Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Michel Serres, Evental Time and Cultural Denialism

William E. Connolly

Time, says Michael Serres, neither consists of a uniform, singular flow nor a linear repetition of instants that curve under the influence of gravity, as Einstein had insisted. Both images are too streamlined, too invested with eagerness either to commune with a benign world or to master a unilinear one. Break, break, my friends the obdurate hold of both images. They are killing us. Commitment to them today fosters cultural rage in the face of events that rattle them.
You might, Serres says, start by beginning to appreciate how time “percolates”. That image turns us first to think about the turbulence and steam emanating from boiling water. But Serres extends it to ponder the bumpiness of streams and rivers. Indeed, when first encountering the metaphor I was drawn back to the stick races I used to stage with my children on this or that bubbling creek. One well designed stick would take a lead and then find itself whirling around in an eddie. Then it might turn with the flow and be blocked by a pile of rocks and branches before, if the youngster rooting on the bank were lucky, it pulled out. It might even flow back upstream for a while in the midst of a subcurrent or sink into a whirlpool only to pop up somewhere else soon. The winner of the race was not always the one with the stick best fitted to move with a stable current by weight, length, volume and density, though those features induced some advantages. Many other contingencies entered into the fray. Time percolates, even if you start with a river or a stream as the image to inform your thinking. Suppose, too, downstream there is a waterfall, pulling the water at an increasingly rapid rate until it pours over the precipice.
Here are a few things Serres says:

“Time percolates more than it flows.”[I]

“Sea, forest, rumor, noise, society, life, works and days, all common multiples…I am trying to think the multiple as such, to let it wash along without arresting it through unity…I am now trying to rethink time as a pure multiplicity.”[ii]

“…like the percolating basin of a glacial river, unceasingly changing its bed and showing an admirable network of forks, some of which freeze and silt up, while others open up.”[iii]

“I am disquieted, therefore I exist.”[iv]

“…time flows in an extraordinarily complex, unexpected, complicated way…; it folds or twists; it is as various as the dance of flames in a brazier—here interrupted, there vertical, there mobile and unexpected.”[v]

“For whatever praise you may hear, whatever love you may profess for the sea and mountains, the desert or marshes, plants and animals, nature doesn’t behave as a friend to humans or even their symbiont. By means of waves, fire, typhoons, poisoning, or devouring, it kills as calmly as bodies fall and eagles eat lambs.”[vi]
Serres tries to break the existential hold old images have over binary logics in general and the primacy of the mastery/organic debates about time in particular. The logics depress attention to messy processes of becoming; the debates block exploration of another alternative. Serres teaches us to master the will to mastery, first, because it cannot succeed and, second, because it fails to respond to the grandeur of that of which we ourselves are an intrinsic part. The nihilism with which many respond to the last sentences quoted here from Serres is, to Serres, a sign that they have not gotten over the profound disappointment that their favored images of time do not fit well rocky experiences they have themselves encountered. Confidence in eternal salvation or the indefinite advance of capitalism may hang in the balance. It is this disappointment that we are ethically enjoined to overcome so that our thinking and responses to the world become more decent and in-formed. For existential disappointment, unless it is overcome, can morph into ressentiment, and the latter can morph into bellicose cultural dispositions to aggressive nihilism.
Let us distinguish three dimensions of time, each christened by some to crown time: clock time, lived time, evental time. Clock time is indispensable to life in highly organized capitalist societies. You get up at 7, eat breakfast at 8, arrive at work by 9, if you are a privileged member of the middle class. The big meeting is at 10, and the day winds down by 5. Newton and Einstein loved clock time, the latter indexing it to the speed of light and showing how light bends in response to every gravitational pull. Clock time thus generates its own puzzles. And its own dogmas. Punctualists in science and political economy sense that only if it receives singular priority can they hope to construct a precise, verified, sufficient science tethered to mastery of the world. Lived time involves experiences of duration in which, say, new thoughts, ideas or projects bubble up and a creative dimension of becoming folds into life. William James and Henri Bergson found it to provide a better basis for philosophy than clock time, and both extended the compass of lived time beyond human beings to other animals, plants and bacteria.
Evental time involves the intersection of two or more previously separated temporalities, each on its own speed, capacities, and vector. Bumpy intersections between viruses, pangolins, and humans set on different temporalities illustrate evental time. Also, rising, salty ocean, the slow pace of sand formation, and established construction practices can meet to usher in a high rise collapse in Miami. Evental time, I suspect, is consistent with clock and lived time, though not reducible to either. We date key events, for instance.

