Time And (Relative Dimension In) Space


We have been in a bit of an odd situation this week.  On the one hand in Digital Modernisms, we were getting a crash course in spatial theories since Heidegger; on the other in good old Modernist Aesthetics, we were wrangling with Henri Bergson and his pure durée.  The former was fascinating.  Whole new dimensions were opening up in my brain; it was practically becoming a veritable heterotopia on its own, if one may use Foucault in jest.  But this was when something about the latter began to rile me, because it had occurred to me that Bergson did not like space.  He really did not like space at all.

Bergson, in his Time and Free Will, sets up what I consider to be a somewhat reductive dichotomy between time and space, one that shows primacy to the former and derogation to the latter.  Space, as Bergson puts it, would constrain our experience of time with its homogeneity, its quantitative multiplicity, such that ‘our ordinary conception of duration depends on a gradual incursion of space into the domain of pure consciousness.’  (126)  We cannot attain pure duration because we are stuck in space.  Space is in the way.

We cannot, of course, ignore time.  The whole concept of the ‘modern’ and ‘post-modern’ implies temporality, for a thing cannot be modern if there is no non-modern past to contrast it against.  Yet Bergson’s negative conception of space ignores, firstly, that time and space are inextricably connected and dependent – and not necessarily in a way that has space tyrannising time – and secondly, that space is not the immobile, fixed and homogeneous medium he characterises it to be.

Many theorists have since risen to combat Bergson in favour of space, but since I have already thrown the heterotopia card on the table, I shall play the Foucault hand.  ‘Since Kant,’ writes Foucault, ‘what is to be thought by the philosopher is time: Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger.’ (1980: 149)  Foucault’s own theories on space establish it to be equally dynamic and in vigorous dialogue with time; foremost among these is his theory of heterotopia.

Foucault’s theory of heterotopia gives six main attributes of the heterotopic space:

  1. That they are found in all cultures but in diverse forms
  2. That they serve diverse functions for society that mutate as the society moves through history
  3. That they juxtapose within themselves other spaces, which would otherwise be incompatible
  4. That they encapsulate ruptures in time – ‘heterochronies’
  5. That they are not freely accessible and often involve rituals of opening/closing, entry/exit
  6. That they function only in relation to the remaining space, either as illusion or compensation

Unfortunately Foucault was somewhat vague when it came to elucidating on heterotopias, the result of which is that all sorts of places could arguably constitute heterotopias, including changing rooms, Wikipedia, and any place that offers free Wi-Fi.  Peter Johnson’s Heterotopia Studies blog (whose summary of Foucault’s ideas I am indebted to) tracks these increasingly diverse interpretations of heterotopia.  Though brief, Foucault’s defence of space sparked an ideological controversy; Foucault recalled in an interview the response to the original lecture in which he delivered the idea of heterotopia:

‘… someone spoke up – a Sartrean psychologist-  who firebombed me, saying that space is reactionary and capitalist, but history and becoming are revolutionary. This absurd discourse was not unusual at the time.’ (2002: 361)

Must time and space necessarily be set against each other? Must we eschew one and claw desperately for the other in the name of consciousness and free will and all that jazz? Time and space are inextricably involved.  If we pay a little more attention to space here, it is to make up for what the purists of temporality – the ‘persistent hegemony of historicism’ (10), as Edward Soja bitterly puts it – have cost it.  Ultimately, however, we must live in both, and think with both.

  • Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will : an Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Frank Lubecki Pogson (trans.). London: Allen and Unwin, 1971. Print.
  • Foucault, Michel. ‘Of Other Spaces’. Diacritics 16.1 (Spring, 1986). Print.
  • Foucault, Michel. ‘The Eye of Power’. Colin Gordon (ed.). Power/Knowledge. Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1980. 146-165. Print.
  • Foucault, Michel. ‘Space, Knowledge, Power’. J. D. Faubion (ed.). Power: Essential Works of Foucault 3. London: Penguin, 2002. 349-364. Print.
  • Johnson, Peter. ‘ Heterotopia: Foucault and Space (1)’. Heterotopia Studies. Web. Nov 5, 2013.
  • Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies: the Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso, 1989. Print.
  • Thacker, Andrew. Moving Through Modernity: Space and Geography in Modernism. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003. Print.

Title image by Miraj Ahmed and Martin Jameson at Architectural Association Inc, taken from Folksonomy.


One thought on “Time And (Relative Dimension In) Space

  1. Well, I think this is the first blog post I’ve ever read that’s both made me think and caused me to sit up through the earlier hours of the morning re-reading convoluted theory and philosophy in order to work out whether or not I agree with what was argued it in, so – good work there, I’m impressed!
    On the whole, I reckon I do agree with you, in that I think that the seemingly dichotomous relationship postulated by Bergson to exist between time and space is either a false one or, if we’re going to be generous, one that is described in too fuzzy, too French(!), a manner. Like you (and like the wild-haired sage of Ulm, for that matter) I think space and time are both inextricably linked by nature and necessity as the dimensions of the experienced universe; it’s with the notion of experience that, for me, Bergson’s argument loses a degree of logical coherence. The way I read him just now (which was clasping a large cafetiere of coffee), there seems to be quite deal of confusion between the ideas of measurable time and of an experience of time (this is pure duration, I think?); this strikes me as being an odd opposition for him to make such a to-do about, as sensation and a dimension are, in real terms, possessed of completely different qualities (although I guess he does look at this a bit in the 1st chapter). Time and space are not necessarily subjective in nature, experience is.
    His concern, that you also highlighted, about the “incursion of space into the domain of pure consciousness”, seemed confusing to me as well: seeing as he associates conscious, logical *thought* with this spatialised awareness of time, and conscious but essentially undefinable *feelings/sensations* with pure duration, I’m not sure why he views one more positively than the other. Admittedly, I did quite like the notion of the latter because it seemed vaguely Buber-esque, but I don’t that’s what Bergson was going for. I can see here, too, how his ideas in this regard might tie with the ideals of the dude that firebombed Foucault in defence of the pursuit of all that jazz, in that it seems like a notion easily appropriated for discussing the influence of ideology on subjectivity etc.. His obsession with numbers and divisions in this respect I also find a bit problematic; Deleuze has a point when he says that the term ‘multiplicity’ is too often glossed over…!
    Anyway, apologies for the mini-essay born of a tired brain but, like I said, I did genuinely really enjoy reading this (not sure what that says about my life really, but there you go) and so I wanted to make some kind of acknowledgement/contribution!
    Now, though, I’m going to go count homogeneous sheep and then experience some true duration.

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