Sunday, 28 August 2011

The (Dis)order of Time.

I can still remember the first day I set foot in the plastic amphitheater at university three years ago. I was younger and more naïve, for sure, but I had an underlying confidence in that it was a beginning, no one expected too much, there were one thousand eight hundred and twenty five days left until I had to emerge enlightened into the ‘real’ world. We were there to be educated. Things seemed simple, straightforward, organised. 
             “Don’t let the calendar fool you, guys,” Nigel, our course leader had said, “time is going to fly by.” We all nodded in disagreement, of course, for we were not stupid, we knew how long three years would really last, it was a whole seventh of the time I’d already been alive, and it felt like a lot.
But today, as it usually does, time crept up behind me, slapped me on the back of the head and whispered “Get your act together, boy, you’ve only two weeks left and a load of decisions to make.” Time has literally flown by and, if anything, I’m more confused now than when I started. I thought time would have given me answers, but instead, I find myself in the present being bombarded with questions of the future when the past seems to have all but eluded me, and I only wish I’d taken old Nige’ a little more seriously. 
I often find myself asking, “How do you measure time?” In seconds and minutes, rotations of the sun, heartbeats, sleeps, or, more simply, your consciousness’ awareness of time, how much time you feel has gone by… “It feels like forever since I’ve seen you!” “Seems like only yesterday that you were born!” … For Isaac Newton, time was a dimension, like space, in which events occur and therefore something that can be scientifically mapped and proven. 
Though, for philosopher Immanuel Kant, time is neither an event nor a ‘thing’ and thus is not itself measurable nor can it be travelled. He believed that time is merely a fundamental intellectual structure that allows humans to comprehend sense experience, an idea that helps us understand the world. 
So when I try to contemplate time and make sense of my time at university, what I have experienced, how I have changed or grown and, most importantly, where it leads me to next, I find myself flicking through an unfinished autobiography that is becoming increasingly illegible with every page.

So how do we individually understand time? When looking back over my days at university, and back I must, it is easy to say that I attended that first lecture on the 24th September 2008, or that I spent much of that year with my head over a toilet seat rather than over a desk, in fact, I could probably tell you exactly what I was doing each month until now, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be accurate because just like youthfulness, memory deteriorates over time. The ancient Greek philosophers mused that humans were walking backwards through time, forever watching what has been but never what is to come. This ancient idea is summed up by the modern concept of the Arrow of Time. We are moving forward through time but we may only see backwards, this is why we don't see a spilt glass of water jump up and go back into the glass or a broken egg reform itself. I mean, ask yourself why your childhood pet now more resembles a potato than an animal, or why that book you can’t put down got thrown out with the rubbish, or why even your dad can’t hear a word you say anymore? The answer is entropy: it’s the universal law that, with time, matter will probably fall into disorder and it is purely because we are doomed to see only the past (and that past is forever deteriorating) that we as humans allocate so many hours attempting to organize and make sense of our histories.
This is the humorlessness of the Arrow of Time; the inevitable, perpetual constant that time will move forward and not backwards, allowing us to regret things that we will remember forever. Allowing me to regret not having used these three years just a little more efficiently.
  Chronology and the past, then, are a large part of how we perceive time. I am not surprised to find myself sitting here because I can order the events that lead me to this point; I woke up this morning, I walked to the car and drove to the library. Before that I had ate tortilla wraps and watched Liverpool thrash Fulham five-nil at Craven Cottage on T.V. Before that I had to dash from university to let a meddlesome estate agent into the flat… and so on. The further I go back, however, the less detail I can recollect, only certain moments or places, and what’s more, the time that has actually elapsed seems to dissipate too.
Think about it. How long was it since you ate last night? How long does it feel? When history and memory are our only real gauge of the past and, as empires and dictators have shown us, history can be held to ransom by those in the present, and if memory too is insufficient, can the past really tell us much of time? I mean, how long does it feel like since I started university? Certainly not three years by the clock or the calendar. It feels like no time at all.

