Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Time and archaeology 3: Bachelard’s discontinuous instants

Is time continuous duration or is it made up by discontinuous instants (as it is represented in clocks, calendars, etc?). I am a proponent for a continuous view of duration, something I shall discuss in another entry. However, in my licentiate thesis (“Caught Somewhere in Time”;) I still had the other view and my main influence back in 2003/2004 was Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962). He has an extreme position on instants and argues that time can only be observed in instants and duration can only be experienced through these instants. Instants without duration forms duration in a similar way as a line consists of infinitely small points with no dimension. Bachelard maintains an idea of both momentary and discrete instants. The first term means that the instant has no extension and the second means that the instant is isolated from another instant. In such a view, time could be seen as having neither extension nor flow. Time is just made up of an infinite succession of discrete instants.

This view of time was largely a response to Bergson’s view on time. Bergson argues that the idea of instants belongs to quantitative science and that they are static and kills the flow of time. A discrete instant cannot, according to Bergson, produce the next instant and thus the future must be determined and continuity remains a problem. Bachelard tries to solve this problem by claiming that only nothingness is continuous (see figure), being and events make time discontinuous. Bachelard argues that if time is continuous then we see time as independent of the events that make us perceive time. Bergson, on the other hand, sees time as continuing between events, in what Bachelard sees as voids. Time is empty if nothing happens and nothingness lacks magnitude and as such it is not measurable. The instant is therefore found between nothingness and nothingness.

Events as discontinuous instants

Events as discontinuous instants

Time’s being is not carried from one instant to the next to form duration according to Bachelard. The instant is solitude and isolated, always breaking with the past. The “new” is something that exceeds earlier conditions because the instant does not have a history. The new cannot be new if it is connected with the past and therefore he rejects Bergson’s continuity as this means that the present is inscribed in the past. However, the instant cannot be perpetually vanishing if it is not also perpetually returning. Time is perpetually heading towards non-being as the future passes into the past through the present. The idea that something will end is therefore the foundation for Bachelardian continuity. What last from the past is what begins again. Only that which starts over again has duration. Bachelard therefore argues that rhythm, as a system of instants, is critical to the concept of time. Duration is constructed by rhythms, rhythms that are by no means necessarily grounded on an entirely uniform and regular time.

Bachelard’s notion of a consciousness is that it only exist in the act and a time that is intermittent and discontinuous by no time at all. All our memories of events are reduced to their root in an instant according to Bachelard. We have only selected memories, not of continuity. Memory needs many instants. Therefore, we never remember duration, we only have snapshots. Continuities have to be constructed as they never are complete, solid, or constant. In a way, this resembles how archaeologists create chronological tables. Thus, an artifact, a posthole, construction fill, etc. represents an event. The materialities are our nodes for past events in an otherwise unknown and “empty past”. We construct continuity of fragments, but is the past really gone as Bachelard argues? I shall return to this when I discuss Bergson. Bachelard argues that the tension of looking towards the immediate future forms our present duration. Both memory and anticipation comes from our habits and past and future are habits themselves, they do not exist in reality. For Bachelard, past and future are empty and do not affect time and being since they are continuous nothingness. Time is only the present instant. The present never passes since we constantly move into a new instantaneous present.

In short, Bachelard is a hardcore “presentist”. His instants are static and there is no flow between them which make them similar to the B-series (see entry on McTaggart). But since he believes that only the present can exist, he belongs to the A-view. However, he needs something that mediates between the instants because the obstacle is to explain how the instant gives away to another instant, generating a real time flow and extension. It runs the risk of ending up with a tenseless time and temporal parts ontology where the instants are strung along a predetermined time line.

There is a dialectic relation between the instant and nothingness in Bachelard’s view. This dialectic relationship goes back to Hegel. For Hegel, everything is defined by what they are and by what they are not. A thing has a separate identity because it is different from other things. Being is thus defined from its opposite, which is nothingness. Hegel argues that being is a movement to overcome nothingness, thus becoming. The dialectic movement of opposites is the foundation of all being. However, Bergson’s critique of dialectic thinking suggests that, in order for us to understand nothingness, we must first have an idea of something full (the instant). This means that nothingness only becomes a negation and an inversion of the instant. Thus, dialectics set up contradictions on a scale with degrees which means that the instant is located in one end of the scale and nothingness at the opposite end, being a difference of degree to the instant. Degrees are believed to be homogeneous (spatial) units of measurement. The dialectics therefore confuses difference in kind with difference of degree. Therefore, Bachelard’s view on time is based on spatial metaphors such as point, line and void. We represent time in spatial media, but this is still not the nature of true duration.

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