Well, hello there, my it's been a long long time How am I doin'? oh I guess that I'm doin' fine It's been so long and it seems now it was only yesterday Gee ain't it funny how time slips away Willie Nelson
999 seconds is a game I played with myself in an attempt to see if I could shed any light on a subject that has become something of an obsession – what is ‘now’; can it be recorded?
The study of time is the stuff of physics and astrophysics; of physicists, cosmologists, neuropsychologists, mathematicians, philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists. Pondered on by Anaximander, Plato and Aristotle, the problem of our concept of time is ancient, and to this day eludes an overarching definition. Starting, as I was, from a naive position I was never likely to proceed beyond asking very basic questions. Therefore, it is not surprising that only questions remain, as I learned that any enquiry into the nature of time proves to be notoriously tricky.
Watching someone die, and by this, I don’t mean the days, hours, or minutes leading up to death, but the instant when someone is present, and then they are not, begged the question how did I miss it? Why don’t I remember the now-point of the act of passage out of being? Where was I if not there? How, in Willie Nelson’s words, does time slip away? If cosmology is concerned with the entire universe and, by extension, humanity’s place in it, my interest lies within that extension. Not the enormous question of our species’ place in the cosmos but something much more rooted in common experience: how, as individual human subjects do we experience time – what is ‘now’ for me?
Not having any experience in fields of study that concentrate on time, I cast around for somewhere to begin. The Dimension of the Present Moment an essay by Miroslav Holub gave me a starting point:
The fact that I cannot imagine the present moment has always worried me. By the present moment I mean a conscious individual state or process, an experience […] I have finally found satisfaction in recent data of experimental psychology. The present moment lasts three seconds. In our consciousness, the present moment lasts about three seconds, with small individual differences (p.1)
Here was an actual timespan to try to position myself within. How long are three seconds? What can I experience within that length of time?
Trying to place myself within the phenomenon of a three-second span, to experience it, seemed like a way forward. Not surprisingly this brought me to a paradox where if it is true that I am consciously in something called the present for approximately three seconds, I am also unable to be in it as it is so fleeting. As William James put it ‘Let any one try. I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.’ (p.608) Everything seems to happen in those three seconds, and yet nothing that happens seems tangible as it has passed into the next present moment before I am aware I am aware of it. Confused, something that I had read years before and not understood began to make sense. Digging out a book that I had found (and still do) particularly difficult – Toward a Philosophy of the Act by Mikhail Bakhtin – a highlighted quotation appeared to legitimise my confusion:
Thus, insofar as we detach a judgment from the unity constituted by the historically actual act/deed of its actualization and assign it to some theoretical unity, there is no way of getting out from within its content/sense aspect and into the ought and the actual once-occurent event of Being. All attempts to surmount – from within theoretical cognition – the dualism of cognition and life, the dualism of thought and once-occurent concrete actuality, are utterly hopeless. Having detached the content/sense aspect of cognition from the historical act of its actualization, we can get out from within it and enter the ought only by way of a leap. To look for the actual cognitional act as a performed deed in the content/sense is the same as trying to pull oneself up by one’s own hair (p.7)
If we can now apply the three-second rule to our consciousness-span during the actualization of any act/deed, then any attempt of being-in-the-moment while separating it from its cognitive dimension becomes untenable. Before we have a chance to reflect on the present moment it has passed, or to put it another way, when we have the opportunity to think about the present moment it must have passed – if we are reflecting on it, it has gone. Being in time seems to be a continual ritual of pulling oneself up by one’s hair.
If I understand myself as being positioned in spacetime then each present moment marks my conscious existence in the continuum of the three spatial dimensions plus the fourth dimension of time. Poet Wislawa Szymborska writes ‘Nothing can ever happen twice. In consequence, the sorry fact is that I arrive here improvised and leave without the chance to practice.’ Applied to each present moment, the need to improvise underscores our naivety within the slices of once-occurred concrete actuality – the subjective, present moments, that make up the minutes, hours, days of our lives.
Initially, my idea was to record a given time span in three-second bursts, how would they look and sound? I chose 999 seconds for no other reason than it alluded to the space in which the piece was going to be exhibited, Gallery 333 at Exeter Phoenix. At first, film or video seemed to be the relevant media to use but chopping a continuous digital signal into three-second sections seemed to be the antithesis of what I was looking for. Instead, beginning with framed three-second slots and trying to fashion them into a continuum seemed apter, and so I used a camera to capture three-second exposures of a 999 second period – 333 ‘nows’.
