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It's Time

A conversation between Prof. Sean Cubitt (Goldsmiths and Harvard) and Prof. Lanfranco Aceti (MIT and BU) on issues of time and its relationship to the contemporary databased and mediated narratives.

Published onNov 30, 2017
It's Time

It’s Time: Or the Prison of Mediations, Databases, Archiving, and Forgetting

Lanfranco Aceti and Sean Cubitt, in conversation
Lanfranco Aceti
Visiting Professor and Research Affiliate
Art, Culture and Technology @ MIT
[email protected]

Sean Cubitt
Visiting Professor
[email protected]
Department of Visual and Environmental Studies Harvard University

Reference this essay: Aceti, Lanfranco. “It’s Time: Or the Prison of Mediations, Archival, and Forgetting. Conversation with Sean Cubitt.” In Six Debates on Life, the Universe, and Everything. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2017.
ISSN: 1071-4391


Time is a determinant matter in the construction of the narrative but at the same it shapes the narrative itself defining the unfolding of the events. There is a time of the book or of the artwork, which is the way in which the story unfolds in a seemingly ever suspended structure, and a time necessary to the discovery and consumption of the story itself by the viewer. This is a time in which the viewer experiences a slowing down of time and a matching of the personal rhythm with the narration. There is also the surrounding time—external to the viewer—which continues to flow at its own pace. In this context of multiple and infinite personal times, overlayered and clashing one against the other, the database and the archive act as the saving grace of immortality of our existence. Permanent memorializing objects they speak of the fear of the Anthropocene—a scene of collapse with no redemption or ascension.

Keywords: Time, archive, database, narrative,

Lanfranco Aceti It’s time to talk, once again, about time and its role in the construction of contemporary narratives. We can no longer speak of oral narratives, visual narratives, and social narratives as stand alone areas of investigation. Furthermore, the technology underpinning and undermining traditional approaches to the representation of time as the manifestation of multiple narratives is directly related to digital, algorithmic, and engineered times of construction, archival, retrieval, recollection, assemblage, and presentation. The social, as a mediated construct of our curated existences, is directly related to the notion of time spent in the creation of presentation of memories. My question is, then, obvious: what has changed, if anything, from the time when Italo Calvino addressed some of these issues in his construction of the rules of writing. What has Umberto Eco anticipated and foreseen that we are experimenting today int he post-postmodern era of consumption of life and time itself? Is it true that Chronos is no longer eating its children, but these children are eating time and with it their own existences?

Sean Cubitt It is obligatory to start any conversation with the famous line from Augustine's confessions: As long as no-one asks me, I know perfectly well what time is. Of course we don't know what time is. That is why Kant made it part of the transcendental aesthetic: simply there. But for criticism – for social critics, for historical criticism and certainly for eco-criticism – time has a history. John Berger has a lovely description of the difference between the cycles of peasant ti

If the clock measures our times, as we often say of the modern era, then what is the unit of time? Husserl's Augenblick is a clumsy measure whose supersession Jimena Canales traces in her history of One Tenth of a Second, an instant that has its historical day in the sun, only to be overwhelmed by the continuum from the femto-second events observed at the Large Hadron Collider to the blank infinity of an expanding universe, whose time dilates as space expands. Relativity does not only pose for the first time the challenge of understanding the relation between mechanical and relativist views of the world, but equally challenges with the relation between relativistic and quantum universes. The challenge that Cantor left us with was the continuum hypothesis, the gap between the counting numbers and the rehe continuum. In Badiou's Being and Event, that gap is the place of being itself. At such a stage it would seem the only option is to abandon the question to the ontologists, mathematicians and physicists, and for us

But are the humanities so anachronistic? If, as some dark nights we might suppose, humanitash is a project ripe for abandoning, there persist posthuman times: of Gaia reviving in our absence; our electromagnetic signatures radiating through space, and those pinpricks of posthumous evidence, the Golden Discs aboard the two Voyager spacecraft which a year or so back passed the heliopause, the first and perhaps last human artefacts to depart the solar system on trajectories that will not arrive anywhere in the lifespan of our species. Those times are at once future and temporalities – that is to say, ways of imagining time – that are entirely present to us, the way the afterlife is present to those who believe in it. Times are not necessarily experiences: they are also imaginaries.

Despite its Romantic legacy, the imagination has fallen into disrepute. In Sartre, the imaginary is the faculty of evoking the whole from its partial appearance: we can only see a chair from one side, but imagine it as the whole chair. Ultimately, for Sartre the imaginary is the faculty that liberates us from mere appearance: it gives us the freedom to see not only what presents itself to us but what it might become. Such freedom, I want to emphasise, is itself temporal. It concerns what happens next. When we say times are imaginaries as well as experiences, we understand the world not only as it is but as it may become. Time is both the accumulation of the past that is our actuality and the accumulated potentiality that is the raw material of action in the present to create future actualities.