Consider, then, merely a few galvanizing, planetary instances of evental time:

Perhaps between 4.1 and 4.5 billion years ago a planet, now called Theia, crashed onto the earth, which then was still covered with molten seas. A rocky meeting of two cosmic temporalities. The result seems to have been formation of a moon around the earth, with effects (later) on tides; it also may have created the tilt of the earth. Billions of years later adventurous sailors deployed the light of the moon and its orbital course to help guide them at sea. Adventurous Polynesian migrations to numerous Pacific islands were thus enabled by that collision. Another event. What if the planet hitting the earth had been much larger? The von Trier film, Melancholia, explores such an event, set in contemporary times.
About 250 million years ago (clock time), eruptions from the Siberian flats heated the earth’s atmosphere. Then, (clock time), the warming atmosphere probably activated methane sediments in Antarctica (another event), heating the planet so high that 90% of life was lost. If the methane release had been higher life might have been destroyed totally, waiting many million years before it became activated again.[vii]

About 66 million years ago a massive asteroid following its own trajectory hit the earth on (what is now) the Mexican peninsula. It was followed by a huge volcano in India, the second event perhaps triggered by the first. Almost all large land life was extinguished, including notably large dinosaurs. They had been exquisitely adapted to the settled environment for 130 million years (clock time). Now they could not survive. The new rules for flourishing and survival set the stage for small mammals to accelerate their own evolutionary development. Millions of years later, the event finally began to percolate into western philosophy and the human sciences, setting the stage for a belated focus on evental time. [viii]
About 12,700 years ago, the world-wide ocean conveyor system--which had only followed its cyclical pattern for millions of years--suddenly stopped, with profound effects upon climate. The Gulf Stream, a small part of the conveyor, was thus halted. The impetus for the stoppage is still under investigation and it itself was not discovered until the 1970s. A couple of thousand years later, the current was renewed and the Holocene stuttered into being, perhaps over a period of less than ten years. That latter event, of course, set the stage for the rapid expansion of agriculture and the human population.[ix]

About 1120 years ago (900 CE), a new warming period hit Europe, parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas, perhaps occasioned in part by intensification of the ocean conveyor and massive deforestation campaigns in Europe. The differential results extended the range of European agriculture, encouraged Mongols on the Russian Steppes victimized by new drought to invade Europe, and helped to destroy the massive Mayan Empire in the Americas.
About 124 years ago (1897-99), seasonal monsoons (cyclical time) were interrupted over large parts of India. The interruption seemed to follow an intensification of El Ninos over the pacific and a shift in the direction and intensity of western trade winds. The British Empire refused to respond to the massive famine and disease that followed. Conjunctions between the El Nino, shifting wind currents, a monsoon interruption, and the policies of the British Empire manufactured a devastating event.[x]
More recently, Hitler arose after defeat of Germany in World War I, soldiers wanderings aimlessly at home, and severe inflation, soon creating a holocaust before the Russian winter slowed him down. A conjunction of six events. American scientists invented a nuclear bomb at warp speed that was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima; a racist American evangelical-neoliberal resonance machine was created that dominated that country for decades; the Anthropocene—underway for centuries under the hegemony of extractive capitalism—was finally discovered by scientists; and a devastating pandemic was spawned (perhaps) by the double crossing of a virus, first, from bats to a pangolin and then from the pangolin to humans. Clock time kept ticking to its two-step rhythm during each event.
This sampling of events is incomplete and arbitrary. Many more, of diverse sorts, could be added. Even the limited sample, however, identifies some characteristics of evental time. Each event emerges from the confluence of two or more temporalities, previously set on different vectors, speeds and capacities. The conjunctions throw heterogeneous forces and beings into contact, as they intersect through collisions and ingressions. The resulting event turns or twists the vector of time that preceded it, now making a linear projection or “extrapolation”—to use Darwin’s favorite word--based on processes that preceded it out of touch with the turn actually taken. The tendency to refuse to adjust extrapolations into the future in the face of new events provides one source of the recent turns to fundamentalism, denialism, and fascism across the world. Each refusal might involve a desperate desire to save an old faith, to preserve an old image of time, or to protect the assumption that the progress of capitalism on a linear track can proceed indefinitely. Or several of these, re-enforcing each other. Hence, the need to develop a philosophy of evental time.
To give evental time its due physicists, philosophers, theologians, humanists and social theorists must become more familiar with bacteria temporalities, viral temporalities, fungal temporalities, civilizational temporalities, capitalist temporalities, planetary temporalities, climate temporalities, geological temporalities, asteroid temporalities, scientific temporalities, and theological temporalities, noting how any of these can intersect with one or more of the others at any time.

