Volume 3 : Cover Topic - Time and Cinema (3)

Remembrance of Images Past: Cinema, Memory and the Social Construction of the Concept of Time

Sitabhra Sinha


"[An era's image of thought is] the image thought gives itself of what it means to think, to make use of thought, to find one's bearings in thought.''
- Gilles Deleuze (What is Philosophy ?, Columbia University Press, 1996)

1. Introduction: What is time ?

When we think of time, the most characteristic image that comes to our mind is that of an ever flowing river. This directionality of time, the feeling that it flows from a past" to a future" is what we call the arrow of time". This is something of a puzzle, as there is nothing in the basic laws of physics which suggests that time is asymmetric, that one direction of flow is more valid than another. And yet, we do indeed sense intuitively that time seems to flow in a specific direction, the present" of the now" constantly slipping into the past" and being replaced by the future". The medium of film has provided us with the most concrete illustration of this. Consider the film record of some everyday occurrence. The moment one sees it in the reverse sequence from the one in which it was recorded, the viewer realizes that something is wrong. The film somehow doesn't feel right". Indeed, the picture of a notebook catching fire and burning to ashes, shown in the reverse order, was used to indicate a supernatural occurrence in one of the episodes of Satyajit Ray presents". So why is it that we associate directionality with time although this is not supported by the basic laws of physics? Is directionality an essential property of time? What indeed is time, that we should be mindful of its arrow ? Wittgenstein has cautioned us that the question "What is time?" is an invalid question. As he demonstrates in his posthumous masterpiece Philosophical Investigations", language is about usage, not about meaning. Words make sense only in context; the meaning of isolated words or “concepts” is at best ambiguous, at worst nonexistent. So, while "What is the time ?" is a perfectly commonplace and valid question, only a madman or a philosopher asks "What is time ?"

So granted that the platonic concept of time is not a fruitful subject of enquiry, can we try to at least find out what is it that we mean when we use the word "time" ? In particular, is the "arrow of time", the sense that time flows in a given direction (namely from the past to the future - which again are terms we are using without defining them - but let's not get into that now), merely a convention or somehow rooted in our conception of reality ? And how has cinema, the great 20th century art affected our conception of time and its arrow ?

We seem to use the word "time" mostly in the context of expressing a particular sequence among a set of given events. When we say that event A has taken place after event B, which in turn took place after event C, we have somehow arranged three events. So time is actually a relation expression, used to denote which of the pair of events A and B occurred earlier. A relation (e.g., time) is distinct from an entity (e.g., an event), and it is unreasonable to think about relation in the same sense as we think about an entity. Unfortunately, our language enables us to formulate the same type of questions about relational expressions as we ask about entities. Here at least, we seem to have located one of the sources of puzzlement concerning the nature of time.

2. Memory, causality and the nature of time

If time is only a relational expression which we have somehow confused to be an entity, the next question that comes to mind is why are we so concerned with relations among entities (events) in the first place ? This obsession with relations can be traced back to two particular features of the human mind: memory and the belief in the principle of causality. First, in the absence of memory, we are aware of only the event taking place “now”. The question of finding relations among different events do not even arise, as, when using the concept of time, most often we are actually relating two past" events that are recorded in our memory. Secondly, we believe events to be causally related, rather than independent and random (and therefore uncorrelated) events. This belief in a principle of causation drives us to always arrange events in our memory so as to obtain the best sequence which makes sense". The principle turns a simple relation among events A, B, C stating A is followed by B which is followed by C" into a much more meaning-laden arrangement implying that A causes B, which in turn causes C".

The relational nature of time is essential as an organizing principle of our memories of events past. At every instant, our senses are bombarded with an endless barrage of external stimuli. To avoid being swamped by this sensory deluge, we have put in place filters" to process this information. We select and arrange our sense perceptions to achieve the most coherent pattern connecting them together. The causation principle is then a pattern-detection mechanism. By providing a theory of how the world works" it allows a very efficient arrangement of our memories that we require out of evolutionary necessity. An intelligent entity can never make rapid decisions (and therefore survive in a hostile environment) without having some hard-wired organizing principle.

