Critical Fantasy and Final Philosophy

In the opening scene of Final Fantasy VII, a black sky fills the screen as the camera pans across numerous individual stars and their constellations. Each star moves in conjunction with the other to give an impression that the space-scape is three dimensional and the point of view enmeshed with the tiny luminous objects in vision. The movement of the camera drifts aimlessly around and throughout the vast dark space of pixelated light sources slowly yet curiously. Some stars move quickly as if closer to the observer, some move very little giving the impression they are farther away, and the screen sways in empty space allowing these stars to express their relative distance. The whole scene is indeed wondrous and enchanting – one feels absorbed in this vast world, yet more actively attending to it. One’s gaze is in constant motion but at an uneven pace; without a clear direction any point of light in this cosmos can be attended to, yet none catch the camera’s interest in particular. So we are left wandering through the mere specs of light in the otherwise emptiness of outer space.

Suddenly a flower girl’s polygonal face appears and the music kicks in (go find it: ‘FF VII Opening Bombing Mission’, I can think of no better intro music to an epic story). She walks out from a dark alley carrying flowers into a busy city street where cars rush pass blowing smoke out their tail-pipes amongst neon signs, ominous buildings, and other characteristics of a modern industrial slum. The camera retreats for a full look at the gigantic city surrounding a massive energy reactor towering above. You will learn soon that the city is Midgar, the dominant one on a fictional planet that harnesses the life energy of the planet to power it’s industry. Midgar’s influential mega-corporation Shinra utilizes this power from the “lifestream” to produce “mako” energy which then fuels its war machine; an obvious allusion to fossil fuel burning and the extraction of oil from the dead organisms of earth’s past. The planet is called Gaia(!) and it is in peril. Though clearly a fantasy world (it’s in the game’s title) the setting parallels the “reality” of our world offering a simplified version of the single most important process that drives the global economy into (very disproportionate) human prosperity at the cost of the planet: turning oil into energy. The basic premise of Final Fantasy VII is that while this lifestream is the source of all living beings, it is getting excessively tapped by industrial machinery angering the planet and stealing the source of its sustenance. This control of enormous amounts of energy allows a particular nihilistic villain named Sephiroth to attempt to bring about total annihilation on the planet, eradicating the impure humans who he dissociates himself from. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After the panorama of Midgar, a train is zoomed in on then stops at a station. Out jumps resistance fighters from the rag-tag insurrectionary group AVALANCHE who engage Midgar soldiers as they make their way to destroy an energy reactor – and one of them is you. You will kill many of these soldiers in this story (along with monsters, demons, hostile animals and the RPG like) being yourself once a member of this army now turned into an ecological guerrilla warrior. This is the beginning of your adventure: thrown into a sabotage mission as a mercenary you will reveal the dirty secrets of Shinra, travel the world with a rouge group of the best fighters from diverse corners of the world, and attempt to avert a grand apocalypse triggered by those who have consolidated enormous quantities of this magical energy without the best interests of the planet and it’s inhabiting organisms in mind.

This is a video game. A *game* which you *play* as an actor in the story making tactical battle decisions as you guide the lead character and his party through a bevy of threats, eventually saving this *fantasy world* from total destruction. This video-game, however, was made by the people at Squaresoft in mid-1990’s Japan and is trying to tell its players something. It’s not exactly imploring an audience to any action in the real world via a moral code, it’s forcing players into action inside a fictional scenario. In order to get to he end of this narrative, one must play it as a decision maker utilizing the various options in battle and exploring the world as it becomes more available. The story and the game mechanics have been crafted well before anyone gets to play the finished product; the made-up world is crafted before one picks up the controller. Progress in this story hinges on one’s participation inter-actively though and making good choices is crucial to finishing it. The strategizing becomes more complex and difficult as the game progresses along with the plot details, and though in an alternate and deliberately false world these games give players a sense of beings a vital part of a grand story. The peculiarities of these fantasy worlds provide a cover to persuade gamers into a certain style of thinking which must be uncovered in the translation from fantasy to real decisions: the player becomes the medium between worlds which gets to select the ideas which resonate with her/him.

One of the many things I love about Final Fantasy VII, (along with perhaps many of the millions of fans who profess to its grandeur as “the greatest game ever” – aside from the enchanting soundtrack of Nobuo Uematsu), is the first scene in which the player is dropped immediately on an attack against a corrupt corporation controlling the largest city on the planet effectively operating as a parasite on that planet. It begins like all epic poetry: it places you right in the middle of the struggle. The justification for the actions are filled in along the way of the mission (and they are strong), but the battle is on and you had better act fast – the world is counting on you. The game goes from an abstract cosmological wandering gaze to the smokey squalor of the slums to action! fighting! attack! Of course such an aggressive concept of action is dangerously simple and will need to be challenged itself. Between the cosmic perspective of the first shot and the forced raid that begins the action lies a vast chasm – as well there should be. This is after all a blog post of words and ideas (to get all reflective on you), and so far we’ve only gotten to a single fantasy world where one’s health and experience is measurable in numbers, battles are fought by taking turns selecting magic spells and ‘limit break’ special moves, and preparation is done by management of your character’s statistics.

