Time vs Space: thoughts on waking to find that the world has moved on

“If it is true that time is always memorialised not as flow, but as memories of experienced places and spaces,

then history must indeed give way to poetry, time to space,

as the fundamental material of social expression”

David Harvey (1990: 218)

I’ve recently read Robert T. Tally Jr’s wonderful little book, Spatiality, a guide to the spacial turn in literary and cultural studies. Tally maps out this shift in the intellectual landscape in clearer terms than I’ve previously encountered, and the experience of reading his account of the reorientation that has played out over the past 30 years has caused me to start questioning (or at least become conscious of) some of the assumptions that I dug out of my scholarly kitbag when I, as a latter day Rip Van Winkle, awoke six years ago from 20 years slumber and returned to study.

Looking back at looking forward

My mid to late 1980s undergraduate career wantonly fused a variety of social sciences – all taught and gladly lapped up from a distinctly socio-critical, progressive slant. At the time this all had a slightly faded odour – it reflected a way of thinking that was on the wane, but the embers were still warm in the syllabuses and library shelves. Post War Corporatism was not entirely dead (though mortally wounded by Thatcherism’s first salvo of Neo-Liberal blows), and its fading ethos  still permeated all of my studies, each discipline presenting its aspect of the social as an inevitable (if now slightly slower than expected in 1968) advance towards something better. The uplands of ‘jam tomorrow’, were still just over the next ridge and technocratic, social science informed planning would get us (the future-managers-to-be) there eventually. In the dying days of this historical materialism the physical landscape of ‘now’ was generic, local spatial difference and distinctiveness were mere surface effects, for in the brave new world  all places would eventually reach – via ‘progress’ (though perhaps at different speeds) – the same social destination. Thus the ascent path to be found was one across time not space.

But, Tally gives me a vivid account of a now-changed intellectual landscape.  He shows how – in cultural theory – the relative significance of movement across time (i.e. a historical sensibility) has declined, and in its place has risen an increasing attentiveness to lived spatiality – the body inhabiting specific, meaningful places (i.e. geography) in the present. Thus – for Tally – thoughts of place have trumped the former preoccupation with time.

Tally’s account of this is more nuanced – but my crude summary will suffice for the points I want to explore here. What I want to consider is: what is the role for time in this ‘new’ intellectual landscape?

The places of the past, present and future

I don’t see a sense of the past as having disappeared from culture itself though – although I’d agree that the power of grand narratives, and their faith in historical destiny and progress seem greatly diminished. Engagement with the past – what we might even call an economy of the past – is still very important, perhaps ever more so, and ‘Heritage’ has become one of our few growth industries. Thus the past is still alive in popular engagements with place, and we should be careful not to write such behaviour off as ‘nostalgia’.

A lot that has been written recently about nostalgia, moving that term away from its simplistic popular usage as a term of abuse. Indeed, I’d argue that nostalgia only really makes sense as a term of censure within an Enlightenment / Modernist frame of reference. For living in the past (or refusing to aspire towards change and the future) is only really a true crime if the accuser has faith in the future as progress, desirable, unavoidable. As Svetlana Boym (2007) explains, nostalgia was originally coined as a medical term – describing a palpable (and debilitating) yearning for home and/or past connected with it, something that could be cured by leeches. Nostalgia was a problem to the extent that it debilitated life in the present. But a sense of the past may well enrich, and reinforce identity in the present.

Perhaps what has faded in both cultural theory and everyday life is a teleological sense of social (and perhaps also individual) life as a journey towards something. A process of meaningful and progressive (i.e. developmental) change over time. And oddly it was historical materialism that set the scene for this: with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, first published in 1992 which declared the end of history in the sense of announcing that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism had ‘won’ and had shown itself to be the summit of socio-historical evolution. All that was left to study was how capitalism rolled out across the new eastern territories it now had at its feet.

And it does seem that critical scholarship has foregrounded space as the remaining battleground, particularly in the wake of the Occupy space-based movements. Here focus is upon “innumerable singular sites of suffering”. But in such local, experience-based studies, these places often feel  ahistorical, stripped of grand pattern-spotting narratives. As Jacques Derrida puts it in reaction to Fukuyama’s thesis:

“ Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.” (1994: 85)

Yet even Fukuyama is not a modernist-optimist. He does not have an unqualified faith in progress. In particular he fears what technological advancement may bring, echoing the rise of an ecologically minded future-phobia that has risen (in counter to unbridled faith of the earlier 20th century in the ‘white heat of technology’). The environmental discourse is now well embedded – we are fallen, the future has been rendered dangerous and uncertain by our own rush towards it.

Interestingly, in this regard, Derrida’s oft-repeated quote above continues with the following provisional nod to contemporary ecological anxieties:

“(And provisionally, but with regret, we must leave aside here the nevertheless indissociable question of what is becoming of so-called “animal” life, the life and existence of “animals” in this history. This question has always been an important one, but will become massively unavoidable.)”

Perhaps this is what most motivates a turn to the present, the future is too difficult to contemplate, there are too many angles to cover.

And perhaps this fear of the future engenders recreational nostalgia in popular culture too. To seek respite in the ‘successful’ places of the past (country homes) and their ‘simpler’ technological relations (industrial archaeology;  urban exploration). In such places the complexity of the present and the future is forgotten for a moment, perhaps.

But that nostalgia is largely absent from scholarship – and which is why writing about urban explorers, heritage enthusiasts or other past-in-place lovers can fall into an us/them spectatorship – because temporality (and how people use it to construct and sustain place) isn’t taken seriously enough by place focussed academics. But, popular engagement with the past has very real effects on how places are interacted with (as Raphael Samuels argued back in the early 1990s). So, we need to take care not to write temporality out of academic studies of engagement with place.

