Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The ‘crystals’ of time

It seems to me undeniable that the human sciences – short for the social sciences and the humanities – are facing a crisis of perceived irrelevance in a world suffused in unreflective technophilia and, concomitantly, indifference to the potential value of the humanistic knowledge represented by, and archived in these sciences.

Among the many ways in which one could highlight the indispensable function of these sciences in the contemporary world where computers, iPads, tablets and the like exercise a mesmerising effect on people, one seems to me an attractive option – to foreground what is singular about the human sciences by placing them in a constellation with a highly suggestive concept from the work of Gilles Deleuze, namely, what he calls “crystals of time”.

Deleuze uses this concept in Cinema 2: The Time-Image to denote the trajectories of time condensed in cinematic image-clusters, time-lines that point forward and backwards, or instantiate repetitions and circularities of various sorts. In so doing, they connect past events, as well as past-event alternatives not activated (virtualities), with present actualities and future possibilities. (Following Lyotard, this could also be articulated, on a broader historical scale, as Rewriting Modernity.)

Of what import is the notion of “time-crystals” for the human sciences? Keeping in mind that these “crystals” comprise a unity of interrelation, the first one may be called the “crystal of memory”, which is appropriate, considering that all human life is inescapably temporal-historical. It signifies, therefore, the contingency of every human being’s insertedness (“thrownness’, as Heidegger would say) in a specific fold of history, or “her-story”, for that matter. One of the most fundamental aspects of human life is that every individual has a life-story or personal narrative, constituted by personal experience that is incorrigibly their own.

Through memory and the ability to archive these singular experiences, which combine into the rich tapestry of human history with all its disasters, triumphs and tragedies, the “crystal of memory” is shaped, and constantly reshaped. The human sciences are the guardians of this crystal, which comprises the source of, among others, the work carried out by the historian (or “her-storian”) and the storyteller. In the absence of the human sciences, significant personal and collective memory, which may or may not have been recorded by individuals, would not stand a chance of being methodically archived, and the historical present would become amnesiac, thus paving the way for the possible repetition of past social and political perversions and atrocities, like those perpetrated in the name of different kinds of fascism, in a future disconnected from the past.

The second would bear the name of the “crystal of knowledge and wisdom”, and like the crystal of memory, it is Janus-faced, with one face looking back at the past and the other facing the future, exhorting the present to retain what is epistemically valuable from the past and reject what has proved to be devoid of value, let alone being positively harmful. In the past, it is particularly the ancient Greeks – the progenitors of philosophy as we know it (who learned a lot from the Egyptians, as some of them acknowledged) – whose knowledge-practices sparkle in the light of this crystal. They made a distinction which has retained its validity, to wit, between doxa (mere opinion; or, as inscribed in our word “orthodoxy”, supposedly “correct opinion”) and epistemé (founded theoretical knowledge), as well as between the latter and phronésis (practical wisdom, especially of an ethical kind). (One could add techné here, but it merits separate attention.)

What this implies, and is all too seldom remembered today, is that everyday social life is seldom founded by theoretical knowledge, for the simple reason that human life is not predictable the way that natural processes are, and the former therefore benefits from the practical wisdom that is founded on experience. Together with these, Lyotard’s observation, that the “social bond” is “woven”, not with a “single thread”, but by an indefinite number of “language games” – keeping in mind the all-important distinction between narrative knowledge and the (constative) knowledge of the natural sciences – allows one a glimpse of the broad terrain of investigation of the human sciences, simultaneously hinting at the interwovenness of knowledge and memory. Even when these sciences focus, positivistically, on so-called “social facts”, they ignore at their peril the embeddedness of such facts in collective social narratives. The primary genre of human knowledge is narrative.

Temporally inscribed in the “crystal of techné” is the difference between, and the entire historical development from, the ancient Greek understanding of what it means, to the radically new conception underpinning modern and postmodern “technology” (a combination of techné and logos). For the Greeks techné meant the kind of knowledge an artist, artisan or craftsperson possessed, and was (unlikely as it seems today) related to poiesis, where our word “poetry” comes from. What techné and poiesis shared, then, was the knowledge to “create something” or “bring it to appearance”.

This aspect of techné as human “knowledge” has been largely forgotten today. Modern technology was made possible by the mathematical interpretation of nature and, on the basis of this, its industrial or technological transformation, if not outright control. Postmodern, information-science based technology, while still in thrall to the ideal of (natural and social) control, simultaneously offers the possibility of promoting human freedom via human appropriation of the machine – consider the political power of the internet and of social networking technology like Twitter. Postmodern technology is a pharmakon, however, no less than earlier technology: it is a poison AND cure; it liberates and enslaves at the same time. This is why one of the most important projects facing the human sciences today, is to think through the reasons for technology’s awe-inspiring power to penetrate to the very heart of human existence, transforming the way we think and act. Humans have to do this through their sciences; technology does not reflect on itself.

