Time, Place & Becoming

Our postmodern age is bringing forth a spatio-ontological shift that moves from expansion and negentropic escape (i.e. the capacity to expand order into new territories through colonisation, global interconnection and technological oversight) to an inertial position characterised by homogeneous geoscapes through the “global city” and metropolitics as the closing of the frontier. These are the spatial borders of what Escobar calls Globalistan, a configuration of “‘no places’ or ‘cities of nowhere,’ places that are ostensibly public but definitely non‐communitarian”[1]. While the growth of urbanisation and the development of city hubs suggests a growth and expansion in the normal operations of capitalist accumulation, the extremity of city growth and the demographic projections of urban dominance change this nature. Expansion is no longer geographic but instead temporal and ontological.

Ontological in the sense that culture is now a catch-all tautologically defined as the meeting place of ideas and the conflagration of people, which thus entails cities as culture’s progenitors. Being is defined by mobility, but it is mobility between no-places – airports, hotels, motorways – all architecturally designed to encourage a feeling of inertial familiarity. Going from JFK to Frankfurt is not a change in scenery so much as a shifting of the furniture. The layout of the room remains the same, with only slight alterations in ambience or texture. Technology has only furthered this inertial mobility (or motile mobility) as we can increasingly function through telematic and artificial devices with the ubiquity of computerisation and the growth of algorithmic intelligence as life-organising forces. The functionality of no-places or modern work patterns would be impossible without background algorithms organising calendars, emails and media presentation. However such ubiquity enforces motility, as we can practically move through these media and technology spaces with the appearance of autonomy, yet our very life patterns in transportation, organisation and work are coded and set with minimal overt interaction.

It is temporal through the move from speed as an expansionary force in the speed of trade, communication and the production of information, to time as the organising limit of technology spaces and lifeworlds. As Virilio notes, this is “effective liberation from all movement of displacement”[2] as speed has come to the ultimate limit in the speed of light. Perceptually but also physically the frontier has closed as temporal expansion encompasses not a geographic opening but an enclosing as spaces become portals for time themselves, with self-referential dynamics irrespective of surface placement. Such physical limits are also meeting at other points and other temporal scales, as geological and meteorological scales clash with perceptual systems of time through irreversible climate change and Anthropocenic deep time shifts in peak oil and the disembedding of materials for maintained energy outputs.

From the temporality of a history of progression characterised by techno-global connectivity has emerged a “futurism of an instantaneity without a future”[3] containing a contradictory aleatory nature – instantaneous choices amongst logistical arrays of placeless centres yet long-term projections of stagnation in progress and mobility. The dreams of the 21st century as the century to break the barriers of interconnection and unleash a decentred human capacity meet the physical limits of environmental carrying capacity and technological control. Now it is enough that machines function, no matter their inner workings or alterations to perception.

“History is not just the geopolitics of peoples that have succeeded each other over the ages. It is also the implementation of the energy available in each particular period – formerly metabolic, then mechanical, relative speed, and absolute speed today with the boom in electromagnetic systems”[4]. With Planck’s constant and general relativity, Virilio sees the historical process as reaching its time barrier. There is no more beyond as the physical speed limit means space exploration and rates of information exchange have topological and geophysical limits. The assumption of progress is that of perpetual motion, a constant transmission of resources growing in efficiency. Ontologically this is the emplacement of being as the ultimate instantiation of reality. Being as a line of transmission defined via essence where existence is ethereal. There are “fully formed individuals” within predefined roles and classificatory matrices[5]. Possibilities are set as a motile mobility, the ability of movement without its capacity. This is finitude within an infinite continuum, the empty space of Einsteinian spacetime that is a constant, essential for the justification of physical laws.

Reaching the limits of physical explanation then shapes the ontological perception of world-being. Time is abstracted beyond perceptual capabilities as information-processing warps spacetime into an endless array of imagery, memory and fields of forces. Here though we must make the connection between the perceptual and the physical. When Virilio talks of a time barrier or speed limit in relation to the speed of light and Einstein’s discovery of curved spacetime, he refers to a truly physical limit. There is no beyond the speed of light, as the warping of time is defined entirely by its relativity to the observer/measuring tool. This development overtakes Newtonian space and its associated mechanics as the absolute construct, instead showing the direction of energy as moving toward the absolute speed and thus becoming a temporal affair, that of scales of time related to processing. This is an inescapable limit but it also represents an epistemological shift in the notion of the limit itself, opening up new questions regarding particle movements and fields (“can be thought of as a tension or excitation that exists throughout space and varies continuously in both space and time”[6]). The field is a primary response to a materialistic mechanics that essentialised space as a continuum, instead recognising forces and their particulate makeup as variables in relational tensions that can bend space, therefore temporalising the relations.