Calling time on timelessness?

Perhaps the tide is turning. I’ve recent come across three publications that seek to reassert the temporal dimension in consideration of materiality, place and landscape.

First, at the level of object oriented ontology Peter Gratton (2013) tables an accusation against Graham Harman that in his quest to liberate all of the stuff of the world from cognitive and or relational human sovereignty,  OOO analysis consigns the totality of stuff in the world (humans included) to a stubborn, uncontactable existence locked in the perpetual solitary confinement of a static, eternal here-and-now. For Gratton, Harman’s focus upon “the alterity of things” threatens to deny the important – nuanced – analyses of time (and time-experience) presented by Heidegger and Derrida. Gratton reminds us that things happen to things – they exist and change – over time.

Meanwhile, Chris Van Dyke (2013) takes Non Representational Theory (NRT) to task, arguing that in foregrounding individual, subjective readings of place, much of the rich detail that characterises one place as distinct from any other has been jettisoned, leading to a marginalisation of the identity-of-place within a branch of 21st century spatial scholarship that purports to capture and project a rich, affectual engagement with the multiplicity of any location. Like Gratton, Van Dyke also points to the important role accorded to movement through time as an engine of meaning and place-formation by Derrida and Deleuze, a linkage somehow lost in NRT’s utilisation of these continental thinkers.  As Van Dyke puts his charge against two of the key NRT scholars:

“Rose and Wylie’s work yields landscape readings preoccupied with disembodied, ahistorical absences. In dwelling on questions of absence, these narratives devalue the visual, material and experiential properties of landscape. Landscapes are ultimately used to substantiate the epistemological validity of different philosophical tropes and concepts, obscuring the historical materiality of landscape whilst exonerating them from their social circumstances. What remains are evacuated spaces that have a materiality whose presence seems incidental and the reflection of an insulated consciousness” (3)

Van Dyke’s remedy for this non-representational malady, is to switch focus. To spend less effort on depicting what is absent and place more emphasis on describing what can be found – the imperfect stabilities that make for a localised and temporary approximation of order, meaning and inter-subjective use/experience at particular places. He deftly enlists Bruno Latour and Catherine Malabou to that purpose – weaving Latour’s focus on relationality (the places are formed through the interaction through time of material, discursive and living entities) and Malabou’s concept of plasticity (that places have a quality that both enables reaction and change, but which also holds and transmits legacies of past events, offering up partial resistance to present form and future possibility).  As Van Dyke argues, relationality and plasticity describe a semi-stable world of things, a world in which things interact over time and in doing so set up knock-on effects that will influence future iterations and becomings.  And the accounts of such interactions can be localised in a way that does investigate place-specifics in a deep way AND reintroduce respect for the role of change-over-time (and the effects of the past).

And finally Russell West-Pavlov (2013) in his book Temporalities, attacks postmodern conceptions of time space compression from a broadly post-human position, seeing in post modern eulogies for the death of the past and future (and the ascendancy of a commercialised ever-present present) “the loss of temporality in the face of a superficial spazialization of experience” (140).

West-Pavlov points out that Einstein’s discovery of the relativity, and of the interwoven space-time relationship was never fully explored or adopted in social theory. Drawing upon Bruno Latour’s and Jane Bennett, West-Pavlov calls for a beyond-human embrace of  immanent plural temporalities that lie at the heart of existence and are the essence of life itself (as a process of becoming). These temporalities are to be found in all aspects of the world. Thus time is everywhere: but everywhere time is local and relational in character. For him,

“These immanent, entity- and material-inhabiting temporalities and their respective time-trajectories are bound together to make up complex interwoven time with a plethora of different tempos” (141)

West-Pavlov’s aim is – broadly – an ecological one. To pull focus away from man-made time as a tool of conquest over dumb nature, as (following Latour) such thinking around a man/nature binary blinds us to the proliferation of man/nature hybrids and their attendant temporalities. As he puts it:

“An ethics and an aesthetics of immanent temporalities would acknowledge the primacy of the agency and existence of all entities as the forward-moving dynamic of time itself.” (122)

The End

Writing in 1976,  Michel Foucault depicted the then dominant perception of space in socio-cultural theory as “the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile” (1980: 70). Subsequently time (history) and spatiality swapped places, and temporarily became increasingly marginalized within spatial analysis. But perhaps now, there are some signs that this is set to change.



Boym, Svetlana (2007) Nostalgia and its discontents at http://www.iasc-culture.org/eNews/2007_10/9.2CBoym.pdf

Derrida, Jacques (1994). Specters of Marx: State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge: London

Fukuyama, Francis (1993). The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin: London.

Foucault, Michel (1980) ‘Questions on Geography’ in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon, New York: Pantheon, 63-77

Gratton, Peter (2013) ‘Post-Deconstructive Realism – It’s About Time’,  Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism IV 84- at http://speculations-journal.org

Harvey, David (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Blackwell: Oxford

Samuel, Raphael (1994) Theatres of Memories – Vol. 1 Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, Verso:  London.

Tally, Robert T. Jr (2013) Spatiality (The New Critical Idiom Series), Routledge: London.

Van Dyke, Chris (2013) ‘Plastic eternities and the mosaic of landscape’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31 (advanced publication on line: doi:10.1068/d15010)

West-Pavlov, Russell (2013) Temporalities (The New Critical Idiom Series), Routledge: London

Picture: Rip Van Winkle (1992) by John Howe: http://www.john-howe.com/portfolio/gallery/details.php?image_id=976


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

One Response to Time vs Space: thoughts on waking to find that the world has moved on

  1. dobraszczyk says:

    Some tasty references there to take up on – thanks Luke! Have you read Bruno’s ‘Atlas of Emotion’? It maps ‘haptic experience’ through film, art and architecture.

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