shi jian: time
By Mark Hansen
Design by Raegan Kelly & Michelle Menzies
Creative Database Direction by
Deprived of the luxury of submitting to transition, the majority of today's Chinese are to some extent or other compelled to measure time in relation to their present, to the opportunity that is this moment present here today
- Mark Hansen, Author's Statement
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In introducing his book Du "temps": lments d'une philosophie du vivre (Of "time": Elements of a Philosophy of the Living), philosopher Franois Jullien emphasizes the promise of China as a detour, and perhaps indeed an "exit," from the "grand fold" of time that haunts the Western philosophical tradition. Jullien's rationale is interesting and fully apropos for the purpose of introducing my Vectors project, "shi jian : time": China, Jullien argues,
has thought the seasonal "moment" and "duration," but not an envelop that equally conditions both of them, and that would comprise homogeneous "time" — and that would be wholly abstract. What then is the meaning of this thinking, that has not thought "bodies" in "movement" (from whence comes our conception of a physical time, "number of movement"), and that has not opposed the temporal to the eternal, or being to becoming (from whence is born metaphysics), and that, finally, employs a language which is not conjugated and does not include oppositions of time, of future, present, and past? Would there be here then an alternative to the thinking of time? Undertaking to deploy such an alternative leads us to consider, with respect to 'time,' what the season could be, as well as, with respect to the temporal dis-tension that permits an extension "in time," what is the continuous transition that comprises the process of things.1
Having myself had the occasion to live in China for one cycle of seasons at the very moment that I was writing a book on time and media (a book whose point of origin was indeed Aristotle's definition of time as the "number of movement according to the before and after"), I can share fully Jullien's excitement, even if I lack his expertise in things Chinese. Indeed, as I read about time in China while diligently writing my book, I could not help but imagine certain core affinities between the Chinese experience of time described by Jullien and my own revisionary reading of Aristotle's yoking of time to movement (with the latter reread as an ontological function of human being, what Heidegger would call an "existentiale" of Dasein). If, as I was at that moment in the process of arguing, there is no time in itself, but only divergent yet finally compossible temporalizations at various phenomenal levels, then in a certain irrevocable way, time would simply be transition (which is also to say that time is not a substance; that there is no concept of time). And, in accord with this conclusion, the difference between what we no doubt too readily conceptualize as "Western" and "Eastern" versions of time would have more to do with divergent practices of temporal measurement than with some overarching ontological divide between exemplary world cultures.
As my time in and familiarity with China grew, I could not help but be struck by the stark contrast between the lightening fast modernization I could see everywhere in evidence in Beijing's innumerable construction sites and the temporal rituals, most often associated with the seasons, described by Jullien and ever so occasionally manifest in my proximate lifeworld (as for example when I one day walked to Ritan Park to find it totally transformed by the installation of a mass of highly formalized floral displays intended to announce to make visible the imperceptible transition to spring; or, in a different permutation of natural force, when I walked to Tiananmen Square on October 1, the Chinese National Holiday, to find what for me was an unimaginable mass of people, many of them peasants from all over China, who had engaged in the ritual of visiting the capital for this important yearly event). Clearly, the China I entered and inhabited a China of furious capitalist development and burgeoning inequity, a China collectively oriented to the global rite of passage that is the upcoming 2008 Olympics was in some undeniable and undeniably problematic ways different from the far more sedate and noble China described by Jullien and lived (at least in my imagination) by some of the people whom I would regularly see on my walks in the park (in particular, the elderly and those disabled by what may well have been injuries caused by primitive working conditions). At least for the majority of Chinese that I had occasion to see or to imagine, the temporality of transition that is so much a part of the promise of China for Jullien (and for me) was all but eclipsed by the timetable of largely unchecked and uncoordinated development, which is to say, by the most relentless measurement of them all, the hyper-economy of investment and return in what might well seem a new, potentially limitless frontier.
In the face of this reality, even the non-essential difference I initially thought I could discern between China and the West some clear divergence in practices of temporal measurement and in the ethos of temporal experience seemed to melt away. What became ever more apparent, indeed insistently apparent to me is that China itself is a place in radical transition, and that the transition at issue today is markedly different from the imperceptible transition theorized by Jullien: it is, in some undeniable way, discontinuous both with an older China and with the tradition of deep, imperceptible continuity that informs the temporal dynamics of transition. At the very least, China's current transition superposes a multiple, perhaps heterogeneous discontinuity and a ruthless pragmatics of measure on a cultural tradition deeply committed to transition and singularly characterized by a refusal to substantialize and artifactualize time.