This is further expounded by DeLanda when he conceptualises physical laws as generalisations that attempt to override the field as a collective causal mechanism. Rather than causes emerging from series of operations revolving around attractors within shared space, laws aim toward generality at the expense of complexity. “The function of these laws is to unify and organize the rest of the population”[7]. The absolutisation of spacetime as conceived by Newton in concepts of constant motion and absolute rest represent the generality of law, fulfilling classificatory criteria as well as presenting an open, expansionary universal constant. Einsteinian relativity encloses this as curvature presents an elliptical limit through which motion must occur.

Quantum mechanics has only intensified this enclosing within the perceptual limits of comprehension and measurability. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle presents a perception barrier as particle movement is not directly visible, instead contained within a virtual plane of potential placements whereby every possible particle movement and placement are equally contained. Only with observation is particle placement finalised i.e. given a spatial definitiveness. Similar quantum phenomena of entanglement and superposition give space and time their ultimate emptiness, as the explanatory power of classificatory systems cannot comprehend particle interconnectivity through fields of tension, whereby positionality and initial state are relative variables, never finally given in a set of conclusive laws. Perceptual capabilities are warped and destroyed as physical capacity falls beneath quantum dimensionality.

Time barriers and absolute speed aren’t simply the overturning of mechanistic impositions, but the deconstruction of terms of reference and an acceleration in spatial organisation as we move from the absolute to the temporally relative, and then beyond into the topological field. Space is reconfigurable, as its matter and energy are products of particle combinations and oscillations, as in the Higgs field or the interactions of particles with their mirror anti-particles. It brings forth a new frame in the virtual. “The reality of the virtual consists of the differential elements and relations along with the singular points which correspond to them. The reality of the virtual is structure”[8]. Virtuality is within the movement between potentiality and actualisation, as in the various probabilities of quantum states that can occur. Time in the virtual then takes on new perceptual characteristics. It is nested within different temporal sequences, each affecting the other but remaining autonomous. The potential of virtual time can be captured in phase transitions between states of matter, as unactualised probabilities that meet at the point of the transition. Here time is not metric but ordinal, as it moves sequentially without a measurable capacity[9].

Absolute speed is then something of a misnomer. There is nothing absolute about it. It is an abstract movement across a geospatial structure. As time and space are emptied, what emerges are instants within a topological field. According to Deleuze and Barbour time is the present with past and future as branches of these presents. There are a series of instants linked by their intensification of negentropic effect, what Barbour calls Platonia, a mathematical constant of varying intensities whereby wave functions and the square of their amplitude constitute the makeup and spread of these intensities[10]. The virtual as a quasi-causal operator enacts upon this topology, creating varying intensities on the state of phases and interactions between fields.

Deleuze’s concept of the virtual begins to mesh together the physical limits described by Virilio as the limits of perception and the emptying of spacetime from mechanistic toward relativistic explanation with the ontological relation with space. The connection of the physical and the ontological then concerns the circulation of information through vectors that can be particulate, computational or semio-linguistic, with their associated state-spaces of fields, processors and semiotics/culture. “The ‘flows’ and ‘scapes’ of globalized modernity that loose themselves from a stable fixation in geographical space can hardly be grasped otherwise than as consequences of a rate of circulation of streams of information that has been sped up to the point of global simultaneity”[11]. This concerns the perceptual dimension of spacetime compression that connects the growth in speed and destruction of space within relativity and quantisation with the social implications of this acceleration. Deleuze identifies three types or levels of perceptual time (that produce repetition) which increase in abstraction, mirroring alterations in the understandings of physical construction.

Passive synthesis refers to organic time. This is closest to time as a physical instantiation of instants connected through a topological space. “In the order of constituent passivity, perceptual syntheses refer back to organic syntheses which are like the sensibility of the senses; they refer back to a primary sensibility that we are”. “At the level of this primary vital sensibility, the lived present constitutes a past and a future in time. Need is the manner in which this future appears, as the organic form of expectation. The retained past appears in the form of cellular heredity”[12]. A passive time is also furthest from the virtual, as here the physical imprint of actualisation is most strongly felt. The encoding of organismic or particulate construction has moved from the quasi-causal to the causal as need as a structuring attractor begins to eliminate lack, therefore strongly filling a topological quadrant and ontologically constructing an initial sense of being.