So if it is the past, then, that allows us to organize time, it is the present that allows us to experience it. Very much, in this postmodern age, our capitalist culture focuses on the individual’s experience of the present. We are taught from a very young age, urged even, through media and advertising to exist for the moment. Companies, for example, can now signify complicated emotions such as desire in sensational adverts that take only a few seconds to register, implying that these complicated emotions are as quick to achieve as spraying on the latest Calvin Klein cologne. Everything is being miniaturized, personalized and “revolutionized” to the extent that, at any point in time, we have the technology to be connected to everything and everyone else in the world. It used to take months to send word to Australia, now it’s matter of milliseconds. Globalization and consumerism have warped society’s sense of time; everything has to be quick and snappy. Fast food and online banking. Time certainly is money. If the world is perpetually moving faster, then surely so is our sense of time? And surely that’s why, so often, the old, riddled with entropy, get left behind?
For Kant time was immeasurable, and though the argument against this is painstakingly obvious, our timing system isn’t perfect. Leap years, for example and the UTC, the GMT and eastern and western time. What about all the recent confusion with daylight savings and America moving their clocks back a week early? It proves our system of mapping the light of the sun is imperfect, and thus, our concept of time is imperfect too. The present, then, lies very much in the self’s own consciousness of it. Sleeping and dreaming are the most explicit examples of our skewed perception of time. Time felt dreaming couldn’t possibly represent any amount of minutes or attoseconds[1].
Or, imagine two men who are exactly the same, one sleeps a lot and dies at sixty, whereas the second one sleeps very little and dies at fifty-five, which one will have lived the longest?
Music, to me, is one of our greatest links to the flow of time, for it illuminates, even embosses the present, and that’s because it reflects our own internal clock - the beating heart. The tempo of music is measured in beats per minute, BPM, just as the heart is and that’s why you can really feel a beat. You can predict when a song is going to break down or speed up because rhythm is inbuilt within you from birth and that’s why different music can be satisfying for different emotions, upbeat when your exited, slower when your exhausted. I’ve spent countless hours listening to music over the past three years, in all manner of situations, and its ability to affect the senses truly makes me feel the present. This is no more apparent than when I’ve been at music events or festivals. You can see people dancing, feel the pressure of the bass, and hear the rhythm and the beat, all in a single moment, and it really allows you experience the flow of time. But maybe it’s because I was enjoying the present so much, that I forgot to plan for the future. 
            So if we consider that the past allows us to organize time and the present lets us feel time, then where does this leave the future? Maybe it is how we truly understand time, for if we couldn’t imagine anything ahead of ourselves, we wouldn’t be human. The fact that we can process our thoughts into words and ‘plan ahead’ is what makes us different from all other life.
Language has taken place of instinct.

But just like the immediate past, the immediate future is not out of grasp. I can vividly picture myself walking to a shop and collecting the ingredients for a meal, then cooking and eating it, it’s as easy as walking out the front door, but it is those years ahead that we find impossible to imagine.
 How often have you wondered what your life will be like in ten years? For me this question, now (with university done and dusted), is all the more grating because I feel like I’m at the edge of precipice looking down into a chasm in which I can’t see the bottom. Should I jump straight in headfirst or lower myself down carefully, or just hang on the edge for all eternity in the same place? I have so many options in front of me that it’s becoming a double-edged sword. I could see and do amazing things, I could live a happy and fulfilling existence, but I could also make one wrong decision and end up flattened by a flatbed lorry tomorrow, or worse, get stuck behind the tills at Tesco’s for the rest of my working life.
            If we delve into the realm of religious thought however the future can be an entirely different beast. If one believes in fate or a Divine Plan, then our decisions are less important because whatever happens we will end up in the same place and the end of time. The belief in reincarnation, too, skews our concept of the future and bends the Arrow of Time into a circle, a cyclical life. Nietzsche often considered the question of Eternal Return; that the universe has been recurrently repeating itself and will continue to do so through infinite time and space, that we will relive our lives over and over again forever, like a Groundhog Day but much, much longer.
            So I come to a point where Time itself is just as illusive as it ever was. I can reflect on a hazy past but I cannot hope to predict the future. When even just looking at this piece of writing, I try to consider how long it has taken me to write it? Is it the time I’ve spent physically writing it, or thinking about it? Or is the time taken for me to go through the education system, to have learnt to process my thoughts and understand the world enough to bring me to this point in which I can write it? Whatever the answer is, time will forever be fluid. The past can be bent or confused, the present can trick us and the future is just a mystery. So all we can do is… be prepared to accept that we will never master time, I guess. Or believe in some form of eternal return, but even Nietzsche himself called the thought of it, “Horrifying and paralyzing.”           
            These three years have gone by without me realizing but when I really think about it, I’ve taken a lot from the experience, I may not have a divine plan, but at least I’ve got a choice. After seventeen years of education; GSCE’s, A levels and now a degree, it seems that overall, after all this time spent learning, I find myself highly informed, but a hell of a lot more confused.       

[1]10−18 of a second – Shortest time now measurable.

No comments:

Post a Comment