My proximate interest in developing this project for Vectors has been to provide a platform for exploring the multiplicity and hybridity of temporality as it is lived in China today. Without seeking to answer the theoretical questions raised by the problematic of a distinctly "Chinese" time (a task for which I am, to be sure, less than ideally qualified and for which I can only refer you to Jullien as well as to some of his key detractors2), I hope to open up possibilities for discerning and indeed for experiencing the constitutive differences that may in fact still mark the Chinese experience of time, even at an historical point when all temporal experience is inescapably inflected by the common rhythms that undergird contemporary globalization and hypermodernization.
To do so, I have chosen to use my own time in China, across a full cycle of seasons from fall 2006 until summer 2007, as documented in the archive of photographs and short video clips that I accumulated over the course of this period, as the basis for a work that is meant to allow different potential temporalizations and retemporalizations of this time-specific documentary material. The organizational categories that structure the work and that differentiate the chronological timeline (comprised of the date-stamped images and videos) into divergent subsets of the documentary material include factors that are both intrinsic and extrinsic to the images themselves: place, type of light, point of view, type of time. Developed in collaboration with artist-designer, Raegan Kelly, these categories catalyze singular processes of retemporalization that, importantly for me, cut across the phenomenology-cosmology divide introduced by philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his analysis of time in Time and Narrative. In my own meditation on the Husserlian figure of the "temporal object" an object, e.g., a melody, that provides a surrogate for the otherwise ineffable flux of time through the brain I have come to appreciate the significance of Ricoeur's argument that a phenomenology of time-consciousness is insufficient to address the "being of time" in its full scope. Husserl's conception that consciousness is not simply constituted in time, but is constitutive of time, is given the lie by the existence of processes at scales antithetical to the ratios of human sense experience. While this has led me to the position that there is no time in itself, but only an open set of potentially heterogeneous temporalizations of time (a position I share with philosopher Dominique Janicaud), what is particularly important in the present context is the idea of a neutrality across the human-nonhuman divide: extremely large cosmological processes and extremely fine-grained computational processes are just as much temporalizations as a temporal object like a melody (or a Hollywood movie, to draw on philosopher Bernard Stiegler's updating of Husserl's concept). The main difference between them is that whereas the latter (properly temporal objects) temporalize for human experience, as the support for human time-consciousness, the former temporalize independently from human concerns. How they are nonetheless imbricated with human experience remains one of the crucial issues for our time.
Without being able to say exactly why or what it means, I have for some time now been animated by a feeling that there is some important affinity between this cross-level conception of temporalization and the primacy of transition that forms the mainstay of the Chinese conception of time. Perhaps it is no more than the fact that time, or rather temporalization the phenomenalization of time occurs everywhere and all the time; far from being an experience reserved to certain entities (to human time-consciousnesses, in the case of philosophical phenomenology from Husserl to Stiegler) and to certain kinds of events (of the human scale; what the Annales historians designate as political events), temporalization, that is, temporal phenomenalization, is literally ubiquitous: it occurs in every worldly process of materialization, in every physical process whatsoever. More simply put, transition is what lies behind and also what exceeds any act of measurement. Thus, the fact that we can associate temporalization with the measuring of time at divergent temporal scales correlates perfectly well with the generality of transition: for what is only transition can only be measured, which is to say that measure does not so much capture temporal transition as frame it for our experience (or for other ends of manifestation). Along these lines, we might say that the Chinese have traditionally maintained a gap between experience and time that they have sought to live transition not as the object of phenomenological experience but as something like an ethical ideal whereas we in the West have committed all our resources cognitive, ethical, technical to eradicating this very gap, to bringing time, as temporalization, into the domain of experience. Beyond the issue of whether some kind of measure is in fact necessary to make transition appear at all, one crucial question posed by China's current wave of hypermodernization is whether there will remain any room at all for this gap, whether there will continue to be a role for submitting to a transition that is outside of one's power and control?