The gulf of worlds that is maintained in fantasy literature and gaming allows for a message to be sent between them by way of metaphors, exaggerated and stylized characters, and clearly explicable scenarios. Keeping the setting in an ‘other’ place, the constructed story does not order or command a decision from the reader/player outside of the game but gives advice in the form of an example to be deciphered and translated. The freedom to strategize inside of this made-up world serves as practice though for implementing whatever ideas are of interest in the real world – but perhaps it should be called the non-fictional world. The fictional worlds offered up in stories found in texts, films, serialized t.v. shows, comic-books, and video-games resemble myths that require active interpretation of theme and meaning. Fantasy video games, especially those with epic stories, are a unique blend of strategy, storytelling, morality play. They send messages without dictation from a world that is not ours but nonetheless can inspire action in non-virtual worlds through hints and metaphors – once the audience has allowed the message to get through by engaging with it.

Fantasy worlds are not real. Anyone can see this – even those heavily attracted to them. Fantasies extract elements from daily life and place them into an ‘elsewhere’ adding magic and other strange entities that have had a constant allure to people throughout history. Simply saying “but it’s not real” is not enough of an indictment to stop people from involving themselves with them: fantasy basks in the illusion and takes it as far as the imagination will allow. This is a blessing not a curse when trying to illustrate a problem or evoke a sentiment – the preaching is executed by example not by dictation.


I’d like to shift gears and outline a certain way of thinking, a style, or tradition if you will that does not seek a bridge over the chasm of theory to action, illusion to reality, falsehood to truth, surface to core, nor the reverse direction but does not throw away the conceptual distinctions either. A theorizing that does not prescribe or dictate actions on the one hand, while on the other hand positively cautioning against theories that do rally and persuade its audience (and the leader/follower dynamic is required for those theories) that to act in a certain way is necessary or inevitable. As if the writer/creator had somehow discovered a formula for fate, the irresistible attractor, the end goal that will be arrived at eventually that now only requires the attention of good or rational subjects for an assured consent. This would be something like scientific certainty derived from the enormous success of the scientific method which, to be sure, has produced a great many truths. But while this method has given those who learn and experiment using it remarkable conceptual insight into material processes – from repeated of patterns human relationships to the interaction of elements at the core of stars – this success is thanks to the model’s, equation’s, and concept’s ability to predict future phenomena in controlled experiments. There is a particular philosophical disposition attached to scientific naturalism that is not exclusive to it which is under scrutiny here, not the practice of science itself.

While debates between naturalism and religion might circulate upon someone questioning science as the greatest bearer of truth and order in the world, I want to claim that the theoretical pretenses of some scientific programs of research are but one tradition that typify a tendency of theories to *explain* and so *rule over* or *settle* all phenomena in a domain commonly called *the* world in the singular. This means that scientific truths can fall in line with mystical and dogmatic truths upon forgetting its utilization of controlled environments and prediction. It is only by delimiting an experimental space separate from the world, abstracted from it as it where, that such a position with the entire world in view becomes possible. Modern European science always had the security of God as the ever present being holding together the world its laws and fundamental forces explained. Quantum physics has shattered that picture, and we still have not recovered.

Physical naturalists and religious mystics have a common impulse that we would do well to examine. The quarrels over who best represents the reality of the cosmos are like so many evil kings vying to become emperor – there is a problem common to them all. There is a reactionary tendency to dismiss scientific experiments that get the same results every successive time they are performed because science as a whole is “just a theory”. But if every-thing has a fictional partner and theory cannot be broken free from as soon as these questions are asked, then a different criteria for what counts as a valuable theory besides total causal certainty must be sought. A particular philosophical interpretation of recent work in physics and cosmology backs up the skeptical pluralism I advocate, and I merely claim that scientific truths (and any truths for that matter) contain or require a fictional/mythical supplement that need not be opposed to those truths but haunt them always.

Yeah, *merely* claim…

There will be time for these issues to come up later, but by way of this introduction I would like to describe a basic style of thinking, a *way* or Tao, made most explicit in the dense volumes of philosophy from Hume to Nietzsche to Deleuze (though also found elsewhere) which is an indispensable driver of the scientific method (if there exists such a method). Though often difficult to grasp and intentionally bewildering, the books critical theorists and/or philosophers leave for us can illustrate an extremely important operation that is at once a movement within formal theories and the material bodies they describe. A movement that does not overload either side of a binary opposition or take positions ’for’ where what it is ’against’ is seen as integral to the field or situation that such a position takes part in. Unsatisfied with option ’P’ or ’~P’, a restlessness shifts the perspective demanding an ’elsewhere’ or oscillating between them to stay vigilant for when that ’elsewhere’ appears.