Let us return to the topic of memory. What gives us the sense of continuity of time" is a particular kind of short-term memory, part of which we call persistence of vision" (or what is known, more broadly, as the Phi phenomenon" in Gestalt psychology). A person without such short-term memory is always living in the present, an infinite series of now"s, as is the protagonist of the film Memento". This is brought home by looking at how film produces the illusion of seeing movement, although what we actually see are a set of discrete images, each of which is a static representation of reality. Seeing each individual frame, we know that they are merely images, signifier rather than the signified. For instance, if I make a film of a piece of paper catching fire and burning to ashes, then the individual frames will make as much sense whatever sequence we see them in. It is only when the images are projected in sequence at a certain rate (faster than 12-15 pictures/sec) that certain sequential arrangements will appear to be more valid" than others. It is the process of assembling together a reality" by using memory as the synthesizer that induces in us a sense of the arrow of time. It is interesting that an analogous joining" process takes place in spatial perception, as seen remarkably in visual paradoxes such as the "impossible object" optical illusions (e.g., the never-ending staircase in Escher's "Ascending and Descending"). Each part of such an image, when separately attended to, is perfectly valid. However, when we try to meld the parts into a coherent whole, we confront a contradiction. The different parts turn out to be mutually inconsistent. The image appears a puzzle precisely because we cannot give attention to it in its entirety but necessarily have to attend to it part by part, and then use our short-term memory to join them together in our mind. The overall image seems wrong to us because we feel that the image components somehow do not belong together as they cannot be related together in the “reality” of three-dimensional space. This is a spatial analogue of the "arrow of time". Just as the individual pictures of a pile of ashes, paper burning and an unburnt paper, were perfectly valid images in isolation, but seemed wrong when seen rapidly in sequence, the image parts of the impossible object" make sense when seen separately, but fail to be a meaningful signifier when seen in relation to each other. And just as the root of the arrow of time lay in our acceptance of the principle of causality, the apparent puzzle of the impossible object lies in our assumption that the drawing is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object. Had we not made this assumption, has we just seen the drawing as a series of lines on a piece of paper, then the illusion would have ceased to be a puzzle. It is an impossible object" only as an outcome of our convention of interpreting images, which is a product of our culture. The arrow of time similarly is a concept arising out of our acceptance of a particular socio-cultural convention.

3. Reality vs Art: "Real time" vs "reel time"

The pattern that we impose upon reality is something that is entirely personal and subjective. There is nothing intrinsic in events taking place in reality that suggests the choice of an unique pattern. This is the key to understanding why the human species is so obsessed with the creation and consumption of art". Art is a simulacra of reality with one crucial difference: we expect every component of a work of art to be relevant. We expect a work of art somehow to have more meaning" than reality. As Stanley Cavell, the philosopher of film put it .. in the arts, everything matters." In contrast to reality, where we have to infer a pattern from a selection of sensory impressions, in art the pattern is evident, constructed deliberately by the artist by the selection and juxtaposition of elements. By pattern" I mean a particular arrangement of the parts making up the whole (e.g., the sequence of events making up a process) that gives the observer a simplified, coherent and generalizable impression of the whole. The perceived pattern makes the whole both more (because of the added meaning" and its generalizability to other contexts) and less (because of the simplicity of the pattern compared to the complexity of an exhaustive listing of all the parts) than being merely a sum of its parts. This brings us to the question of why reel time" appears to be so different from real time", why is it that we expect a certain duration in a film to be more packed with events than what we expect in reality. When confronting everyday reality, we have trained sensory filters that know when to ignore a stimulus - and conversely, when a stimulus is relevant. A work of art, on the other hand, is a microcosm with its own rules and conventions. When confronted with this alternate reality" we don't know what to select as relevant and what to discard as irrelevant. As happens when confronting a novel stimulus, we decide every component is relevant. So, if a work of art shows entities that we have learnt to ignore in real life, we give it our conscious attention. This is the source of the great power of art to confront us with situations that we have become indifferent to. However, if the parts turn out to be irrelevant for the construction of the overall meaning of the whole work, we feel frustrated.