Another, perhaps simpler and more direct way to approach all of this is to observe that the Chinese model of transition, which cuts across the phenomenological-cosmological divide (or more precisely, which subsumes the phenomenological under the cosmological), appears to be in the midst of a full-blown crisis of hyper-"presentist" self-reference. Deprived of the luxury of submitting to transition, the majority of today's Chinese are to some extent or other compelled to measure time in relation to their present, to the opportunity that is this moment present here today. Placing the Chinese "model" of transition alongside the two great, competing Western philosophical models of time time as before/after and as past/present/future what we encounter in the hyperdevelopment of contemporary Beijing (or for that matter, of the Pearl River Delta Region or Chengdu or any number of other rapidly developing sites in China) is a kind of temporal collapse in which an unmarked time (transition) and a minimally marked time (before/after) are all but swallowed up by a hyperbolic pseudo-ecstatic self-reference by a present that narrowly deploys the resources of tradition in its imagining of a future that, like the Olympics to come, is effectively already here. Inscribing myself and my documentation directly in the midst of this frantic temporal calculation (one need only observe the proportion of the material that includes evidence of building construction), my point is less to argue for the continued relevance of the "otherness" of transition (or for any other specific claim about Chinese time or time in general) than to accumulate traces of potentially heterogeneous temporalities that, when "reactivated" by the user of the site following the affordances it provides, can serve to catalyze divergent, always singular, and (so it is my hope) somehow creative (in distinction to simply reproductive) reconfigurations of my movement through time and space, history and modernity, light and location, during my seasonal cycle in Beijing.
That these traces range from the physical (e.g., the concrete qualities of light that can, to an extent, be separated from the content and circumstance of an image) to the personal (e.g., documentation of my son's 7th birthday) speaks to the way that the trace, as I argue in my book, grounds a different "responsibility" toward time (thinking this term with the full Levinasian force) than does the phenomenology of time consciousness. In his criticism of Husserl's conceptualization of the thick now, Levinas contends that the retentional-protentional expansion of the primary impression in effect captures and domesticates the a-human (and perhaps also inhuman) power of time, leaving no room for its constitutive excess. In this respect, as Ricoeur has noted in his own appropriation of Levinas, the Levinasian trace is doubly distanced from the capturing of time by time-consciousness: not only is it of an order antithetical to experience (it belongs to an "immemorial past," to an absence "outside of any memory"), but it also inscribes an event that is neutral in regard to and in some sense prior to the division between the human and the nonhuman, the animate and the inanimate. Without being able (or wanting) to remain faithful to the stricture on phenomenalization that Levinas places on thought, I have sought to give occasion for users to experience a responsibility to time as a neutral, dare I say cosmological, force a dynamic, never self-present or "existent" source for temporalizations that defy the ontological divide between thing and consciousness.
It is possible that this occasion is first and foremost one for me, to the extent that I remain the privileged "user" of this work (since in my case all temporalizations of the documentation I amassed are re-temporalizations that create a complex resonance of a current temporal experience, something I am now living, with the recollection of a past temporal experience, something that I myself lived and that comprises a part of my personal secondary memory). Yet my hope is that my own reactualizations of the traces inscribed in this work will themselves work to defamiliarize my own experience, and thus to undermine my own privilege in relation to the material. For if I can (re)experience the time span (say) by way of technically-inscribed traces of shifting light patterns that bear in themselves almost illegible marks of seasonal change, does this not in effect deprivilege my memory of the time span and the dominance of my time-consciousness as its agent, perhaps even to the point of broaching the human-nonhuman divide? Can I, in short, live the temporal span as something more like an unbounded (or only provisionally bounded) transition rather than an event of consciousness, a temporal object in the Husserlian-Stieglerian sense? Can I participate in the transition as a co-experiencer, as a being who submits to its internal force, rather than as an agent whose role is to confer on it some determinate, which is to say, measured, extensivity?
These questions immediately open onto perhaps the most crucial question of them all: namely, what is the relation of the work, centered as it is in the documentation of an experience that is first and foremost a personal one, that is unequivocally my experience, to a larger audience who are invited to take up its heterogeneous temporal traces without the counterweight of memory. Given that this audience is likely to be a largely (if not exclusively) Western one, would it be plausible to assume that users will, as it were, automatically install a subjective mediation of time and history as a kind of experiential default; and that, consequently, they will live through a similar defamiliarization and deprivileging to the one I experience? Are there advantages, from the perspective of experiencing time's heterogeneity and constitutive, a-human power, to beginning with traces that are already detached from the personally lived past, that are traces of nonpersonal (which is not necessarily to say, impersonal) activities, and that can perhaps for that reason more easily cross the barrier from the human to the nonhuman, from a time organized in relation to privileged acts of thought to a time bound up with diverse temporalizations distributed across all scales of the physical world? These, obviously, remain open questions in anticipation of the actual use of the work, and I remain keen to learn more about a production of experience that bears so directly on questions at the heart of my interest in diachronicity and the "asubjective" dimension of temporal experience.