This movement is actually as ”natural” as the physical laws claiming to represent Nature (in the sense that everything is supposed to be a part of nature) at a fundamental level though I humbly acknowledge that it is inexpressible without non-material signs and symbols. Nature in this theory escapes formulation by laws and using this critical theory entails inhabiting a place of constant tension in the nature-culture or natural-artificial divide; where motion is prolonged even when stuck in the middle of a conceptual distinction so as not to be captivated by any one. This movement won’t settle long enough to be articulated in the singular – a *being* – it remains elusive when positions, explanations, and conclusions are delimited. Emphasizing the intricate internal elements of a wholistic being or the larger environment outside a being instead of capturing the essence of said being shifts the focus to an ever wider or ever smaller perspective. This implies that ’nature’ as a word for what our laws, equations, and stories are “about” is inadequate. Deploying ’nature’ and the ’laws of nature’ takes the bait that it is *the* world we are doing research on, rather than that research being tightly woven in with it ecologically. This is the side-effect of accepting an equality between a thing and world: the cohesion we express denoting a ’thing’ becoming ’world’ results in a fantasizing of worlds.

Whatever laws or consistencies found in the structure of physical objects, the closer and closer their parts are observed as well as the more and more their surrounding environment is accounted for the more differences and dynamic relationships replace definitive beings and enclosed worlds. Quantum physics brushes up against these conceptual difficulties: the role of the observer in these isolated experiments must be examined itself in perceiving the object, or, the relationship between thing and its environment becomes the non-thing thing under examination. Far from a relativist or subjective force contrasted with objective analysis, this movement of relation is inscribed within and along with the concept of being itself: being as object, subject, essence, existence, God, or whatever. Nothingness accompanies beings wherever they go and however they manifest. The void both within and between beings forces us to focus on relations that are always in motion, change, and flux; relations can be systematized and observed but cannot be totalized. The critical movement characteristic of much philosophy and fantasy always demands an escape from such a totality – escapism contains an elemental force just waiting to be tapped into.

This has tremendous consequences for the way we *think* about scientific findings and the pretenses held by many hard scientists, yet does not stifle research or hinder experimentation in the scientific community. In fact, this movement is performed by scientists themselves throughout history as they challenge status quo, traditional dogmas, creating new models and formulas better at predicting an increasingly vast observable field. What is under attack is the dream, and I don’t hesitate to call it such, that the universe can be explained in complete form by a single theory or a single being. Both reflect a monistic concept that tries to subsume or overtake their other, their opposite, and so inhabit the place of the center in relation to the rest outside of it. A bid for power is at play here, one that goes deep into the structure of certain beliefs and rejects the charges of skepticism and pluralism. I shall endeavor to uproot these power plays in hopes that a different way of thinking about these concepts and practices can have a meaningful impact beyond fantasy.

It’s when a strict naturalism, reductionism, and/or representationalism come into the picture that the critical movement is lost. This does not banish these buzz words from general usage; it is when a theory and its posited thing, substance, and force become absolute wholes – central to *all* beings in *the* world – that the pressure against the fantastic mounts. This means a tension should be stimulated by mentioning ’reality’, ’nature’, and ’world’ – instead of an easing calm. These words should inspire curiosity and wonder, pushing one further and further on a quest for wisdom which may never end. These big words are all too often invoked to crush deviancy and bring people back to safe, familiar places that do not challenge common practices, no matter how questionable or destructive they may be. The universe is not static, if it still makes sense to speak of it as if from *outside of it*, it moves and self-organizes while the laws and theories we come up with do not. As good as we have gotten at predicting phenomona, isolating behaviors, and observing patterns, a persistent movement resists. The shortest way to describe this movement would be the movement of the question, so long as this question is joyfully baffling and without an answer in the time at which it is posed.


Why start with Final Fantasy VII before moving on to critical philosophy and science? What could fantasy possibly have to tell us about such theoretical musings? Fantasy in contrast to naturalism, reductionism, and representationalism internalized its own nothingness – it does not reject the empty gap separating it from “reality” but assumes it and in so doing becomes wonderfully creative. Its worlds are deliberately false but affirmative and very educational for the attentive reader, viewer, or player that interprets the message, adding a layer of enticing mystery that most realisms wish to cover up with *the* truth.

Of course it’s not true. Those fascinated by fantasy and mythology understand this much and to pass them off as mere flights of fancy misses something not just about the richness of language and the imagination but material world as well. Of course there is the risk of addiction, as with many habits, signaling a greater issue of excess not exclusive to interests in fantasy. I see the prospect of addiction as getting stuck inside one world common to many undertakings which would hinder a critical movement. We must remember that alternate worlds are meaningful and provocative in relation to each other, in connecting them via an inter-mobility. Seeking out new lands and territories with vigorous energy and a passionate motivation would eventually find its expression in literature given the right opportunity. The restless movement that seeks to both discover and escape covering can be gleaned from fantasy.

Okay, but why FF VII in particular?

