What Is the Present?

What Is the Present?

by Michael North


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691179698
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,277,633
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His many books include Novelty: A History of the New, Machine-Age Comedy, and Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word.

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This Point in Time


What is the present? The most obvious and natural answer to that question may be provided by a simple graphical representation: a point on a line. Time-lines like that used by the Hammer Museum for its second Biennial are common enough to suggest that they involve an inevitable metaphor, time as a linear progression from point to point. In principle, a point denotes position without regard to size, and therefore the increments into which a line is divided may stand for days, months, years, or even centuries. Though it is not uncommon to use the term present even for the very largest of these units, it is probably most natural to think of points as designating the smallest parts of time. The very concept of punctuality suggests that we think of temporal precision in terms of such points, measured as finely as possible. An aural equivalent is provided by the ticking of a clock, which can sound, under certain circumstances, like time itself steadily dripping away, bit by bit.

Expressing time in terms of such bits is a convenience and maybe even a necessity whenever it comes to synchronizing things. It is a habit that has also acquired a certain authority over the years. Kant, for one, thought that our inner sense of time itself has no shape, and thus we must resort to analogies, the most basic of which is the line, along which points would represent the fundamental relation of successiveness. Aristotle, whose analysis of time in the Physics is the basis of most discussions to follow, frequently uses the phrase "point of time" when he means to speak of the smallest division of it. The representation of time in terms of two-dimensional geometry is a feature of some of the most basic tools of modern science, including the Cartesian coordinate system, whenever time serves as one of the axes. In Newton's physics, time is divided into "temporal places," indivisible moments that correspond to geometric points, except that they are spatially invariable, as spatial points are temporally invariable.

While geometric points might be useful in the representation of time in the abstract, they pose certain problems when it comes to time as it is experienced by human beings. In its purest form, the temporal point is a time period without any time in it, and this does not seem to afford much scope for experience. Even in Newton's day, philosophers differed as to whether time could be sensibly divided into moments without any extension. Locke divided time into discrete, uniform instants arrayed, at least in principle, along a single line. These instants were thus points in every respect except that they could be understood to have some dimension. Hume, however, argued that in space and time the least possible increments have no magnitude, so that the briefest moments of time are point-like in being unextended and nondimensional. These are recognized in experience by their successive relation to one another, not by virtue of their own temporal breadth. This argument about points and time-lines has never really died down. In the 20 century, Henri Bergson argued on one side that the geometric metaphor is fatal to any real understanding of time, while Gaston Bachelard argued on the other that "duration is made up of durationless instants, just as a straight line is made up of dimensionless points."

The notion of "durationless instants" does have a few logical arguments in its favor. Hume's contention that the smallest imaginable increments of anything cannot possibly have any magnitude is one of these. Aristotle used another such argument when he pointed out that a now with some dimension to it will be divisible into parts, some of which will be past in relation to others, so that the present will turn out to have another time-line within it and not be the present at all. One of the oldest and still most influential definitions of the present, that of Saint Augustine, begins with this inevitable and yet counterintuitive idea of a moment in time that takes up no time: "In fact, the only time that can be called present is an instant, if we can conceive of such, that cannot be divided into even the most minute fractions, and a point of time as small as this passes so rapidly from the future to the past that its duration is without length." By Augustine's reasoning, the present moment must be indivisible and dimensionless, since if it had dimension it would then contain within it past and future and no longer remain simply the present.

Though Augustine's reasoning seems sound, it has left behind it a number of logical problems. Kant was to insist rather stoutly that "any part of time is a time," and thus it would seem that any moment must itself occupy some time. There is an elementary inconsistency, in other words, in dividing time up into instants that themselves take up no time. How could any series of such temporal zeroes add up to a positive amount? In any case, how could anything happen in a dimensionless instant? What sort of experience could exist in a temporal space so small it can include no change? As Aristotle had insisted long before, "if there is in the time-continuum a time so small as to be absolutely imperceptible, then it is clear that a person would, during such a time, be unaware of his own existence, as well as of his seeing and perceiving." Aristotle put a great deal of effort into redefining the now so as to avoid these logical absurdities. He notes that a line is not really made up of points but rather is infinitely divisible by them. Points, that is to say, are not uniform stations situated along a line, like beads on a string. Between any two points on a line there are as many more points as anyone might care to mark. The line, in other words, is a continuum and, as such, is infinitely divisible. The point on the time-line we call the present is, therefore, not a part of time but a limit to it, more like a cut or division than a discrete bit. As such, it is itself indivisible and dimensionless, and so it does not contain any time within it. An important benefit of this redefinition for Aristotle is that it helps to refute the reasoning behind the famous paradoxes of Zeno, some of which derive their power from a conception of time as composed of indivisible parts. Zeno contends that a flying arrow must always be in one of these parts and, while in it, must be at rest. Therefore, the arrow can never hit its target, since it must always be in one of these parts. Aristotle responds that "time is not composed of indivisible nows any more than any other magnitude is composed of indivisibles." Time is not composed of nows but is a continuous magnitude divided in two by a particular now.