Active synthesis relates to “psycho-organic memory and intelligence”[13]. This is perceptual time with its associated fuzziness and greater abstraction related to physical or passive time. “It implies between successive presents non-localisable connections, actions at a distance, systems of replay, resonance and echoes, objective chances, signs, signals, and roles which transcend spatial locations and temporal successions”[14]. This idea of memory isn’t just organic either, instead encompassing the virtual memory of processes as described in the potential within phase transitions or particulate memory within uncertainty. The grounds of physical laws begin to be shaken by the active synthesis where perceptual decoding creates different limits to the passive synthesis. Within the passive is the actualisation of linear construction, while in the active there is the disestablishment of linearity as transitional or virtual quanta expand or contract. In ontological terms, this is the delimiting space between being and becoming as the resonances of memory and recollection (and the associated fuzziness of connections between conscious and subconscious processes) deconstruct being, opening up avenues for perception as a reconstructable variable rather than as a given function.

Empty time then represents pure becoming as in Zarathustra’s eternal recurrence between the production of his being and the reproduction of his becoming. Here the memories of active synthesis are fully scattered as partial imprints in an entropic system, sitting between equilibrating and symmetry-breaking dynamics as certain structures (both active and passive) breakdown over time and others (connected with these breakdowns and transitions) have space opened up for bifurcations that produce negentropic attractors (as in the circularity of a star’s lifecycle or evolutionary transitions from extinction to speciation). Empty time is time out of joint which “means demented time or time outside the curve which gave it a god, liberated from its overly simple circular figure, freed from the events which made up its content, its relation to movement overturned; in short, time presenting itself as an empty and pure form”[15]. A time of becoming as spaceless entities circulate without a defined attractor. This also then puts into question my previous example of empty time as in the transitions of stars or species. What is meant when I write circularity? Time as empty and pure cannot be circular, as that presupposes a geometric encasement which this escapes. However, it is only circular in its descriptive processual sense. Stars do die and then reform as white dwarves. But they also collapse into black holes. Therefore entropy is not escaped. Extinction and speciation follow a variety of different paths depending on climactic and environmental conditions as well as energy resource availability. There is no circularity, rather catastrophism as species and environments collapse[16], presenting potential pathways for others to exploit.

Potential is the keyword. Empty time is the time of potential, sitting purely within the virtual. The dynamics of a star’s lifecycle or a species’ evolution are passive when they are actualised. However, in the time between death and rebirth we see pure becoming and therefore the realm of pure time.

The spatio-ontological shift I mentioned before comes between these forces of becoming and being, between the potential and the actual. The meeting of the time barrier and the acceleration toward topological temporality have introduced a check on perceptual reality. The effects of quantisation have compounded fields beyond full comprehension, with the potential emergence of quantum computing suggesting a new avenue for processing power and the transmission of information that creates ungraspable forms of knowledge. “The aggregation of complex systems in contemporary networked applications means that no single person ever sees the whole picture”[17]. This partial optics cedes graphic perspective to an “(infographic) electro-optics”[18] which is trusted over self-conception. Parallel tools of machine learning only aid this acceleration of the shadow over human perspective as information transmission becomes an autonomous activity of algorithmic and quantised communication.

At the geospatial level similar dynamics are playing out through spacetime compression. The growth in global flows of information and in their speed has temporalised space. Interconnections between urban centres are now measured through supply chain management and financial markets. News is an instantaneous phenomenon. Events are now always global. Information through processing power is constantly reaching toward the time barrier, aiming to be quicker and more compact, replicating superposition and thus becoming perceptually unintelligible.

This raises the question of where these situations sit ontologically. The nature of being as set within a place and a time is now impossible as places are swallowed up into urban enclaves that are stronger than the nations they are within. If information is hitting its time barrier, then urbanisation is hitting its cosmopolitical limits as cities are now logistical centres, with exurban areas becoming vast warehouse infrastructures. Absolute logistics has emerged with its own time defined by the homogeneity and instantaneity of urban life and the interconnections of hubs. “It is the most specialized of all specialized sciences. In many places, above all in the Anglo-Saxon countries, logistics is today considered the only possible form of strict philosophy, because its result and procedures yield an assured profit for the construction of the technological universe”[19]. Its politics is metropolitics, a rootless, placeless and increasingly timeless politics concerned with the dissolution of barriers to speed.