Consider a shot of a person getting down from a vehicle and walking for five minutes towards a door. This is a frequently occurring event in our daily life. However, if this shown in a film in real time, we will get impatient. That is because, in real life, we are not really consciously attending to such scenes. Although, objectively, the event has a duration of five minutes, we have spared almost no moments of our conscious attention time" to the event. Once we are aware of this difference between real time and time as we perceive it, we realize that there really is no duality between real time and reel time".

4. The arrow of time as a social construct

Film forces us to confront the nature of time, not only in terms of how we experience durations but also in terms of its directionality. To discuss thus in detail, let us consider the origin of the concept of an arrow of time". As discussed before, it is not an intrinsic property associated with the idea of time, but rather a product of the socio-cultural setting of a particular period. What is it about our present society that begets this imagery ? The obsession with linear time, which can be measured in definite, accurately quantifiable units, began with the widespread advent of wage labor, i.e., an economy where the worker no longer owns the means of production, but rather sells man hours" of his labor to the one who owns the means of production. Time (specifically, the worker's productive time) itself became a commodity, and as such, an item to be carefully measured to ascertain its equivalent in currency. In contrast, in a society dominated by an agrarian economy, labor is governed by the cycles of nature (day - night, the seasons) and the concept of time is that of a cycle, a cycle of life and death following each other ad infinitum. The conception of time as a raw material for production, flowing out to be lost forever, does not arise in such a background. Industrial activity, which does not follow any natural cycle, has no such periodic ebb and flow of production. Any time not put to use productively (i.e., to manufacture even more goods) is time lost forever. Efficiency depends on assembly line production, where a relentless pace dictated by machines controls the life of the worker. Time is seen as analogous (if not identical) to the conveyor belt carrying the components to be assembled, and any item not worked upon at the right instant is an item lost. Is it any surprise that directional time became the dominant image of time in the industrial age ?

Such an imagery even finds expression in the intellectual and cultural ideas of the age. E.g., the theory of evolution is projected as progression" from lower organisms to higher ones, the peak being the human species. This apparent flow of the evolution of life from the simple to the complex has often been placed as evidence of the directionality of time. But this notion of progress" in the evolutionary process, as has been pointed out by Stephen Jay Gould (among others) is a cultural myth that has reinforced itself by being repeated enough number of times, without any actual evidence to support it. This is just an example of how the prevailing contemporary notion of the nature of time (which is a social construct in the first place) colors the cultural expression of that age, and these cultural expressions in turn reinforce the social construct. This vicious cycle of mutual reinforcement is what makes a particular concept the dominant idea, the leitmotif of that age.

The contemporary image of the nature of time permeates the very nature of the art forms that prevail in a certain era. A society built on the economic basis of mass-production, will also require mass-produced entertainment like the cinema. The pace of life itself dictates the form of the dominant art form: vast rambling epics incorporating hundreds of strands of separate stories can no longer be written in the industrial age, which favors the more directed, faster paced, linear narrative of a novel.