I have more than once alluded to the relation of this work to my book on time and media and have emphasized the position of the work as a kind of experiential supplement to my book. In no way simply a translation or direct outgrowth of my argument, shi jian : time is designed rather to provide a free space of experimentation around a nexus of issues central to the imbrication of time and media, including the (potential) difference between Chinese and Western conceptualizations of time, the (non)divide between cosmological and phenomenological time, and the role of movement and the trace in brokering (the crossing of) this divide. Whereas the book focuses much of its attention, in a largely critical vein, on the philosophical figure of the Husserlian temporal object (or better, the technical temporal object, which is to say "cinema" in the age global realtime televisual fluxes, following Stiegler's appropriation), shi jian : time takes off from the inadequacy of the cinematic temporal object as a means for thinking the role of technics in our world today. (In this way, the work directly profits and moves out from the critical conclusions of the book, in a sense putting their use value to the test.)
To make the stakes of this experimentation clear, let me briefly recap my argument for the inadequacy of the cinematic temporal object as a means for thinking the being of time in our world today. As Stiegler theorizes it (here following the Husserl of the Lectures on the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time to the letter), the cinematic temporal object forms a necessary surrogate for the otherwise ineffable flux of time through consciousness (the affection of the self by time that constitutes the Western experience and concept of subjectivity). In this role the cinematic object is characterized by two "coincidences": the photographic coincidence of the past with reality (Roland Barthes's "that was," a a t) and the cinematic coincidence between the flux of the film moving through the projector and the flux of consciousness viewing the film. Distilled down to its essence, what defines the cinematic temporal object is the perfect temporal synchronization between the flux of the object (which is to say, the flux of the photocinematic apparatus presenting or representing past images) and the present flux of consciousness. In my book, I show how this standard of synchronization imposes an undo restriction on technics: technics becomes narrowly identified with what Stiegler calls "tertiary" memory, which is to say, technical recordings of past experiences that were not lived, but that can be adopted, by present consciousness. More bluntly put, technics is restricted to the operation of storing information that shares the same temporal basis as human experience (the experience of consciousness). What falls out in the process is the entire domain of technics (by far the larger domain, I would add) that operates at temporal scales more fine-grained (or more large-scaled) than that of consciousness. What falls out, in short, is the entirety of what British geographer Nigel Thrift has felicitously called the "technological unconscious," the computational infrastructure of our immediate lifeworld and hence of the practical temporalizations that largely comprise our everyday lives.
Indeed, what underlies my thinking about time here is nothing other than the profound impact of the computational revolution. As it has permeated literally every major activity of life during the last couple of decades, computation has effectuated a fundamental shift in the economy of time and temporalization: a world marked by a predominant complementarity of human and worldly rhythms has ceded place to one that largely runs at time-scales far beneath the scale of human experience. While this shift need not necessarily lead in the direction of the inhuman, which is to say, away from human interests, it certainly does betoken a radically different "division of the sensible," to repurpose philosopher Jacques Rancire's concept. For if computational technologies are involved in many, if not indeed most, of the temporalizations that "give time" for experience, their impact fuels a double decoupling: on one hand, of the human experiencer from worldly temporalization; and on the other, of experience itself from its human agent. As the human or more exactly, human consciousness loses its monopoly over the forms of time, the temporalizations, that structure the world, the very concept of "experience" gets detached from that of consciousness. What results is a model of experience as Deleuzean "transcendental empiricism," but one in which agency is bound up with or simply is technics itself: the computational world, in short, is filled with temporalizations that cannot be lived by human consciousness, but that nevertheless enjoy full material being and that resolutely do exert an impact, by way of some indirection or mediation, on human experience.
If we think about cinematic temporal objects from the standpoint of Friedrich Kittler's work, we get one particularly pessimistic or paranoid version of this impact: the capture of the time of consciousness by a cinematic temporal object functions to distract us from the growing divergence between the temporal ratios of our living and the constitutive temporalities of computational technics. As Kittler puts it, here anticipating the machinic allure of The Matrix: "The general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media. Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface. Sense and the senses turn into eyewash. Their media-produced glamour will survive for an interim as a by-product of strategic programs."3 Leaving aside the apparent pessimism informing this position, let us try to take up the challenge of Kittler's project in an affirmative vein. More than anyone else writing on digital media, it is Kittler who has insisted on the divergent materiality of digital technics and of media — whether digital or analog — and it is this insistence that opens the way for a theorization of digital technics as more than simply a new support for tertiary memory. Largely because it operates in full independence from human sense perception, digital technics participates in temporalizations that are not themselves always already media forms and that may not be compatible with such forms (where media is understood, following Kittler, as the mediation of information for human consumption).