While the battles are intense and the thrill of acting out an attack on an energy sucking power plant are a joy, neither the Shinra Corporation nor the city of Midgar are the ultimate enemy in this story. The strongest warrior on the planet is Sephiroth and he becomes so disillusioned and angered over the grotesque experiments with mako energy (extracted and condensed from the lifestream) and Jenova cells (gathered from a meteor of ages ago) that he turns on the planet and the humans altogether. Both he and the main character Cloud are a result of these experiments but Sephiroth falsely interprets himself to be the son of Jenova and sets out to bring the meteor crashing down to Gaia destroying the planet. At that moment the clash of Gaia’s lifestream and the meteor would be absorbed by Sephiroth so that he may become as powerful as a god, leaving behind the impure planet and its corrupted people to achieve a new existence. With his exceptional power as the greatest warrior, Sephiroth seeks only more power, this time transcending the category human and the planet from which they came.

In this story the enemy that must be fought to save the planet is a very powerful force in the form of a single villain that upon learning that he is a puppet for an evil empire and the product of a mad scientist’s experiments comes to reject the entire people and planet he was brought up with and devote himself to becoming one with a greater being – Jenova. Jenova is not of Gaia, she came from outer-space and knows only destruction – the “calamity from the skies”. This is but one way of coping with the prospect of a dying planet and being apart of (a major part in Sephiroth’s case) the process: reject the relationship with the planet and seek out a greater power, one transcending the environment and reaching a god’s existence – a god’s eye point of view.

Sephiroth does not care much for the cries of the planet. Seeking higher existence, one that leaves behind the others to their destruction and goes above and beyond them is one possible response to nihilism. Nihilism is more common today that we would like to acknowledge. How we deal with nihilism is perhaps the most crucial aspect in keeping us moving forward. When traditional values no longer can sustain hope for the future, there is a tendency to withdraw, let the world burn, a seek comfort in a more pure life form. We are caught in a trap of nihilism preventing a healing in the relation between us and the planet: Nietzsche’s last man, the final fantasy. An adequate response to the nihil is to allow it to accompany us wherever we go rather than cast it away for a perfect world. All worlds, the many worlds of pluralism, have a tinge of nothing. Worlds are a kind of fantasy.

The protagonist Cloud must wrestle with false memories, a delusion that he created for himself by assuming the life of his friend Zack. He then finds that he was created from a lab experiment of the same corrupt Shinra Corporation as Sephiroth, but his origin is much worse. Cloud is a failed copy of Sephiroth! Meant to duplicate his powers and become another super-soldier, Cloud chooses instead to fight Shinra and, more importantly, the one he was intended by his creator to become: Sephiroth. Cloud’s response to the nothingness of his illusory past is to forge a life amongst his new friends assembled together from the farthest reaches of Gaia and save it from destruction. Instead of reacting to the fakeness from which he came, the illusion of his origin story, he affirms the quest in the company of friends to avert a catastrophic future for Gaia. He is essentially life-affirming in accepting the nihil of his story before the game begins. Everything he thought was true about himself turned out to be a lie… but he makes a new life with friends gathered together by a common urgent problem.

The motive for extracting of the message from this fantasy story should be obvious.

The strategy I am employing involves finding what is critical in these fantasies – critical in the multiple meanings of the word – so as to inspire and provoke the reader in a way that finding the true meaning (with universal laws or codes) of the world could never do. By moving between worlds instead of ordering just this one world in perfect harmony, one can accept nihilism and pass through its stifling difficulties in a joy ever mindful of the an-nihilation that attaches itself not just to us but every being – Being itself. Fantasy fiction is capable of broaching this negativity and passing on something for us to learn from it outside of its worlds. In the transition from one world to the next, the interpretation is sharpened when the actor moving between worlds must select what is pertinent from one to the other. Making such connections and moving in and out of worlds can make one all the more critical of attempts at unification and totalitarian logic. In fantasy we can find the means to escape the logic of certitude, of completion, of tyranny – provided we stay in motion and use our ‘limit breaks’ wisely.


The attempt here is to get situated in an intense place between two nothings. The project is a further enhancement of Simon Critchley’s double meontology from ‘The Faith of the Faithless’. It is the difficult task of steering between poles that are both hazardous: the nothing of possible futures where one can place one’s hopes in and the nothing of a historical narrative at once political, subjective, and fantastic. When maneuvered well, with style and craft, this can lead to a creative outburst that avoids both excessive passivity and activity. I believe that it is in this weird space between two nothings that not only new expression becomes forged but expressibility becomes possible.

These are the kinds of issues I will try to examine in Critical Fantasies.
Until later, enjoy this FFVII inspired hip-hop from Mega Ran:
On That Day Five Years Ago
Cry of the Planet


Undead Temporality p.1

Casual talk is brimming with references to time. In common discourse we won’t hesitate to say “its in the past”, “the future is uncertain”, and even “live in the now!” because we share a sense of time that is indispensable to our communication and our projects. The familiar understanding that the present is composed of a single moment (now), past is a bunch of moments already gone by, and the future is a bunch of moments waiting to become present is immensely useful but begins to look strange when we reflect on time more deeply. Indeed, this idea of moments of time looks very weird when we try to isolate moments from each other, when they begin and end, to accommodate our notion of the present, along with the past slightly behind and the future lightly ahead. Perhaps a more fundamental experience is at work which demands a concept to change our thought of time.

