Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

Time and archaeology 4: Bergson’s continuous duration

In my last entry on time and archaeology I focus on Henri Bergson (1859-1941). It is from him that I have borrowed the quote “time is invention or it is nothing at all.” Considered to be the philosopher of becoming, Bergson argues that the instantaneous and scientific time is a “spatialized time”, an actual or discrete multiplicity (a unity that is multiple in itself), where time is seen as a difference of degree to space. Bergson believes that the linear succession of stages and instants as future, present, and past is an intellectual illusion and that our lives, society and science are regulated by this. The snapshot model is not adequate for him to understand continual change. He believes that time must be understood as a whole if we are to understand the reality of time. It is also duration that explains life itself. The challenge Bergson offers for us is to think in duration where time is a continuous multiplicity. His philosophy is also a way out of the phenomenological, constructionist and representational perspectives that has affected much recent archaeology.

Bergson in 1927 when he won the Nobel Prize in literature

Bergson in 1927 when he won the Nobel Prize in literature

Although Bergson mainly discusses human duration he does speak of several durations that each is an absolute. Our psychological duration is just one of several others. He also discusses “real time” and has a theory of evolution to explain why we have difficulties in understanding the pure flow of duration. Our consciousness has two intertwined tendencies; the instinct and the intelligence. For him, our instinctive experience of duration is not different in kind to real duration. It is when we analyze duration by our intellect, by breaking it down to fragments, that we make it different in kind to true duration. This is a reflection of our evolved habits of representation and our needs. Our acts exerts on fixed points in space where duration gets broken down to instants that relate to our positions (a discrete or an actualvirtual multiplicity). These instants are only snapshots that our intellect has extracted from the continuity of duration (the continuous or multiplicity).

Every number, such as number 3, is a unit since it is given a name (3 or three), but it also consists of a sum which is a multiplicity of parts (1+1+1). These numerical units are identical when they are counted. However, the parts must still be distinct from each other, as they otherwise would be a single unit. We therefore set the numbers in juxtaposition in a homogenous space when we count them. They can be enumerated because each number is separated from the others, they have spatial locations. Thus, actual multiplicities are homogeneous and spatial. Since they are homogeneous, they can also be represented with a sign, such as a number (3) or a word (three).

The formation of a number or a word implies discontinuity. This is what McTaggart, and Bachelard do when they describe time. Time is made into space and time is believed to consist of homogeneous instants that can be added, divided, extended and isolated since an instant is discontinuous. An instant is separated from the following instant by space. We add these instants into a false continuity. In reality, successive states are combined with or interpenetrate with other states but when we count the states, they must be separated within a homogeneous (spatial) medium where they leave the same trace. Spatialized time is therefore a sign, a symbol, absolutely distinct from true duration. Science handles signs that are substitutes for, and representations of, the objects.

Thus, we can only catch instantaneous and static views of a changing world. The intellect cannot understand the transition between instants, because there are no voids, and change is continuous. For Bergson, the instant is an unreal abstraction imposed from the outside by the intellect. The mind form artificially closed systems and there is no succession in these systems as this is something formed by our mind as a string of immobilities that runs from past, to present, and to future. He calls scientific time cinematographic, as it is similar to the movement of static frames of instants. As he sees real time as continuous, time escapes the intellect as it can only form a clear idea from discontinuity.

Pure duration is when the present state is not separated from earlier states by an imaginary instant. The past would not be accessible if it could only be accessed through the present. Our present state is only explained by what happened before. The former states are not set alongside the actual/present state or are successive moments, but past and present is seen as a whole where succession is melted into one another. Past and present coexist since each present goes back to itself as past. Because it preserves itself, it is also the whole past that co-exists at each present. When we think that the past is no more, we have confused being with being-present. The present is pure becoming and it is always outside itself. The past is not acting but it has not ceased to exist. Instead the past is growing without ceasing. It has the capability to re-invent and duration is the continuation of that which does not exist into what does exist.

The virtual is everything the actual is not. The latter emerges from the former by our need to break up continuity to manageable units. For us, the virtual appears to be an abstract idea, but it is only in the present that physical forms have the spatial extension, which they do not have in duration. Take any object seen in the present and observe it for a millennia and its spatial form will change. It will not remain the same since there is no essential property that always is present. Properties are always emerging.

The only way to illustrate this is unfortunately to use spatial analogies since what is continuously changing cannot be represented by a static and homogenous symbol that cannot change. A spatial analogy of the difference between actual and virtual multiplicities is a rainbow. The rainbow has a multiplicity of heterogeneous colours. There is a continuum of differentiated change in its spectrum. This characterizes a virtual multiplicity in time. The colours cannot be individuated since they constantly move into another colour. If we do define the colours, we separate them from each other, give them boundaries and a fixed spatial location. Then they become numerical, metric, homogenous and actual. These can be counted and analyzed according to our needs, but they are misrepresenting the true heterogeneous character of the colours of the rainbow.

Bergson's raibow

Bergson's raibow

Archaeologically, this means that artifacts, buildings, postholes, etc. are actual multiplicities. They have extensive, spatial and Euclidean (metric) characteristics that can be measured (length, width, height, weight, colour, etc.). When we describe the materialities they are devoid of duration since pure duration cannot be represented and it is only in the present that our interests intersect with the materialities in question. The virtual past is erased in our descriptions. An artifact, such as a pot, changes in time. What once was clay transformed into a pot, it broke into sherds and became construction fill. Of course, we could use one of the many biographical approaches here, but these only focus on events with actual traces (breakage, incision, erosion). What these analyses misses is that through these processes, the actual properties changed but its virtuality continues to carry the whole of its past even when ceramic sherds are part of construction fill. Archaeologists should attempt to include the immanent duration of the artifact in their studies, instead of simply use it to isolate a few sequences of its history and relate it to transcendent concepts not associated with the artifact, such as culture.

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