This might again beg the question. There is a past we inherit and a future we forge. We make our own histories, but not under conditions of our own choosing. Nonetheless, we make history. We cannot but make history. And yet . . .

. . . and yet the questions then multiply. Who is this 'we' that makes history? Is it really true that the future is entirely potential? Isn't it the case that we can foretell certain things? That we make plans, not only in the conditional mode (if everything goes right, we will invest in new equipment), but with some assurances that things will happen: that I will go to work tomorrow, and meet you for lunch. On the other hand, as Benjamin Franklin said, 'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes'. In our times that could be amended to to include debt. In the third quarter of 2017, US household debt rose to 12.96 trillion US dollars. The IMF reckons that among advanced economies, the median debt ratio rose to 63 percent in 2016, and around 20 per cent in developing economies.

Debt is money from the future that we spend today. The present is the only time when you can make profit: next year's profit doesn't exist in the way this year's profit does. That is the principle of debt and of the futures market and its derivatives: spending the future's money now. This creates a strange future, one whose income has already been mined. Banks, mortgage companies and investors who hold debt do not like us to pay it off: they bank on us paying interest indefinitely. Like Althusser's last instance determination, the lonely hour of the final repayment never arrives. Debt forms the horizon of the present. It hems us in. It is a machinery for the creation of profound anxiety, and one we experience, even if we understand the machinery, with shame.

At the same time, we create another obligation to the future by dumping waste. Certainly we dump in geographical places; but we also dump in time. Whether in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the recycling villages of Guangzhou and Ghana, or the nuclear waste sites of Nevada, we dump waste, some of which will endure for thousands of years, in the future. Perhaps we don't feel shame in the same way about this exploitation of the future, but as that future gets progressively closer in the era of climate change, the sense of impending catastrophe supplements the shame of debt with its own cultural and psychological effects.

This relationship with time belongs to our period in history more than any other. Falstaff is one of history's debtors who mocks the fools who were silly enough to lend him money. As late as the 1890s Mallarmé was able to instruct a beggar above all not to spend his alms on necessities. State and municipal debt have become engines of power through the last quarter of the 20th century and now, even in the wake of the GFC, there are no signs that lessons have been learned. The bubble is inflating again. As Ruth Levitas writes, there is no alternative to an alternative, and yet our economic and political leaders stand like rabbits in the headlights of the oncoming debt and climate change crises.

This picnolepsia, verging on catatonia, is a characteristic of the times. It expresses a complete loss of power in the form of a pure present, a faith (ungrounded, as all true faith is) that what is, is. Power, Arendt reminded us, is potentia, the potential for action. Potential is the future coiled up like a spring in the actual that we inherit. The paradox is that today the powerful exhibit no signs of potentia. It is at such a time that the anachronism of the humanities can be most powerful.

I have a pet theory that the photographic snapshot created a rift in time by tearing the still image out of the continuum. The movies came almost immediately to repair that trauma by adding another image and another and another. They created a new art whose raw material was time. Scanning and interlaced video continued that project. Today however there is a new hospital for the trauma of images: the mass image construed in relational databases. Here the temporal arts of film – montage, mobility, under- and over-cranking and all – are no longer de rigeur. Instead the mass image pursues the agglutination of every image into a single vast, inter-connected artifice. Though date-stamps are included in the metadata which is the core of the mass image, they are only metadata. The mass image heals the rift by losing the one great feature of the snapshot: that is always negated the real in its representations and therefore opened up the potentia in every scene it captured. The mass image is relentlessly positive, and therefore incapable of change.

This is something new. Cybernetic connectivity has a different character to the continuum, even as it emulates its ecology of mutual mediation. In its attempt to heal the rift caused by the photographic capture of instants that separates them from the flow that is their home, a relational database undoes the linear march of film in favour of a single time embracing every item that it stores. In place of the perpetuity of change, the database establishes networks connecting each item to any other. This is a pretty good solution to the design challenge of creating something that works almost like the planetary ecology of humans, technologies and natural forces. The problem is that selecting the pathways between nodes relies on prior design decisions about what counts. Facebook for example use hundreds of indicators to select which items appear in which order in your news feed. Choosing which features to single out, and what ranking to give them, requires a necessarily hierarchical taxonomy.

That taxonomy evolves: right now you can hear the wheels cranking to produce new variations in the algorithm in response to the widespread bot and click farm campaigns now afflicting Facebook and Twitter. The hierarchy is rarely still, but it is never not hierarchical. Compared to the constant mediation of everything by everything else in the physical world, network relations are far more tied to both deep-seated beliefs (about gender for example) and the hurly-burly of the news cycle. As social constructs, databases are tied to social forces. The ubiquity of exchange value in society has its equivalent in the equivalence of all nodes and relations in a database. As structure, that is a perfectly good principle; to function, however, the various forms of relation have to be given numerical values to indicate which relations are the most significant. And it is these numerical values that distinguish the database from the ecologies, social or physical, that it represents. Far more navigable and flexible than film, the database shares with the older medium its reliance on counting numbers to distinguish it from the continuum that it still tries to stand in for.