Going too far too fast, one might conclude that moments only exist as conventions of our human practices as they have evolved, adopting a conception of time as a flow or stream that blurs together in continuum of some kind. Appeals to time as it is lived suggest a constant passing of time flowing steadily as the persistent metaphor of the river suggests. Yet our experience of time is never so uniform and the old phrases like “the time just flew by” and “the times are changing” express an uneven and non-rhythmic experience which plays out well in conveying a general mood. Temporality enters here as a way to distinguish between the lumping together of past, present, future, and the relations between them which characterizes a universal conception of time with the more simple conception of time’s passing.

The supposedly bare fact that time is moving and moving forward such that some times (the past ones) are gone is different than orienting oneself or a theory towards a coherent sense of present, past, and future. It is tempting to call this feeling of time passing the ‘source’ of a universal time of moments behaving like atoms marching in line. Then one could base time in ‘experience’ which could be alternatively subjective, lived, or human and in doing so subordinate the objective time of nows (the nows as discrete objects) to a more fundamental phenomenon. The objective time referred to could then be subordinated to an original temporality characterized as a general sense of time as it is lived: ‘the time of our lives’. But is Temporality more primordial than time itself?

It is from this question I would like to explore some of the main currents of continental philosophy, particularly in Deleuze’s dual conception of time as two distinguishable yet interwoven movements: Aion and Chronos. A unifying thread in philosophy can be uncovered in dealing with the question of time that can help create contrasts and forge distinctions on this common topic.

Time forces us to think. Time is absolutely necessary in a theory of existence and a theory of being (ontology) yet it looks and functions quite differently in the hands of individual philosophers and traditions. A shared sense of time is shattered the closer we look into it. Concentrating on the moment which is accessible to all, the time that is not malleable to subjective experience, only makes it slip away. Yet insisting that time is subjective or relative overlooks the obvious public nature of time and its ability to organize public life. Rethinking time going beyond the subject-object distinction will help in transforming ourselves and our thoughts because it pervades our daily discourse so thoroughly and seems to go beyond any individual experience and even the collective experience of humanity. The Aion – Chronos distinction coming from Deleuze will help reorient our coneptual thinking towards an ecological mode of temporality unhampered by the human/subjective vs. material/objective dichotomy.

The focus on time comes by way of David Hoy’s book The Time of Our Lives: A Critical History of Temporality which touches on many of my philosophical interests up to the near-present. Deleuze emerges from this genealogy of temporality as a figure allowing us to move beyond the constricting theoretical modes I’ve mentioned.

Hoy describes Deleuze “as a philosopher who transcends the category of postructuralism reconciling the contrasting phenomenological versions of Temporality that Husserl and Bergson propose. I label this solution “dual temporalization.”” (p.214). The double aspect of this theory of time is crucial because the demand for a unity that grounds or subsumes other ideas goes unheard. Having two alternate concepts within one theory preserves the tension created by time and temporality, letting the reader select Aion or Chronos as the situation requires. In the contrasting interpretations “the aura of paradox disappears, as there is nothing mysterious about viewing temporality both synchronically and diachronically, or transversally and longitudinally.” (p. 218). The tendency for a synthesis of time and temporality that grounds all phenomena of time into a presence (which turns out to be the Chronos) becomes with Deleuze but one reading beside the fragmentary splitting up of the coherence of time into the past-future (Aion).

Before going into the unique qualities of Aion and Chronos and the shortcomings of previous theories of time Hoy works through to get to Deleuze, I just want to float a reminder that how we perceive time has ethical and political consequences along with their metaphysical significance. The conceptual clarity called for in metaphysical articulation can become cumbersome for expressing the practical difference it makes in our lives. Though stylistically necessary, the dryness and attention to detail can turn people off if it strays too far away from more immediate concerns. Part of the reason for choosing time as a subject is that, like the weather, time is one of those basic topics permeating our interpersonal relations with one another; tapping into those relations means radical shifts in thought will be more plausible. As time rarely goes unthought of, its meaning is still often taken as common sense – without even the possibility of being thought otherwise. A new time could mean the beginnings of a new organization of life, a new society, a new existence… the sky is the limit, or so it seems.

Hoy’s book moves through the history of western philosophy explaining what some of the great figureheads such as Kant, Hegel, Neitzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and Deleuze thought of temporality. The list is heavy tilted on the Continental side and follows phenomenology up to postructuralism, with Deleuze coming out as the clear focus at the end in terms of moving forward into the future – bearing in mind the repeatable in the past and the uncertainty of the future. While Hoy designates four strategies of reconciling time and temporalization, including Deleuze’s, the latter is “a more considered and reflective attitude” that one could say is most effective:

“The synthesis of the previous three attitudes can potentially be acheived by a temporalization that combines a forward-looking attitude that is fully informed both by sympathy for those who suffered past injustices as well as by practical sense for present possibilities. For Deleuze, of course, reconciliation is not a synthesis in the sense of a merger or a unification of the two senses.” (p.221)

Moving forward must not be confused with a bid for unification, but neither can the act of convergence and collection be repressed. Be it meditating on ‘the present’, planning a simple trip, or strategizing on a political formation, conflicting movements of convergence and divergence – coming together and breaking apart – will find their way into the action. Giving both movements their due with a mythological name assigns reference points from which to discern which concept reflects the needs of the continuation of time, so that one is not resisting the multiple conceptualizations of time itself. There are far more motions and powers for the two beings than just convergence and divergence as we will see, but they are opposing forces that nonetheless require each other in a certain way. Aion and Chronos have particularly stood out long after reading Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense not in the least because of their mythological origins. Perhaps adding Gaia into the mix could infuse space into these concepts of time… Not yet at least.

