). The moment when I tried narrating my experience of atemporality in an atemporal form, I realized it is impossible. Even without the houses and the momentary loss, I am still in time, I am still real, I am still Being, because it is only in time that I can re-member a moment of an absence of time, of change, when I was eighteen and was ‘thrown’ in the world. “Whenever Dasein tacitly understands something like Being, it does so with ‘time’ as its standpoint” (Heidegger 1927:39). Dasein (“being-there”) as the being for whom “in its very Being, that Being is an ‘issue’ for it” (p.32) is the river, the tiger or the fire that both generates and consumes itself perpetually.

Borges himself refutes his own new refutation of time at the end of both versions of the essay, time is real, and he is Borges. However, I find his courageous attempt not to have been in vain; despite time still standing, it has now been found at a fundamentally ontological level. Unwillingly or not, Borges might have performed a phenomenological reduction (Epokhé). More straightforwardly put, he might have seen time beyond A-series and B-series, beyond subjective and objective perception, time as the field of Being. “Live as if you were to live forever, live as if you were to die tomorrow” (Bourdieu 1963:63) is a saying of the Algerian Kabyle, who in Bourdieu’s eyes are indifferent to time, to B-series time. I see them not indifferent to B-series only, what I read in their saying is an urge to Live, to Be, beyond time and its however many series, because whatever the ontical form of that Being, it will always be, ontologically, in time, like you reading this now, like me writing this now. We both are the river, in time.


References

Borges, J.L. 1947 A New Refutation of Time, in Kerrigan, A. (ed.) 1967 A Personal Anthology. New York: Grove Press.  Pp.44-65

Bourdieu, P. 1963 The Attitude of the Algerian peasant toward time, in Pitt-Rivers, J. (ed.) Mediterranean Countryman. Essays in the Social Anthropology of the Mediterranean. Westport: Greenwood Press Publishers. Pp. 55-72

Gell, A. 1992 The Anthropology of Time. Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford, Washington D.C.: Berg

Heidegger, M. 1927 (2001). Being and Time. Oxford UK, Cambridge US: Blackwell

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