It remains to be seen whether there is a new database artform that can work in time as well as film does (or as some database art already does, often satirically, within its artificial present, as in some works of George Legrady). Film has made a virtue of its divergence from the continuum, working its inevitable ellipses, accelerations, decelerations, overlaps and repetitions into a syntax for expressing a wealth of temporal experiences. It is as if the greater success of databases in approaching a complete picture of the world means that it has fewer motives to invent new relations.

The database then can be read aesthetically as an extension of television which, by the beginning of the 1970s, had begun to provide an endless modular flow of programming. Film, unless it is pure repetition, comes with the promise of an end. That might be felt as a little death, or can be a blessed relief, but the end is an integral part of its experience, where television never stops. Like TV, the database has no conclusion, but now because it has no temporal direction at all. Perhaps for the first time in modern history it aspires to the condition of something like a truly windowless monad.

The kind of database I'm thinking of is not like a film or photographic archive, of the kind Legrady works with, where each item can in principle if not in practice be attended to; but the vast databases of Facebook and Instagram with their billions of items and relations. Like the physical world, their complexity is too great for any one to attend to even a fraction of the contents. And they are proprietary: both the contents and even more so the algorithmic principles that order them belong to corporations, themselves combinations of computers and people so integrally bound together I've taken to calling them cyborgs.

There is something more than metaphor in calling these cyborg databases 'ecologies'. In a very unscientific way, I want to argue that the ecology, which includes the natural, technological and human worlds, is not the same as the internal ecology of a database, but there are great similarities. One distinguishing feature is that there is a definitive outside of the database. It creates externalities and environments, and to a great extent depends on them: the materials and energy that constitute and power it. Even at the planetary scale, the ecology, dependent on tides and sunshine, and subject to cosmic radiation, is borderless. At the same time, neither artificial nor planetary ecology have a defined goal, unless you count profit as the sole goal of proprietary databases. One can certainly imagine a database of this scale that has no goal whatever, and that simply evolves. Perhaps then a second difference is that the planetary ecology, even though it lacks a teleology, has an eschatology.

The problem of the designed future of planning and simulations is that it is fundamentally an extension of the present. The future of public affairs, of life chances, of traffic flows, of speculative markets in futures and derivatives, the future of debt, of climate change and of waste: this future, whether unchanging or catastrophic, is without hope. Ernst Bloch's Principle of Hope argues that the only true future is one that is not planned, and that therefore carries the possibility of being utterly other than the present. Like Benjamin's Jetzeit, it rests on the premise that any instant might be the narrow gate through which the messiah (or revolution or whatever unexpected redemption) might enter. In their various and often mutually contradictory ways, much of the critical thinking that inspires the early 21st century engages with some form of this utopian principle: that immanent within the present is the possibility of a vastly different state of affairs: that, as the slogan has it, another world is possible. That possibility is precisely what disappears in the temporality I have just described of spending the future's money today and dumping today's waste in the future. I think, though there is still a lot of work to do before it can be demonstrated, that the kind of database ecology I've been describing has established in its very architecture the same structure of time.

But at the same time, if there is an eschatological dimension to the planetary ecology, and it is true that that broader ecology encompasses databases, their materials and energy and their implication in human affairs, then there has to be also a sense that the database contains within itself, to reverse Coleridge's description of the artwork, the reason why it may become otherwise rather than so. Intuitively, I think that such an occulted hope may lie precisely in the difference between enumeration and continuum, or to put it another way, in the rift between the instant and the moment, where the word moment carries the sense of momentum, of the intrinsic power of any actual state of affairs to become other. We no longer know what time is because the database asks us

Between the femtosecond time of algo-trading and the cosmic long-term in which we are all dead there lies the present as the unique moment in time when action is possible. Of all the generations past and to come, ours alone is alive and able to act. The total image of the world that appears to be the goal of the databases of the mass image risks not only emulating the futureless world of waste and debt, and not only healing the rift in time by ending time altogether, but of making it appear that the world shares this architecture in which action can no longer occur, and no future other than the present can emerge. At the same time, that is, in this moment of the database, its unavoidable though denied roots in and operations on the planetary ecology, and its relation of difference with the continuum of the world, are integral to its operation, and make it vulnerable.

It is not a question of making the databases fail. In a certain sense they are failing now: failing to act to produce a new world we can all thrive in; failing in the fundamental task of culture, which today is above all to produce hope; failing to precisely to do what social media have always claimed to do – to share. Instead if the future is to be not only restored but made into a resource for all of us, human and non-human alike, the evolution of the database beyond proprietary, profit-based enclosure is imperative. The principle that time has a past implies that it has a future, if only we can use the levers we have on the fulcrums we can descry in order to prise open that messianic gateway.

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