Starting with Chronos, we get the sense in which time seems to be rolled up into the present in a continuity composed only of the present. This is much like the mystical sense of time which treats the past and the future as illusions against the reality of the now. Taken farther than the particularity of the moment, existence itself can be thought in the mystical fashion to be a single being – one world to match the steady movement of present time. Here intuition plays a big role: a feeling of coherence and oneness accompanies lived experience whose truth is intuited over and above any sequence of present moments extended into the past or the future. Temporality in this intuitive sense is the primordial experience of things coming and going, moments fading, and the finitude of any present moment. It is the temporary quality of moments of time, i.e. having duration, a beginning and an end, that might lead one to posit the present as extending beyond its limits and into the unified dimension of time itself. The past and future are just illusions because we only experience Now temporally, but reality is recovered by expanding the present across all of existence fundamentally. This is simply the mystical appropriation of Chronos, but a similar tactic is used by non-mystical philosophers to ground time in temporality so as to prevent objective, mechanic, mathematic, or measurable time from dominating the theory of time. Before I sketch out the ways that has been done in phenomenology, Chronos and Aion need to be fleshed out a bit more so that we don’t need to trod through the entire history of continental philosophy to say pertinent things about time.

The Chronos side of the Chronos-Aion distinction in The Logic of Sense can be briefly summarized as “the greatest present, the divine present… the great mixture, the unity of corporeal causes among themselves. It measures the activity of the cosmic period in which everything is simultaneous… the regulated movement of vast and profound presents.”(p.163). The present exists undisturbed in Chronos, providing the coherence needed for the formal unity of the universe. The reality of bodies and the causes connecting them is lent credence by subsisting in the present, a present that moves in fixed cycles like the patterns of stars in the cosmos. The full range of corporeal bodies in their unity make up the present, and the completion that the time of the present directly brings to bodies gives the cosmos a real existence – undivided by the lost past or uncertain future. The distance between real bodies becomes unproblematic by invoking the immediacy of the present, everything can coexist regardless of anyone’s perception of it when the feeling of presence is extended into a universal. Similarly, the past and future, like the mere effects and passions of real, corporeal bodies, are false ideas; past and future cannot be said to exist with Chronos. Without negating the past/future, the two opposing directions disrupt the presence of the present that wishes to freeze the Now so as to be a feature of All.

Aion contrasts the unity of the infinite present by representing the troublesome cracking of the whole in the past and future. With Aion, “a future and past divide the present at every instant and subdivide it ad infinitum into past and future, in both directions at once”(p.164). Aion is the counter infinite to the present which extends itself always too far and in one motion but in two directions. It is a totally different movement that extends the present beyond its limit in a straight line (not a ray). In this movement of elusive going-beyond, the circularity of predictable rotations is shattered: “Always already passed and eternally yet to come, Aion is the eternal truth of time: pure empty form of time, which has freed itself of its present corporeal content and has thereby unwound its own circle, stretching itself out in a straight line.” (p.165) The effect of Aion is not the cohesion of bodies of matter with causes but incorporeal effects on the surface. Remaining on the surface of things and bodies allows Aion to bypass foundation of the present and extend infinitely, creating a “frontier” between physical bodies and the events and effects. The fullness of bodies and the solid order of causes of Chronos contrasts with a forever empty and ideal event which is a pure happening. Chronos = real beings existing in the present with circular repetition vs. Aion = ideal events on the surface without depth moving ever beyond.

With these two simultaneous movements and their mythological names we can gauge different theories of time and the ways they err on one side or the other. This is not to say all theories of time are doomed if they do not invoke the Chronos-Aion distinction. It is by utilizing anthropomorphic names and insisting on both being necessary yet opposing understandings of time that Deleuze avoids demanding his theory be the real one. The names could be exchangeable throughout different cultures and their assignment is due to historical legends and tales that have managed to survive. Neither have more existence than the other, both are impossible movements left alone, yet they form a relationship that makes existence in time sensible. One reason time is such a difficult topic is that it seems so universal, so communal, so easy to share but such a quagmire to explain. We have to admit statements like “we only live in the present” but the nagging sense of past presents gone by and the potential of future presents prevents our communication of time from satisfaction. Taking two conflicting yet relatable movements in Aion and Chronos to theorize time and temporality affirms a certain fictionalization required to even begin expressing an experience of time. Rather than insisting his theory is ‘real’, the real and ideal become two separate moments *within* the theory itself. The auto-reflexivity in such a theory is born out by the two names which obviously exist nowhere as physical bodies; caught between two nothings, we finally are able to make sense – to produce sense – instead of claim to represent time as it is objective or really experienced.