The challenge posed by Kittler's conceptualization of the digital as post-media is thus a challenge (and, I would add, an opportunity) to think media beyond the figure of the cinematic temporal object, to reconceptualize the correlation between media and technically-artifactualized time as something other than the supplementing of lived experience by technically-recorded (non-lived) memories. Kittler is right, I think, to characterize media, which he also calls "entertainment," as the "dependent variable" of a "compromise" between "engineers and salespeople"; in doing so he emphasizes the evident fact that the coupling of human perceivers to contemporary information flows is entirely optional, by which he means above all that it results from calculation, from a compromise between technics and capital. If we reappropriate the force of this option understood as the option to interface with technically-artifactualized time we fundamentally invert the valuation put in place by Kittler and we do so in a way that repurposes media for the postmedia age of digital technics. Rather than taking the relation between media form and technical time as a given (as does Stiegler), this understanding positions media as a kind of second order modality whose function is to mediate or to suture the gap that disjoins media form from technical time. Desynchronized from the time of digital technics, which is to say, from the dominant infrastructure of time's manifestation in our world today, media is freed up to become a space of experimentation that, by allowing us to ask questions about our potential coupling with technical time and about the limitations of media as artifactualizations of sensory perception, expands well beyond its narrow philosophical vocation of brokering the time of consciousness.
The crucial idea here is that media today (which is to say, media in the context of technically-artifactualized time) acquires a newfound purpose in conjoining human experience (together with its exteriorization into media forms) with the technical temporalizations that currently materialize time in the world. More simply put: media today functions as a component in a post-cinematic (post-mediatic?) process. This process can be characterized by two interconnected elements: first, it exceeds the scope of what can be held in consciousness (a scope that largely coincides with the cinematic temporal object); and second, it involves the co-functioning of multiple operations at divergent, even heterogeneous temporal scales (of which consciousness is only one).
To give an idea of what I have in mind here, let us contrast a cinematic temporal object, say Hitchcock's Blackmail or Fellini's L'Intervista, with a postcinematic (postmedia) temporal media process like Mario Klingeman's Flickeur, John Cabral's Ground Zero or Barbara Lattanzi's Optical De-dramatization Engine (O.D.E.) applied in 40-hour cycles to 'The Invaders' by Thomas Ince (1912), all of which comprise examples of what Lattanzi has called "long-duration cinema." As Bernard Stiegler explains in his essay "The Time of Consciousness," the former facilitate more or less complicated explorations of the tripartite structure of time-consciousness and specifically illustrate the crucial role selection plays in generating the coherence of the cinematic temporal object as a unity (and thus as a surrogate for an intentional act of consciousness). The coupling of consciousness and cinema is so strong that Stiegler is led to conclude, simply and eloquently, that "consciousness is cinematographic." The latter, long-duration works, by contrast, broach the formal limits of the cinematic temporal object. For while they certainly do depend on the activity, and indeed on the selectivity, of consciousness, and while they do also associate this activity with cinematic tropes (fades, pans, transitions, etc.), they give the lie to any attempt to synchronize the time of consciousness (and of the cinematic temporal object) with the open-ended, potentially infinite time of the algorithm, and by extension of the algorithmically-driven internet.
These long-duration cinematic processes, in other words, transform the aesthetic significance of the cinematic as such. They allow us to interface with the temporalizations inscribed in these works (temporalizations that range from the cycling of the computer itself, to the uncertain transmission of data packets across networks, to the durational implications of the cinematic tropes), but do not bind these temporalizations narrowly to consciousness as if they were nothing more than the objectification of its own constitutive flux. And they require that our experience of the temporalizations they offer be mediated by media forms (the algorithmic generation of cinematic forms moving through experiential time), but without requiring any temporal synchronization of experience and media form. That is why, finally, despite their being made available for conscious, i.e., mediatic consumption, these temporalizations do not lose their heterogeneity with respect to one another and, most crucially, with respect to consciousness: indeed, the latter can only experience them insofar as it comprises an element of and acts as a co-participant in a larger temporal system over which it has no mastery. In sum, the mediation involved in these works does not mediate the time of consciousness so much as it mediates the gap separating media from all of the heterogeneous temporalizations involved in the ongoing generation of the work; these so-called long duration works present the heterogeneity of digital temporalization by way of a fundamental repurposing of media itself: rather than the exteriorization of human consciousness (what it has been up to McLuhan and now to Stiegler), media today comes to occupy the tenuous space between consciousness and world, between "media" (in its former vocation as surrogate for consciousness) and computation, such that it brokers contact between the heterogeneous temporalities these terms name, and in so doing, furnishes (presents to consciousness or, better, to aesthetic perception) some sense of the "alterity" of the temporalizations involved in computational processes.