Quite by chance a friend, Pleun Volker, sent me the link to Daniel Kahneman’s talk The riddle of experience vs. memory. My plans to record the soundtrack of the events happening around me when I was taking the 333 three second shots changed to one where I listened to Daniel Kahneman’s talk instead. Here was a remarkably clear polemic on the two-headed beast of the experiential moment and its passage into memory:
There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present […] And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life.
I have to look at a transcript of the talk to type this quote as I try to illustrate the clarity of his argument. But what words of his did I remember after a first listening? What remained with me?
Once more I have to resort to the transcript to make sure that the quotation is accurate: it is the kernel of this paragraph that stuck in my mind. After a first hearing I remembered, if not word for word, then its central theme:
Now, the experiencing self lives its life continuously. It has moments of experience, one after the other. And you ask: What happens to these moments? And the answer is really straightforward. They are lost forever. I mean, most of the moments of our life — and I calculated — you know, the psychological present is said to be about three seconds long. Which means that, you know, in a life there, are about 600 million of them. In a month, there are about 600,000. Most of them don’t leave a trace. Most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self. And yet, some how you get the sense that they should count, that what happens during these moments of experience is our life. It’s the finite resource that we’re spending while we’re on this earth. And how to spend it, would seem to be relevant, but that is not the story that the remembering self keeps for us.” (07.00/20.07)
Perhaps this is the part of the talk that I remember because, like Holub, he also uses the three-second rule, but perhaps it is because the words echo with an entry in my diary:
Here was the ‘rub’: attempting to reproduce the present moment was, I realised, futile: it became apparent that putting together the images and words engaged within the 999 seconds was at best an exercise in producing an illustration for anyone looking at it to experience it from within their ‘now’ – to subsume it into their faction, as I did with my mother’s photographs. The only now-ness present in Gallery 333 is that of the viewer; the only experiencing self in front of the photos is the person looking at it.
It became clear that other elements had to come into play. The equation 3 seconds = Now, Now = Here captured the environment of the work and creates a framework or reference point for the viewer – perhaps, in fact, it is an order or instruction. Anyone standing and looking at the photos and text does so against the movement of the clock marking off the fourth dimesion in their timespace in three second increments. The photographs and text trapped in the box are relics which perform the same function as the people trapped in my lens during the photo shoot for 999 seconds.
Research for 999 seconds hasn’t answered the question I started out with. Instead, it has exposed the enormous complexity inherent in exploring now-ness. I expect that in a short while I shall look back at what I’ve written here with embarrassment at my ignorance of the subject. In the meantime, the next step is to consider Francisco Varela’s writing on the specious present. His writing on the texture, as well as the linearity, of time, suggests a way of understanding the insufficiency of a defined, isolated, present moment:
To start with, time in experience presents itself not only as linear but also as having a complex texture […] a texture that dominates our existence to an important degree. In a first approximation, this texture can be described as follows: There is always a centre, the now moment with a focused, intentional content (say, this room with my computer in front of me on which the letters I am typing are highlighted). This centre is bounded by a horizon or fringe that is already past (I still hold the beginning of the sentence I just wrote), and it projects toward an intended next moment (this writing session is still unfinished). These horizons are mobile: this very moment which was present (and hence was not merely described, but lived as such) slips toward an immediately past present. Then it plunges further out of view: I do not hold it just as immediately, and I need an added depth to keep it at hand.
The sensation of missing time while anaesthetised is part of the project Temporary Orificestop
The riddle of experience vs memory
Anderson, H & Grush, R (2009), A brief history of time consciousness: Historical precursors to James and Husserl. Journal of the History of Philosophy. 47(2):277-307.
Bakhtin, M.M (1993) Toward a Philosophy of the Act, Austin: University of Texas Press
Durie, R (ed) (2000) Time & the Instant. essays in the physics and philosophy of time, Manchester: Clinamen Press
Holub, M (1990) “The Dimension of the Present Moment” in Miroslav Holub The Dimension of the Present Moment and other essays, London: Faber & Faber
James, W (1890) Principles of Psychology 2 vols. New York: Henry Holt
Szymborska, W (2009) Nic dwa razy. Nothing Twice, Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie
Varela, F.J (2000) “The Specious Present: A Neurophenomenology of Time Consciousness” in Jean Petitot et al (eds) Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, Stanford: Stanford University Press
For their help and support with 999 seconds, I want to thank:
Matt Burrows at Exeter Phoenix