Indeed, the urge to express the true nature of time or temporality and so ground them in the present, or even in a lived flux temporally, is an expression of Chronos. Example of this style of thinking abound in religious, philosophical traditions. But in order to get there something has to be communicated, a distance has to be crossed between the present suggesting we have moved away from it. If we were always in the present it would need no explanation and be merely lived through in unison, but the fact that we speak and write of Nows that are no longer or yet to be means that within language a persistent tendency to veer off into that which is not (past/future) signals trouble. If only we threw off the burden of language and meditated or something, would the present then ‘be’ along with the rest of existence? Is the world retrieved and the time of the present with it by casting off language? Or is this merely one of Chronos’s tricks to establish the reality of bodies and reduce the world to one without the paradoxes of time – of only presence?

In spite of this objection, I will continue writing. There is an intuitive sense that when we exit discourse and cease communicating signs time keeps moving on. Intuition is not enough for a determinate verification, but that is not the point of Deleuze’s dual temporalization. Proving that time and temporality exist outside of language is a move of Chronos – it is essentially a move of absorption into the present. Covering itself over in taking its function as greater than the powers of language, Chronos can reign over the movements of time, things, and events by absorbing the difference created by the past and future – by Aion. The move to go beyond language from within language cannot be completed by Chronos, though it is in general the one that tries in such a way as to demand consensus in its wholistic activity. It is Aion, as it turns out, that creates the difference between the present – bodies and the past/future – event/effects that sets language itself into motion.

In language something is always expressed. It is most often in communication from one party to another, but the necessary component of language is the movement of a reaching out – in relation. For there to be something sensible, for bodies to be what they are and for a moment to be individual, it has to be relatable and in the transition of itself and it’s effects.

“It is what is expressed in its independence that grounds language and expression… The most general operation of sense is this: it brings that which expresses it into existence; and from that point on, as pure inherence, it brings itself to exist within that which expresses it. It rests therefore with the Aion… without it, sounds would fall back on bodies, and propositions themselves would not be “possible.”. Language is rendered possible by the frontier which separates it from things and from bodies…”

The gap here between bodies and propositions, the symbols and the things they stand for, is a creative gap. Both a language which offers a vehicle for expression and the things expressing themselves are mutually produced in their difference, which is also the place of sense. Sense cannot be stripped of its role in bringing to things and bodies their very existence in giving them the opportunity to be expressed; Chronos cannot keep the present from its relation to a past and future altogether different from it, closing the present off to that which gives it its meaning. This motion to close off of the present then has nothing left to do but express those limits in contrast to the universal set of all bodies: the expression becomes between the one and the all, a line segment instead of line extending infinitely in both directions.

That the relationship of the possibility of language, the express-ability of things in complex symbolic relations, is paralleled with a part-function of time is remarkable. The Aion is like pure relation going outward, never quite graspable in the way we say we perceive a body or experience a moment of presence. It doesn’t matter at this point whether it is the past or the future (there will be more to explain later), what matters is that there is something extra to material bodies, Nows, and individual signs that makes them relatable and creates sense; without it these individual entities would not, strictly speaking exist: “[sense] brings that which expresses it into existence” (p.166).

With this Aion – Chronos distinction in mind I would like to explore phenomenological and postructuralist conceptions of time working with David Hoy’s book, The Time of Our Lives.

Educating with Agony: on Alexander Nehamus’s Stanford Lecture

Just got out of a lecture that I snuck into at Stanford by the author of one of my favorite books and the best recent commentary on Nietzsche (Nietzsche: Life as Literature), Alexander Nehamus. It was one of a series on education and his was centered around self-fashioning and teaching without commanding. Instead of coercing students into following their thought and copy their style, Nehamus emphasized the kind of teaching that inspires a student to fall in love with something or someone, creating differences that make a difference. The distinction he makes is one between teaching by training – by molding students through technique from the master – and teaching about Goodness and how to live well. This comes from the Plato-Protagoras debate where Plato famously charged Protagoras with, beyond teaching his students to be successful (i.e. wealthy and skilled at persuasion), lacking the ability to teach the virtue which makes one a good citizen. Do academies teach success or virtue? This debate rages on today in other forms (here in America most of my friends from the old hometown think of college as a stepping stone towards a higher paying job; this is practically endemic to the culture though, and the college student debt might bring the financial system down *again*), and Nehamus drew attention to the embarrassing fact that the academies do not really make people less corrupt but do widen the scale of their crimes to a massive scale. Think of the institutionalized economic tradition that legitimates the criminal practices of financial institutions by claiming itself as a science when it is closer to moral philosophy… more on that later.