I dwell on this re-purposing of media in order the better to approach and to appreciate the technical element of my own project, or rather, to be more precise, how the technical basis of shi jian : time resonates, in both positive and negative valences, with the aesthetic aim that I have outlined above (namely: to facilitate divergent engagements with time across the phenomenological-cosmological divide and inspired by the confrontation with China). Let me jump-start this exploration by posing a blunt, critical question: isn't there something misguided, self-defeating, even repugnant in a project that seeks to engage with temporal transition beyond measure but that does so by way of a database structure which operates through the compiling of finely-measured, quantized data? I want to devote the remainder of my introductory remarks to explaining why I don't think this is the case, and in so doing, to try and make clear the precise claim I am advancing for the irreducible technicity of experience including the experience (if that is the right word) of what normally remains imperceptible, namely transition itself in our world today. As we will see, everything will come down to the indirect or mediated relation between consciousness and technics, which is equally to say, to the payoff of the fundamental transformation of media we have just been exploring. (Media, to repeat, no longer doubles the flux of consciousness but forms a hinge or suture between it and the technical temporalizations of our heavily computized lifeworld.)
Without necessarily wanting to claim that a digital database (or an algorithmically-generated internet site) furnishes the ideal aesthetic mediation of temporal transition today, I do want to take seriously the analogy that links together transition understood (following the Chinese mode) as a natural or cosmological process and transition as it is artifactualized in the fine temporality of computational processes. What connects these two forms of transition is nothing less than the fact that both categorically evade the grasp of consciousness: both are fundamentally imperceptible from the vantage point of a form of life whose grasp of the world is mediated by the senses. Pursuing this analogy to its endpoint (and assuming its coherence), what we are left with is this: that transition is ultimately (which is to say, at the fine-grained physical level) a transition from one discrete state to another. (That is why, in my book, I describe the computational infrastructure of contemporary temporalization, with the aid of Wolfgang Staehle's webcam projects, especially Empire 24/7 and Untitled, as the contemporary technical artifactualization of time's minimal before-after structure; on the basis of the incessant inscription of transition from one minimal temporal state to another, this temporal regime provides a ground of continuity for all higher order activities, up to and beyond human conscious experience. The governing insight here, which I owe to cultural critic and programmer Adrian MacKenzie, is that there is no ultimate minimal unit of time, but only provisional forms of a minimal unit which stabilize a society's temporal regime but which remain open to further refinement (which are "metastable"). In line with this view, there is only a difference of technical precision between the 1 second oscillation of the pendulum clock and the more than 9 billion oscillations/second of the atomic clock; neither of these measures grasps the ultimate structure of time and neither is more "right" than the other; rather, they simply parse time's temporalization (which is to say, time's only form of being, if indeed there is no such thing as time-in-itself) according to different measures. Staehle's works are helpful then since they purposely deploy an outmoded technical standard, the webcam which updates its images every 20 seconds or so, to capture and artifactualize what has all-too-often misleadingly been named "realtime" media; what we experience in these works is the necessity for temporal transition or continuity to be artifactualized in some discrete form as a condition not simply for its appearance to human consciousnesses, but for its materialization as such.)
Transition, I have just said, is necessarily transition from one discrete state to another. This, again, is because there is no time beyond the measurements or temporalizations that give time its being. Though it may not appear with quite the same self-evidence, this holds just as much for the nature that underlies the Chinese conception of transition as it does for the technical temporal regime that currently supports global computational networks. Indeed, this perhaps surprising convergence between what appear to be such vastly different regimes of transition indicates the need to move away from an analysis at the level of physical reality (where things appear, ultimately, to be of a part) and toward a differentiation at the ethical level. Is it possible that the fundamental difference (which, everything we have said notwithstanding, continues to animate the comparison of Chinese and Western time) involves a divergent ethical response to the power of time? Is it possible that the real difference at issue here is that between a culture (China) which chooses to think time from a position above the threshold of its discretization and another (the West) which from its very inception in Aristotle's doctrine of time (in Physics IV, 10-14) cannot help but discretize, which is to say, to think time from the standpoint of its minimal units? Indeed, is anything else finally at stake in the distinction between a procedure that defines time through its boundaries (Aristotle: "time is the number of movement according to the before and after") and one that precisely refuses to posit such boundaries, that remains within the continuity of a temporal flux built upon a forgotten or purposefully overlooked physical transition between discrete, though imperceptibly discretized natural states?