The only barrier now is speed. Commitments to place are pure anachronisms, to be ignored or where they cause trouble to be suppressed. “A veritable astronomical revolution in the continuum of history, the globalization of post-industrial interactivity literally turns the complex orientation of human activity on its head. Hence the abuse of the terms ‘deregulation’ and ‘relocation’”[20]. From this comes the potential for a “geocide of the externalization”[21] as marginalised populations are removed. Metropolitics is destroying the border has erected new barriers in the forms of the gateway, the hub and corridor. These are processes that selectively control the flow of information (rooting out any bugs or viruses) and therefore temporality. Anything that slows down transmission must be controlled, while anything that increases must be centred.

An ontological transition is occurring where modes of being are disembodied. The last man of Nietzsche is emerging now not from cataclysm but from the immantentisation of technological breakthrough and the discovery of universal law’s flexibility and contingency. The urban centres and interconnection through global networks of transmission and logistics are the physical fields of this ontological break.

Joyce’s writing on the emerging identities of urban modernism provide a parallel to my description. The Joycean time of Dubliners[22] is both placed and displaced. It is placed within the ever evolving Dublin but the nature of the characters is always stuck looking for a solitude that the past partially represented yet is never graspable. Joycean time is a tension of the instant capturing a mystified past and a shrouded future within an instantaneous present. The nature of the stories is there open-endedness. They are snapshots of Dublin life across class and gender that show not cycles of lives lost and begun but tensions of identity, between a nostalgic Irishness in the city streets and houses and a future Ireland of nationalism and bureaucracy (in the debates over politics and predominance of clerks as a city occupation).

But this extends beyond literary metaphor. As there is a break in being, there appears to be no subsequent becoming, no overman as in Zarathustra’s transformation. Where there is becoming is in the technological universe where the exploitation of physics’ contingency and the computational power of information are new placements for potential being. This is an inhuman universe, one devoid of conscious decision-making of logocentric thought as new forms of learning and semiotics overtake existing communication channels. We are now parasites on modern technology, and our languages and cultures now contain their ontological character within our self-understanding. The tension between being and becoming are not internalised to morality or thought, but externalised as tensions within nested systems and post-human aggregations. There are attempts among physicists to reimplant human thought within the process. The many worlds hypothesis assumes “fully formed individuals” as the baseline for universal repetition, developing a quantum subconscious whereby passive synthesis produces an array of other worlds containing copies. But there is no recognition of contingency or genesis. From where do the universal laws that govern our universe become replicated via our decision-making. Similarly, M-theory or the theory of everything has become a litmus test of modern physics, attempting to contain all variables and laws within one explanatory framework. Yet as work on this grows and grows, its comprehension diminishes. And it makes assumptions of universality within a set framework that quantisation has innately questioned. “We thus arrive at a remarkable cooperation between chance and determinism, several solutions are possible for the same parameter value. Chance alone will decide which of these solutions is realized”[23].

The element of chance thus exposes the contingency of our universal constructs, whether in physics or ontology. A sense of being within a stable spacetime configuration is dissolving, both through the non-space of technology and the temporality of the megalopolis. Such transformational dynamics are not producing a becoming amongst the thought of postmodern man. Where there is becoming, it is in the transition from a human universe to a technological one. Place, time and being are now elements, ultimately reconfigurable and plastic.

[1] Pepe Escobar, Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving Into Liquid War

[2] Paul Virilio, Open Sky

[3] Paul Virilio, The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject

[4] Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor

[5] Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy

[6] Julian Barbour, The End of Time

[7] Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

[9] Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy

[10] Julian Barbour, The End of Time

[11] Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration

[12] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

[13] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

[14] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

[15] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

[16] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2021/02/26/catastrophism-cycles/

[17] James Bridle, New Dark Age

[18] Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor

[19] Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?

[20] Paul Virilio, The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject

[21] Paul Virilio, The Futurism of the Instant: Stop-Eject

[22] James Joyce, Dubliners

[23] Gregoire Nicolis & Ilya Prigogine, Exploring Complexity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s