The Plato-goodness-virtue vs. Protagoras-success-corruption opposition is far too simplistic though since Plato himself set forth a program with the vision of a perfect Republic. He believed himself to be teaching his students to become good citizens in a good republic, the concepts of which he found by using the character of Socrates to discover them by reason. Socrates’ persistent questioning forms the base for reason which in turn provides the base for an objective and always-everywhere the same concept of Goodness. This gives him the authority to instruct his students at the Academy on how to be a good citizen where Protagoras cannot since he does not *know* the good. The knowledge of the good that Socrates-Plato demand in order to be good allows them to inspire curious students but it also tricks them into pursuing way of life set forth by Plato-Socrates while claiming they are after something greater in the eternal Form. Plato is merely replacing Protagoras as the educator while claiming that his program does more than either of them could: to know what goodness is.

The rote training by drill vs. education through an understanding of what is right cannot be a hard and fast distinction because one always has their own, or societies have their own, concept of what good is and claiming to teach. The good could easily wined up a more complete method of persuasion and attraction. Nehamus will reject both of these options and shift the role of the teacher into cultivating a uniqueness that is exceptional and different than what is thought by the teacher. His version of a good education will be one in which the teacher indirectly cultivates an interest of the student which goes beyond the thought of the teacher, sending the materials and tools one is provided with in unforeseen directions. There is a pluralism here of increasing styles and encouraging variety. Indeed I caught a quote of his while taking notes as saying that there is “an inherent value in multiplying styles”.

But being different itself is not enough to provide value on his account as he goes on to talk about “differences that make a difference” or differences that we notice and latch onto. Good teaching is not simply a matter of provoking one to be different for its own sake, but of challenging that difference to be distinct, admirable, and continue the provocation of thought. He made reference to the Greek word agon which means competition so as to emphasize the elevation brought about when contrasting forces come together and struggle with each other. The agonistic relationship contrasts with the commanding relationship of the authoritative teacher and the subservient student, the former supposedly drawing out the propensity to excel in both actors instead of keeping them in a fixed place. The hierarchy which results from the attachment to titles and labels keeps the bright-eyed incoming student on the path of their instructor and restricts their capacity for increasing differences, whereas a more horizontal relationship between supposed equals will inevitably lead to contestation – an increase in difference.

Perhaps it is the pre-existing differences inherent in the actors which are allowed to become luminous in a non-hierarchical relation. The competition that follows would then be the result a leveling off of peoples by removing institutionalized barriers that stabilize their identities. The pre-institutional, pre-individual fluctuations of different forces are allowed to be played out and played off of each other when the social influences of prestige and title are removed. Such an ideal situation of social equality and fair competition smells awfully close to the claims of meritocracy though, and this dream of relationships without hierarchy can turn easily into a trick like the one Plato used to convince his students they are all within the grasp of the Good, Truth, Beauty, etc. by following his program. Not to say Plato was willfully deceiving his students or anything, but the differences that Nehamus and I both wish to invoke – the ones that charge people up into exciting alternatives that are exceptional to the disastrous status quo – can be claimed when in effect the difference makes no difference, it does not *matter*. Obviously, the difference that Plato made was immense and way up there on any list of the most influential factors in Euro-Occidental-Western (ugh) culture, but we also might have reached a time when the difference is not producing a great enough effect.

It is all too easy for a revolutionary idea to be subsumed and repeated ad nauseum while the motion meant to stir things up sends us around in circles, leaving the center firmly in place. When a teacher sets out to inspire their students instead of command them, the traps of irony can snap the whole situation back into the inconsequential “difference without a difference” scenario. Just consider the isolation of the academy, the expenses leaving graduates in debt-topia, and the corporatization of the universities. What substantial effect could a non-authoritarian teacher have on the the landscape when it is enclosed by the academies which function on a business logic? It often feels futile to operate on the Platonic model when everywhere around you Protagoras’s treat higher education as a job factory, and its hard to blame individuals when the world demands you make money or get kicked out on the street like so much disposable waste.

Nehamus did not ascribe to either model: he used it to highlight the vast gap between the two that we find in the world of education today and how the same problems keep repeating themselves throughout history. The work he’s done on self-stylization and making one’s life into a work of art that drew me to his talk can be captured by marketers urging us to be “rebel consumers” if we don’t also do the tough work inter-subjectively, namely, arguing and contesting each other’s thoughts and beliefs. In order to avoid the trivializing of our differences there has to be an element of competition and not just a respect for the obvious differences between each other that make us all unique. Yes we are all unique, so what? Without the agonistic work of defending, attacking, and critiquing, those differences become indistinguishable after just one step back in perspective.

Nietzsche left academia in disgust to pursue his individualist journey (after making a name for himself within it) and this allowed for a fruitful life of writing. The self-stylization characterizing great works with a great impact might not find their audience and make the connection to the outside world(s) if mired in academic enclave. It is wonderful to find a good professor which pushes you into new and empowering directions. But great works require great problems too no? The escalation of skill in the agonistic relationship must start with actors on a similar footing, the same stage if you will. But it must also be allowed to spill over into other avenues of life or else risk obscurity.

It is with these thoughts that I contemplate grad school. Will it inspire and connect me to a greater network or comfort me in seclusion? Not to mention burying me in crushing amounts of work and debt. Help. Mutual agonizing anyone?