If the insuperability of discretization at some minimal physical level takes the charge out of the blunt question I posed above (the question concerning the constraints imposed by the database structure), it also perhaps highlights just what a "Western" (or, we may now want to say, to the extent that China too is part of global digitally-supported networks, a "global") perspective can add here. For to the precise extent that computation furnishes the means to experiment not just with the physical parameters of time's minimal inscription but also, and more importantly, with the aesthetic implications of the irreducible technicity of this inscription, it allows us to experience aspects of transition that remain simply beyond experience in the classical Chinese context presented by Jullien. (In this way too, it perhaps provides some unexpected affirmation of the decision to explore time cross-culturally using computer technology and documentary material/experience that, in an unequivocal sense, correlates with "Western" subjectivity.) To be more concrete, the flexibility of the database structure, which takes advantage of the discreteness of on-the-fly temporal operations of the computer, allows us to construct a relationship between the level at which transition qua the transition from one discrete state to another actually, that is, physically, occurs and the level of media (the particular actualization of the database in a given session) where the actual set of computational operations yields a sensory presentation of some passage of time that, as I have stressed from the outset, is not first and foremost given unity by its belonging to the experience of a single consciousness, but that simply comprises a sensory correlate to a finite series of algorithmic procedures which are, in principle, open to infinity. In this respect, shi jian : time is resolutely not meant to offer a new-and-improved, computational or database temporal object for the user to reflect on her own time-consciousness: it simply does not define any discrete unity of subjective experience (even for me, its creator and in some sense privileged subject and user). It is meant, rather, to provide opportunities for users to participate in an ongoing, potentially infinite, and heterogeneous temporal process, to co-temporalize with the images and videos which comprise so many temporal traces of disparate transitions, and perhaps even more so, with the computational processes which make these available for her experience. (Indeed, I believe the work more directly and immediately concerns the process of continuous computing, that is, ongoing cycling from one discrete operation to another, than the process of me living one set of seasons in China or any subjectively or extrasubjectively experienced temporal unity that the user may find in the work). The emphasis the work places on such co-participation, and the particular passivity it involves, explains why the user does not take away a discrete representation of her experience with the database (a capacity I had initially wanted to include in the site and that Raegan talked me out of), something that would document its role as a temporal object, a surrogate, for the flux of her experience as she engaged with the work. Indeed, to the extent that the experience of the user occurs together with the presencing of the computer (in the sense recently invoked, critically and negatively, by D. N. Rodowick), it cannot be captured in representation; what I hope the user acquires from engaging with the site, rather, is some sense of the transformation of media from a direct and strictly constrained correlate of subjective experience (a temporal object) to a space of mediation between the now disjoint temporal domains of human (and mediatic) sense experience and digital technics. For if media in its new vocation has become a mode of engaging with the digital imperceptible (the temporal cycles of the computer), as I suggest it has, does it not thus offer the opportunity to bring the structure of transition itself into the domain of experience? And if, oddly enough, its digital infrastructure facilitates such a bringing-of-transition-into
With this thought in mind, let me try to summarize how and why shi jian : time might help keep alive the promise associated with imperceptible transition and the uncapturable, constitutionally excessive power of time to which it alludes. In the expanded, no longer fundamentally subjective sense, media comprises an "asubjective" manifestation in sensory form of the technical infrastructure of time as it undergirds the natural transition of our highly complexified world. (Examples of such asubjective manifestations include the rendering as image effects of the algorithms built into the long-duration works I have presented above, as well as the configurations of data (temporal traces) of my own piece according to categories that cross and hence confound the phenomenology-cosmology divide.) It is important, moreover, that such asubjective manifestations remain accessible to human consciousness even though they are not synchronized with its constitutive temporality. (As Czech phenomenologist Jan Patocka shows in his reworking of Husserl's phenomenology of manifestation, the fact that human consciousness is the privileged recipient of the world's appearance does not in any way collapse the latter's autonomy; we can affirm that this remains the case as appearance becomes ever increasingly a matter of technical rendering.) Would I be entirely mistaken to suggest that this asubjective form of media begins to answer the question I posed above, namely the question of how to keep alive the promise of the Chinese perspective on transition? Might this technically-anchored form of manifestation not in fact furnish the best means to remain faithful to the promise of temporal transition, of a profound continuity rooted in nature, or indeed in technics itself (and not just in the human mind), at this moment of China's (and the world's) frantic hypermodernization, which is to say, at this moment when all traces of its legitimacy and all hope for the ethics we have attached to it would seem to be effaced?