The linear narrative, the dominant form in the narration styles of novels and films, is a direct outcome of the arrow of time" concept. The narrative style, in its turn, affect how we think about time. Indeed the pervasive influence of film colors the very way in which we think of temporal processes: we recall past memories in flashbacks", go through emotionally charged moments in slow motion", have premonitions as flash-forwards" and in climactic moments, experience freeze frames". Such imagery is so pervasive that we tend to forget the essential differences between film and the way our minds work. Take the case of memory. We seem to have accepted that human memory acts like a mental projector of a film record of past events. We forget that unlike film which is a passive record, human memories are active. Our memories are malleable, constantly adapting themselves based on later experiences, such that the way we remember the past (and what we remember) is very much a function of our experience in the present. Yet, such cautionary comments get washed away in the face of the enormous power of films. As James Monaco writes in his book How to read a film": To a large extent... the cinema helps to define what is permissible culturally: it is the shared experience of the society ... In the age of mechanical reproduction, fiction has a force it never had before." As Hollywood has spread its influence far and wide, its linear narrative tradition has infiltrated across different societies and cultures, stamping the directional concept of time into the collective unconscious of the world. And yet, at the same time, other films have tried to subvert this dominant notion of time as an arrow and the principle of causality. The contingent nature of reality, as revealed in the unfolding sequence of events, is shown to be crucially dependent on seemingly innocuous preceding events in the film Run, Lola, Run", which both underlines and undermines causality. At one level, it demonstrates how every action or event sets off a chain of secondary events leading to completely different outcomes (bringing to mind the concept of butterfly effect", the sensitive dependence on initial conditions observed in chaotic systems); in another level, it questions the inexorable" dependence of the outcome on its putative cause. If the smallest, most insignificant action can have immense unpredictable consequences on the outcome, then it is meaningless to talk about cause and effect. In a universe where infinite number of variables can be perturbed, any event can influence any other event in a completely
unpredictable manner. It is then no longer even meaningful to talk about "causes"s; all events are stochastic, being simply chance outcomes of the random combination of an unknown set of variables. To mention just two other films which have similarly questioned the prevailing concepts of temporality: Pulp fiction" turns the directional narrative form on its head, destroying the myth that to understand the totality of events we must know the correct sequence in which they occurred (continuity of action), while Memento" underscores how crucial is memory, and hence our assumptions about the continuity of time, to the belief in causation and an arrow of time". **5. Conclusion: Time and film in the information age** What then is the fate of our belief in the directionality of time. The arrow of time, as have seen, is very much a product of the factors that gave rise to the Industrial Age. At the present moment, when we are at the transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, is our concept of the nature of time also due for an overhaul ? The world of film is also seeing major changes, as the film experience gives way to multimedia, a combining of forces between film and another 20th century invention, the computer. In fact, the computer may be called the machine" of our era, as it is solely responsible for the next great change in the human social condition since the Industrial Revolution. Its influence on both film content and form is just beginning and will surely not be limited to just films of the cyberpunk genre (e.g., the Matrix"). This gives us a hint of what might underlie the next social construction of a concept of time - the Turing machine, the archetypical universal computer, a machine capable of simulating any other machine given the appropriate program. And to our surprise, we see that it shares the same basic features of a film recording/projecting system: a read/write" head and an (infinite) tape containing the data as well as the instruction set (the program) [For a parallel argument on the centrality of the Turing automata to film theory, see Amitava Nag's essay on Art, film, digital technology and beyond"]. The process of computation does not involve an arrow of time; the development of time in the automata is equivalent to the dynamics of the read/write head of the Turing machine. The dynamics does not differentiate one direction with another, and therefore, the directionality of time is an alien concept here. Are we then at the threshold of an era where people will consider the arrow of time" to be an obsolete concept ? And what form of art will be born out of the new conception of time which will replace it ? Prediction is a risky proposition in such fluid times. However, we can be confident of at least one thing : Films, or rather multimedia, guided by a philosophy informed by automata and information theory will be at the vanguard of this coming socio-cultural revolution.


1. James Monaco, "How to Read a Film: The World of Movies, Media, and Multimedia: Language, History, Theory", (Oxford University Press; 3rd edition, 2000)
2. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, "The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge", (Anchor Books, 1967)
3. David N. Rodowick, "Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine", (Duke University Press, 1997)
4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Philosophical Investigations", (Blackwell, 3rd edition, 2002)
5. Ray Monk, "Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius", (Verso, 1991)
6. James Gleick, "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything" (Vintage, 2000)
7. Melissa Clarke, "The Space-Time Image: the Case of Bergson, Deleuze, and Memento", Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol 16 No 3, pp 167-181 (2002)
8. Alexander Sesonske, "Time and Tense in Cinema", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 38 No 4, pp 419-426 (1980)
9. Amitava Nag, "Art, film, digital technology and beyond" Silhouette Vol 2(2003)
10. Robert Wright, "Three Scientists and Their Gods" (Times Books, 1988)
11. Douglas R. Hofstadter, "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid", (Basic Books, 1979)



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