Though this solution may have dispelled some of the intellectual tension that had built up around the paradoxes of Zeno, it also created some problems of its own. If we agree with Aristotle that time is not composed of nows, we may then wonder exactly what it is composed of. And if we agree that the now is not a part of time, we may rightly wonder what, if anything, it is a part of. Does it make sense to think of the present as radically distinct from the time around it, from which it seems to emerge and into which it seems to blend? Aristotle frequently speaks of nows in the plural. In fact, all the comparative measurement that goes on in this section of the Physics, all the reasoning about time AB as opposed to time CD, depends on the possibility of simultaneous yet different nows, for that is what a division in time is by definition. The now could hardly be used to count up time if it were unique and singular. In the midst of one of these discussions, Aristotle remarks that "the nows are infinite in number," but here he must be speaking about potential nows because otherwise this would seem to contradict the dictum that time is not composed of nows. But this passing comment threatens to expose some unresolved issues in Aristotle's account of the present. Is the now singular and in contrast to the rest of time in its indivisibility and lack of dimension, or is it multiple and therefore somehow part of the continuous time it delimits?

Everything Aristotle says about the now suggests that he would not answer but reject these questions. For him, the now is the sort of limit that is both a division and a connection at once. As a divisor, it is unique and "always different," as he puts it. This seems to mean that it is always different from itself, as each now is a new now, and also always different from the time it delimits, which is continuous. As a connector, though, the now is "always the same," by which he seems to mean that it is always the same now but also always a part of the time it connects. As Wolfgang von Leyden puts it, the now is presented as if it were a sort of unit and also the repetition of that unit in a series. One way of bridging this gap between the unit and its repetition in a series would be to imagine the now as constantly and steadily in motion. Though Aristotle quite clearly insists that there can be no motion within the present, since there is no dimension there for motion to occupy, he is less clear about the possibility that the now may itself be in motion. Thus Richard Sorabji complains that Aristotle speaks indistinctly of two different nows, one that moves and one that stays put. The one that stays put might be compared to a geometrical point, which stays in the place it denotes because it is identical to it, while the moving now is always shifting to a different place in time.

In fact, Aristotle's comments on the now are inconsistent enough to raise the suspicion that he actually has two different nows between which he finds it impossible to decide. One of these, which might be called the instant, is fundamental to his basic association of time with number. When he defines time as "the number of motion in respect of 'before' and 'after,'" Aristotle makes counting essential to any sense of time. Counting, in turn, depends on the sort of distinction marked by a static now. For this reason, the present is very much more than a part of time. It is, in a sense, the very basis of time, not just the standpoint from which we perceive it but also the fixed point that allows us to count and thus to establish its very existence. For this purpose, though, the now must be instantaneous, without any temporal dimension of its own. If a point in time is to serve as a limit to some interval, it can hardly be an interval itself. By the same token, the position of the now is arbitrary. It might be situated at any place along the time-line. As Paul Ricoeur puts it, "this break can be made anywhere. Any instant at all is equally worthy of being the present." All the infinite instants arrayed along the time-line are identical, at least in the purely negative sense that they have no characteristics, as they have no dimension. Though Aristotle identifies time with number, his time-line is a bit like a ruler from which all the numbers have been erased.

The problem with the instant, then, is not just that it is short but, more importantly, that it is not unique. What we ordinarily think of as the present is not just a point in time but this point in time. The relations of before and after might obtain between any two points on a time-line, but the relations of past and future only make sense in relation to the point occupied right now. Of course, a great many arguments have grown up over the ages about these issues. J. E. McTaggart argued, for example, that the relations of before and after are fundamental and unchangeable, since Caesar's birth will always come before his death, for all eternity, while the relations of past, present, and future are but stages that any moment can occupy only temporarily. One problem with this solution is that it does without the present altogether and thus asks us to give up the idea that there is something particular about the part of time we currently occupy. That sense of the particularity and uniqueness of the present has been very hard to relinquish.