Let me bring these remarks to a close by pointing to the example of two contemporary Chinese artists, Song Dong and Qiu Zhijie, whose work invests in the technical paradigm (which is to say, the technical excavation) of transition in ways that give life to this promise. In his light-writing or "calli-photo-graphy," Qiu Zhijie combines, in a single gesture, digital inscription technology and analog manifestation of the flux of time. For the last several years, Qiu has been photographing himself writing Chinese characters with a flashlight; the long-exposure takes typically lasting a whole minute capture static images of a dynamic, precarious, physically arduous, and most significantly, continuous process through which the artist performs the luminous inscription of a character or set of characters in reverse stroke order.
In the present context, what is most striking about this work is the way that the capture or mediation of Qiu's self-referential activity is made to depend on the sheer "objective" contingency of the coincidence between completed gesture and automated digital capture.
Song Dong's work over the past decade, though quite distinct in feel from Qiu's, nonetheless shares a similar aesthetic of negation and similarly deploys mediation less as a surrogate for embodied temporal flux than a frame for a constitutively excessive, ineffable process of transition. Beginning with his practice of keeping a
This difference from Qiu notwithstanding, the interest of these works stems from Song's negative deployment of mediation, a deployment that suggests the presencing of a teeming plethora of transitions at a host of scales all of which fall beyond the frame not just of subjective self-reference, but of any particular physical, "objective" mediation (such as the duration of water evaporating). Nowhere is this negative deployment of mediation more effectively put to use than in Song's Throwing a Stone (1995). This series of works involves the artist's methodical activity of finding a rock in a specific location, writing the current time on the rock, throwing the rock, walking to pick it up again, writing the current time on it, and so on, until there is no room left to add further inscriptions. Notwithstanding its startling literalization of Aristotle's definition of time as the number of movement according to the before and after, what is foregrounded in this work is precisely the non-mediation, the non-manifestation, of the vast majority of moments (again, materialized at the atomic clock's scale of 9 billion plus oscillations per second) that measure the artist's movement as well as the temporal significance of the vast set of contingencies involved (how far the rock is thrown, whether there are obstacles on the path, etc.).
Far from comprising temporal objects for modeling the passage of embodied subjective experience, these rocks covered with inscriptions of the time at seemingly random intervals form objective mediations that point, by way of negation, to the transitions that are necessarily invisible in any temporal mediation, no matter how fine-grained it may be. Not only are all the other discrete temporal indications (measured, via our system for writing the time, a system common to China and the West, by units of the second) simply left out here, but so too are the host of in-between units (the nine billion plus oscillations that comprise each second). And this is not even to raise the issue of how this implication of transition's constitutive excess also appears in the gap between the ineffable time of Song's movement and the ineffable time left out of the rock-mediations. In any event, Song's work suggests that these divergent measures via bodily movement and via fine-scaled physical oscillations introduce supplementary elements of temporal heterogeneity that, once again, can only be implicated through absence or negation, which is to say, by way of a form of mediation that does not so much capture the time of life but that frames what is necessarily and constitutively left out by any form of temporal mediation, no matter how technically fine-grained.
Let me try to say in closing how these works illuminate what I hope to achieve in shi jian : time. For while I certainly do draw inspiration from these works, and specifically from their embrace of the irreducible technicity of time toward the end of "presenting" transition, my project (as I've taken pains to indicate) deploys technicity in a fundamentally different, resolutely "Western" or "global" way: as the basis for a new form of continuity the continuity of computing cycles that far exceeds any subjectively-secured continuity and that can only be brought into the fold of experience via media forms that are assembled "objectively," which is to say following selectional criteria and for purposes that are more a function of the intrinsic temporal dynamics of computational processes than of any modeling of the subjective flux of consciousness. Whether this approach can, like the practices of Qiu and Song, manage to maintain the promise of continuity as the basis for an ethics of post-cinematic (post-mediatic) time, I can only leave to you to decide.
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