Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Polychronic - My New Favorite Word

In the Middle posts a review of Jonathan Gil Harris's Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare.

It seems really interesting, and I am particularly intrigued by what Harris calls the polychronic, "the simultaneous cohabitation of heterogeneous temporalities within a material object -- where materiality and temporality are active components of a hybridizing, mobile network rather than solitary and self-segregated pieces of a still world."

I like the idea of co-existing differences, but I also have an intuitive trust for this co-existence taking place in the plane of the material. That is, I like how the physical object becomes the text of an ensemble of diverse times. What's more, the physical and the temporal work, they create together, they have an impact in the world. They make the world ever different. Now, what's unclear to me at this point is to what specifically "heterogeneous temporalities" refer: different represented times (e.g., narratives and flashbacks), different representations of time (e.g., symbols and images of the past existing in the present), or different ontologies of time (e.g., reading "here and now" about the "there and then"). Maybe Harris means all three.

Jeffrey J. Cohen, the reviewer and Harris's colleague at GWU, explains the relevance of the ploychronic to medieval studies:
The arguments of Untimely Matter are as relevant to medieval studies as they are to early modernists, insisting that temporality can be thought as something other than straightforward, historicist chronology. Untimley Matter is pitched strongly against what Harris calls the "national sovereignty model of temporality," in which each temporal moment is essentially its own country, with its own rules and borders and determinations of meaning (p. 2). Against synchronic (past as bounded and determinate field of meaning) and diachronic (past as array of discrete eras) readings, Harris argues for the "multiple traces of time embedded in things" (9), what Kathy Biddick has called "the temporality that is not one." His point of departure is Nietzsche's idea of unzeitgemässe, which might be translated as the temporally improper, "resisting absorption into a homogeneous present" (11) -- spurring us to think "how we might use the past to imagine alternatives to the present and to chronology itself" (13).

Harris's central figure in the book is the palimpsest: the work written over by other works, creating an evident simultaneity of times. Palimpsests can be textual (the Archimedes Palimpsest), architectural (Pisa cathedral has a stone embedded within its façade imprinted with IMPCAESAR, rendering evident its origin in a pagan monument; all cities are palimpsests), or conceptual: they are always, however, material and capable of agency, especially future-directed agency. The palimpsested past, in Harris's account, is thick with possibility:
1. supersession (just as one text might be written over another, one time seemingly yields utterly to another ... and yet that other endures within it, as the earlier text remains legible, as Jews lived among Christians long after the triumph of Christianity)

2. explosion (a heterogeneous past temporality is embedded in the new, like Jewish letters on a Christian London wall, triggering an "untimely irruption" that "shatters the integrity" of the present)

3. conjunction (uneasy cohabitation: "polychronic matter can activate a heterodox temporality of conjunction, one that disregards the entrenched partitions and distances informing the geometric lines of chronological time" (171).
Though positioned last and certainly valorized, conjunction is not a synthesis in the Hegelian sense of Aufhebung, which would smooth away time's wrinkles and act in a way that is supercessionary. Any synthesis here is in the sense propounded by Michel Serres, who along with Bruno Latour is a patron god of Untimely Matter: "synthesis as a proximation rather than a transcendence of supposedly disparate elements," "an embrace of alterity" rather than an obliteration of difference, "synthesis that refuses singularity, that opens up to heterogeneity" (146). Conjunction is also the only temporality that opens the possibility of dialogue (16).
I posted back in April about temporal logic and textuality. In Kripke semantics, for example, we define changing systems by using a collection of worlds. Yes, that's "worlds." For me this starts to make the tie-in to observation selection effects because in a text, the observer, the subject, is one of the physical elements arising in this world. When the subject starts to make statements about the world, a selection effect is introduced. And when we are aware of this, then we can think about Nick Bostrom's Strong Self-Sampling Assumption (SSSA): Each subject-moment should reason as if he or she were randomly selected from the class of all subject-moments in his or her reference class.

With SSSA, we can talk concretely about which world(s) we are in as subjects and when in the world(s) we are.

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