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Friday, February 17, 2012

Simultaneity 2: Bergson and the industrialized experience

In the first chapter of Creative Evolution (1907), Henri Bergson takes up one of his most celebrated themes, durée, and refines it in response to his further thought on the matter since he had first exposed his idea in données immédiates de la conscience, in 1888.  In reading Bergson now, one can’t help but be struck by the metaphors of unwinding, unreeling, and tracking that go through his discourse on time. That metaphoric is usually associated with film, and it is with good reason that Deleuze turned to Bergson in writing his two books about cinema. However,  I’d like to make the case  that it goes back to what Schivelbusch has named the industrialized experience – the experience of speed on the railroad – and that underneath the surface of Bergson’s philosophy of time we have an image of the dualism between the vehicle and the driver or passenger, which is part of a larger dualism between industrial automatism and the worker.
That sense of the vehicularity of matter in which the organism is placed begins with a description of the continual changes we as consciousnesses are subject to. “This is to say tht there is not an essential difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state… precisely because we close our eyes to the incessant variation at ech psychological state, we are obliged, when the variation becomes so considerable that it imposes itself on our attention, to speak as if a new state were juxtaposed to a prceding one. The latter is supposed to remain invariable in its turn, and thus so on, indefinitely. The apparent discontinuity of psychological life thus depends on the fact that our attention is fixed upon it by a series of discontinuous acts; where there is only a gentle slope, we believe that we perceive, in following the broken line of our attention, the steps of a stairs.” [2-3 – my translation]
Compare this to the analysis in chapter 3 of Schivelbusch’s The Railroad Journey. For Schivelbusch, the exemplary industrialized experience was riding on a train, since even the first, primitive trains could achieve speeds that were more than three times that of stagecoaches. In other words, railroads introduced a completely inorganic mode of travel on a mass scale, and in doing so accustomed people to an inorganic form of speed. Schivelbusch quotes authors from the 1830-1850 period who were quite aware of what was happening, putting it in terms of ‘shrinking space” or, paradoxically, of expanding the individual’s capacity to reach distant spaces. This was put in contrast with the fact that the shrinking and expanding did not affect the actuality of things. “Yet by a sort of miracle,” says the Quarterly Review article [from 1839, which Schivelbusch is citing], after describing the shrinking process, “every man’s field is found not only where it was, but as large as ever it was.”[35] Indeed, after reading Schivelbusch’s abundant citing of articles of this type, one understands why Einstein’s popular essay on relativity used the example of the railroad train, as the trope was already long in the popular consciousness.
If we consider that Bergson’s theme of durée was also colored by the industrialized experience, then we can see further into the metaphor and metaphysics that grounds it. Evidently, from the first, Bergson draws a line between organic time – which is irreversible – and artificial time – the time of matter – which is reversible. These are not accidental results of the duality between the two, but go to the heart of their different temporal regimes:
“From the survival of the past [for the self] results the impossibility for a consciousness to traverse the same state two times. However much the circumstances may be the same, it is not on the same person that they operate… … This is why durée is irreversible. We cannot re-live a single bit, for it would be necessary to efface the memory of all that followed.” [6]
Bergson’s framing of organic time results in his re-discovery of the new: “But an intelligence, even a superhuman one, could not foresee the simple, indivisible form which gives these abstract elements their concrete organisation. For to foresee is to project into the future what one has perceived in the past, or to have represented for a new assembly later, in a new order, already perceived elements. But what has never been perceived, and is at the same time simple, is necessarily unforeseeable.”
Contrast this regime of the irreversible and the truly new with the regime of the material, which is how sameness enters the world:
“Now, we say that the composite object changes by the displacement of its parts. But when a part has quit its position nothing stops it from retaking it. A group of elements which has passed a state can thus always return, if not by itself, at least by the effect of an exterior cause which puts everything back into place. This is the same as saying that a state of the group can repeat itself as often as one wants and that, in consequence, the group never grows old. It has no history.”
An aging without growing old is the fate to which the mechanical, the artificial, composite matter, is consigned – whereas growing old and having the property of novelty is the seemingly contradictory state imposed upon the organism. True novelty and true age are properties of the ‘passenger’ within the vehicle of matter. The vehicle can reverse, but the passenger, inherently, cannot.  And so the two move together, but move in different worlds. As Schivelbusch puts it about the train passenger:
‘What was experienced as annihilated was the traditional time-space continuum, which characterized the old transport technology. Organically embedded in nature as it was, that technology, in its mimetic relationship to the space traversed, permitted the travellor to perceive that space as a living entity. What Bergson called the durée (duration of time spent getting from one place to another on the road)  is not an objective mathematical unit, but a subjective perception of time-space.” [36]
Schivelbusch, I think, wrongfoots himself by putting the matter in terms of the broad subject/object theme – rather, the irreversibility, or entropy, of durée points to a certain deep reversal of our expectations: for the illusion is all on the side of the vehicle, in that it seems from the vehicle’s standpoint that the eternal return of the same is the law and the prophets. On the other hand, the illusion of reversibility becomes, in the industrial experience, the tempo of human life. The ideal of non-aging, the ideal of the assembly line, the ideal of the vehicle, the ideal of interchangeable parts, all are imposed on the human: human novelty is supplanted by artificial news.  This is one of the great characteristics of the simultaneity principle behind Tarde’s publics.
‘… the railroad did not appear embedded in the space of the landscape, the way coach and highway are, but seemed to strike across it.” [37]

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