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.