Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Duplication of Time: Time, Sacrifice and the Inception of History

By Prof. Rowan

The experience and concept of time/temporality has not always been what it is for us today. Time has, as it were, a history extending long before the emergence of historical time and consciousness. This history is attested to and recorded by traces preserved in the words each language uses to designate time. In the Indo-European family of languages and the systems of thought which developed within each milieu, we note a widespread incidence – a nearly universal presence – of at least two conceptually distinct words for time: linguistic and conceptual doublets such as kairos and chronos can be found in all Indo-European languages from the Sanskrit “Rtú, 'proper time [for a ritual action], allotted or regulated span of time'”[1] and kāla, "a fixed or right point of time, a space of time, time... destiny, fate... death,”[2] to the distinction between divisible and indivisible time in Avestan and Zoroastrianism, and continuing in the oppositions of sacred and profane, human and cosmic, historical and experiential time.

Pure time – a temporality without qualities, immeasurable and non-directional, all following from the fact that time in its pure form would be pre-dimensional [3] – pure time would be the time of the Aion, a timeless time, amounting to nothing less than the much debated khora of the Timaeus – the place and pure possibility of happening.
It was humanity's attainment of the capacity to experience anxiety, becoming able to preemptively react to a future event (which, according to Hans Blumenberg [4] is a quintessentially human development), taken together with the emergence of story-telling, oral culture and the most rudimentary cultures and collective memories, that first doubled the experience, concept and words for time and made time thinkable in terms of spatial metaphor.

In the temporality of myth which thereby began, Kronos/Chronos [5] emerged as the Janus faces of  Mythical Time, time set in motion, experienced as circular but not yet directional; for the time of the mythical world was not yet irreversible (the time of experience will retain some degree of reversibility, albeit on the level of interpretation); time became dimensional – homogeneous conceivable in spatial terms. Kairos, while designating the heterogeneous, qualitatively distinct moment, still partakes of this first spatialization: for a moment to be qualitatively and intensively distinct, it must occupy a finite span or a point inscribed in the circular movement of chronos. It is at this point that sacrifice, after the fashion of the sacrifice of Kronos by Dais, must take place and introduce the partitive principle into time.  Dividing time into a before and after, and a present moment marking a clear division in time, takes place when,
Dais conquers Kronos... the prototypical image of the mental structure overcoming the mythical. This is indicated by the form of sacrifice. It is not a genuine sacrifice... Dais, symbol of the partitive principle, imitates in one sense Kronos, representative of the circular principle, while she destroys at the same time the power of the Kronos principle by virtue of the strength of her dividing. [6]

Already, in the earliest sacrifice, substitution and the symbolic dimension have transformed exuberant loss into a ransom or bribe. If it is true that the inaugural sacrifice of history differed from sacrifice in mythic times, then it is indisputable that if “sacrifice will illuminate the conclusion of history as it clarified its dawn... sacrifice cannot be for us what it was at the beginning of  'time.' We make the experience of appeasement impossible. Lucid sanctity recognizes in itself the necessity of destruction, the necessity of a tragic outcome.” [7]

The division of time into before and after, past, present and future, occurred at the same time that humans first transformed their experiences of the past from memory into history – by writing chronologies and memorializing events, and by inventing stories to narrate, unify and render events of the past meaningful: where once mythology stood, history had begun taking place. Time became both divisor and divisible, dimensional, while the division between before and after made it possible for us to think of and experience time as having a direction, flowing inexorably toward the future. This gives rise to an experience of time that is divisible, fully dimensional, directional and by turns extensive measure and intensive quality, and most importantly finite. Experiential, existential or subjective time becomes distinct from historical, inter-subjective, or objective/cosmic time, and these temporalities need not remain synchronized – and the possibility of a non-synchronic relationship between the time of the speaking/writing subject and the time of the world makes possible many narrative modes and conventions (cutting to the chase, for example), more broadly, the birth of history and experiential time is a necessary condition for the development of literature, history and even philosophy.

Simultaneously, eschatology begins. Eschatology and the many pathologies of our temporal experience arise out of the anxiety concerning time that flashes up the instant we become aware of the finite time allotted to us. Anxiety over time is pathological to the extent that the response is to devalue and subordinate existence in the present moment to concern for the future, or to cling neurotically to a past never to be recovered. “Our anxiety about time... manifests itself in various ways, such as in our addiction to time... to 'gain time' 'fill time' our haste and rush, and by our constant reiteration, 'I have no time.' ...Contemporary man looks for time... despite, or indeed because of his lack of time: and this is precisely his tragedy, that he spatializes time and seeks to locate it 'somewhere.'”[8] Eschatology is at once a manifestation of the desire to abolish time and the burning desire for the moment, that moment in which the revolt against the world of oppression comes to fruition in the kairos of final justice and retribution: the krisis after which all pass from time into eternity.

[1] Georges Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion, Volume One, Trans. Philip Krapp (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 80

[2] Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary: Etymologically and Philologically Arranged with Special Reference to Cognate Indo-European languages (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964).

[3] Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, Trans. Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 177.

[4] See Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth, Trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 3-9.

[5] I do not mean to imply that this phenomenon of temporal doubling and spatialization was unique to the Greek language, culture and mythology. Here, kronos and kairos designate the aspects of mythological temporality corresponding to their conceptual and linguistic opposition.

[6] Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, 175.

[7] Georges Bataille, Guilty, Trans. Stuart Kendall (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011), 45.

[8] Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, 22-3.

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