Evental time disorients expectations; it unsettles cultural assumptions and temporal extrapolations already in play. To broach the phenomenon of evental time is to disrupt several theological and scientific views in Euro-America. So many hopes and demands are anchored in the other images. To refuse to consider evental time, however, is to court even worse dangers, including the return of fascism and devastating climate change.
There are a few other lessons brought into relief by a focus on evental time. First, each previous event—each turn in time—continues to carry implications today. The shape of seasons, the current hegemony of homo sapiens, the organization of the ocean conveyor, the shifting monsoons, the current conditions of indigenous peoples, the insistence on white triumphalism, the current trajectory and pace of climate change, and the continuing danger of nuclear war, all find expression in part because of events that turned the course of time. And indeed, conjunctions between a Covid viral crossing and autocrats in the United States, India, and Brazil who refused to cope with them continue to find expression as new variants proliferate. Events periodically percolate together.
Second, when an event occurs, previous extrapolations into the future must be adjusted. This recurrent condition suggests that more of us should cultivate a double orientation to extrapolation. During periods of reasonable regularity in a domain—such as regular seasons, a settled civilizational pattern, the confinement of viral crossings, the slow pattern of species evolution, the consistency of climate patterns, the reliability of monsoons, the long aftermath of indigenous conquests, etc., etc., it may be reasonable to extrapolate forward probabilities and goals from the recent past. Thus, I as a young democratic socialist in the 1970s, extrapolated a possible future in which more and more people in the world achieve material abundance, while neoliberals projected a probable future in which the mastery of nature accelerated, wealth distribution within and between regimes became more extreme, racial hierarchies corresponded roughly to the old hierarchies within and between capitalist states, and so on. But upon the advent of the Anthropocene, modified extrapolations of possibility, probability and desirability need to be made. Indeed, the recurrent pressure to make such turns in extrapolation helps to explain cultural denialism and/or scapegoating in many circles with respect to such things as the failure of Christ to return, holding Jews responsible for the Great Depression, blaming Blacks for their own exploitation, the failure of communism, the inability of capitalism to thrive into the indefinite future, and the advent of the Anthropocene. Those who accept the prominence of evental time are thus encouraged to adopt a double entry orientation to extrapolation. Extrapolations into possible futures are always needed, but with each major turn of event adjustments of extrapolation are needed.
Third, the periodic prominence of evental time also means that entire cultures are called upon to fight off the existential disappointment--or even cultural rage--that can arise collectively when reassuring images of time no longer so confidently control the cultural terrain. The task for many now becomes how to overcome the assumption of progressive time, how to appreciate the grandeur of bumpy time, how to affirm a world punctuated by events that turn time. Doing so to encourage struggles against the worst things when a bad turn occurs without seeking racial, religious, scientific and theological scapegoats to hold responsible for that turn. This is the most difficult existential issue posed by evental time. For several religious and secular constituencies are rattled by it.

In the western traditions, broadly defined, noble struggles with this issue can be discerned in Hesiod, Sophocles, the Book of Job, the Book of J, Heraclitus, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Kafka, James Baldwin, Catherine Keller, Jairus Grove, and Michel Serres himself. None of those existential struggles is apt to suffice today. But several are pertinent to those who acknowledge the significance of evental time, seek to affirm a world in which events turn life, and struggle against the worst effects of temporal turns or accelerations without seeking scapegoats who must be made to suffer for them.

[i] Michel Serres, branches (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), p.

[ii] Serres, Genesis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1995), p. 5.

[iii] Serres and Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 105.

[iv] Serres, branches, p. 125.

[v] Serres and Latour, Conversations…, p. 58

[vi] Serres, The Incandescent, p. 161. I should also note two other books that have helped me to come to terms with Serres. The first, Michel Serres: Figures of Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020, by Christopher Watkin, explores the development of Serres’s orientation to nature, logic, and time across several decades. The second, Time and History in Deleuze and Serres, edited by Bernd Herzongenrath (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012), helped me to compare Deleuze, a figure more familiar, with Serres. Jane Bennett and I have an essay in the latter volume, “The Crumpled Handkerchief,” pp. 153-172.

[vii] Michael Benton, When Life Nearly Died: The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time (London: Thames Hudson, 2005)

[viii] Wally Broecker, The Great ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

[x] See Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts (New York: Verso, 2001). Davis, at odds with most western social theory of the day, combines a history of the colonial holocaust with an account of how the intense El Ninos were formed and altered the wind patterns over India. A social theorist who refuses to succumb to sociocentrism.


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