This tension between the arbitrary instant and the unique present has sometimes been described as a contest between cosmological and experiential time, between objective and subjective definitions of it. But Aristotle makes it quite clear that the sort of reckoning on which he rests his definition of time can only occur within some human consciousness. Counting, he says, cannot exist without someone to do the counting. The instant, in other words, is a mental construction. If so, though, it is a particularly ideal mental construction, unlike anything found in nature or, for that matter, in ordinary human experience. As Aristotle says himself, a part of time with no time in it affords no scope for experience or even for self-awareness. The tension, then, is between two different human conceptions: an ideal instant, postulated but not actually experienced, and the sort of present that is more or less identical to human experience itself. The instant is a device that allows Aristotle to resolve many of the logical problems that had vitiated previous thought about the present, but in the process, it removes much of what made the present worth thinking about in the first place.


Aristotle defines time as that which can be counted, but this is certainly not the only way in which the ancients imagined time, nor is counting the only kind of measure. In the Statesman, Plato divides the art of measurement into two parts, "positing as one part all those sorts of expertise that measure the number, lengths, depths, breadths, and speeds of things in relation to what is opposed to them, and as the other, all those that measure in relation to what is in due measure, what is fitting, the right moment, what is as it ought to be — everything that removes itself from the extremes to the middle." Here Plato seems to be establishing a distinction between quantity and quality, measure by the reckoning of sums and differences and measure by comparison to a norm. It is the difference between having an amount of something and having the right amount, the difference between any random moment in time and the right moment.

The word translated here as "the right moment" is kairos, a term that has had a significant influence in discussions of the present. Plato's discussion makes clear the original meaning of kairos, which is something like "due measure." Originally, it had no particular temporal connotations but meant "the right amount" in general. By Plato's time, it had acquired a temporal meaning among its others, and Aristotle also uses it in the same sense, though it is significantly absent from the discussion of time in the Physics. Gradually it came to mean not just the right time but also a very short time, and in that form, it offered a very powerful antidote to Aristotle's instantaneous now.

Kairos, in its adjectival form, was first used to denote a very small space, particularly a flaw in a piece of armor, a usage unique to Homer. Gradually, it comes to be used in a figurative sense to denote any small but crucial amount, rather like the straw that breaks the camel's back. When it came to be applied to time, therefore, it tended to mean a very short but crucial amount of time. An ancient statue of Kairos, attributed to Lyssipus, holds a knife to show how he cuts time into brief but potent slices. Almost inevitably, this short but crucial moment in time came to be identified with the present, though this was a present considerably different from the one defined in Aristotle's Physics.

In Thucydides and the Greek tragedians, kairos could have negative or positive connotations, as a moment of crisis or of opportunity. It is the turning point or moment of decision. So kairos is not just the right or appropriate time but also the time at which the protagonist must act correctly, be right. In Oedipus Tyrannus, the protagonist challenges his daughters "always to live at the point of kairos," which is to say at that point of moderation between extremes that he had failed to attain himself. The implication here is that living at the point of kairos is a constant balancing act, a constant striving to avoid extremes and live in the right way. In fact, it does not seem that the right is a way at all but a point, so fine is the balance between alternatives. The right, then, is not so much a particular value as a recipe, a formal description of what the right must look like. It looks a lot like the instant, since it is clearly a temporal point of very limited extent, but it differs from the instant in crucial respects. For it is unique, even if it happens more than once, and it is important, as full of significance as it is of value.

Kairos also escapes from the temporal limitations of the instant, perhaps because it is associated with value, which, for the Greeks at least, was timeless. In the Philebus, the kairos is bestowed by "eternal nature" on humankind so that it might be able to distinguish between the temporary and the lasting. To make this kind of discrimination is, in the tragedies at least, the work of a moment, but making the decision correctly involves ignoring the temporary and local in favor of the eternal and universal. Perhaps for this reason, kairos came to be associated with aion, or eternity. This is not as impossible as it might sound, for aion is a kind of time that is not measured because it is present all at once. In this sense, it converges on kairos, concentrating its eternal nature on a single point as kairos expands its minimal extent to touch on the eternal. Without too much trouble, then, kairos might be seen as eternity itself compacted into an instant.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1

1 This Point in Time 21

2 The Search for the Experiential Present 40

3 The Longest Now: A History of the Historical Present 66

Part 2

4 The Present in Pictures 89

3 Narrative and the "Unexplained Instant" 109

6 The Cinematic Present from Intolerance to Interstellar 136

Conclusion: Here and Now 167

Notes 179

Index 205

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