Nature and humans comprise distinct, but interrelated ecological totalities, and together they make up an encompassing ecosystem. This instantiates the “crystal of ecology”, of time past, present and future – that of the slow development of living organisms and, eventually, complex living ecosystems, followed by the emergence of a large diversity of animals, including primates and finally, communities of homo and gyna sapiens. Most recently we have witnessed, and are incrementally witnessing, the straining of these relations of interdependence through the release into the biosphere of industrially produced materials which, together with the burgeoning human population, are in the process of seriously compromising the integrity of natural ecosystems. Reciprocally, the deterioration of these affects social ecosystems negatively. The human sciences would shirk their vocation if they neglected uncovering the actual state of eco-affairs, together with the eco-blind cultural values which allow a mode of living among humans that exacerbates ecological destruction, rather than to alleviate it and encourage truly sustainable cultural practices.

The last “crystal” to be considered briefly, given its significance for the human sciences, is that of the economy — from Greek oikos, for house, and nomos, meaning law, so that economy means broadly the law of the (proper management of the) house, lest it become dysfunctional. Contrary to what many people think, therefore, economics is a human science, especially when viewed as “political economy”, explicitly relating it to the polis (city, community). This crystal reflects the temporal facets of three great economic revolutions – from the hunter-gatherer economy to the agricultural about 10 000 to 12 000 years ago), the industrial revolution (mostly in the 18th century), and most recently (since the 1960s), the informational or electronic communications revolution (which has not nearly run its course). These economic convulsions are inseparable from the crystal of techné, and both together comprise the most challenging and intractable object-field of investigation for the human sciences today, given the hegemonic position they enjoy in contemporary society.

Not only in South Africa, but worldwide, the human sciences can redeem themselves by focusing on the “crystals” briefly sketched here, because although other, equally significant crystals are conceivable (such as the “crystal of love”), in their interrelationships they resemble the facets of a giant crystal in which humanity is reflected in its history and structure.

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    • Stephen Browne

      The crystal of memory interests me the most. Mostly the fact that ‘storytellers’ are essentially responsible for how we operate. It doesn’t seem to particularly matter what actually happened; the storyteller has the last say. A daunting responsibility for anyone in the medium I’m sure.

    • OneFlew

      It is true that the humanities are often seen as irrelevant. But their relevance can be demonstrated on very simple premises.

      Science has little to say about how we should treat each other, what forms of control and dominion over others are to be tolerated, what forms of government we should accept, or how we should distribute the proceeds of our collective efforts.

      These moral challenges are the most important and difficult challenges that we face as humans. And it is in the humanities that these questions are explored.

      Perhaps many practically-minded people do not understand the need for a considered philosophy on these questions. But as others have pointed out those who claim not to be followers of any philosophy are sometimes followers of the worst philosophy.

    • Garg Unzola

      Does science have little to say about morality? Some tend to disagree, particularly Sam Harris:

    • Maria

      @ Stephen: You are absolutely right about the primary importance of the “storytellers” who shape our self-conceptions, albeit in the guise of historiographies, often “corrective” historiographies. It makes me think of the history debate of the 19th century and beyond, on Von Ranke’s insistence that history-writing should represent the past “wie es gewesen ist/war”, and the contrasting remark by Derrida, that the flow of actual history is merely a field of forces, and every historiographer’s angle of incidence arranges those forces in one direction or another. This means that there is no unambiguous, straightforwardly self-evident “history”, but only different historiographical versions of it, and we can only comparatively decide which is the most “persuasive”. Which does not mean that historical investigations are pointles, of course, but that historiographers should exercise the greatest circumspection and responsibility in their approach to historical “events”.

    • OneFlew

      Garg, there are very few propositions of any complexity that some wouldn’t disagree with.

      Without wanting to be too quick about this, at a first pass (and in light of some of the reviews of his work) Harris strikes me as perhaps contributing relatively little to the philosophical debate. But then polemicists often don’t have that as their aim.

      His main targets – religious people and strawman moral relativists – do of course exist but I don’t think the attempt to knock them over is really where the interesting work is being done. And there is a difference between holding that morality should be consequentialist and advocating a form of utilitarianism which allows that sacrifice of the few for the good of the many. He relatively uncontroversially seems to support the former and quite controversially also appears to support the latter.

      It looks as if he may be taking a blunt instrument – that required to scorn religion – to an arena – that of moral philosophy, human rights and the balance between the individual and the collective – where the real debate is far more nuanced.

    • Garg Unzola

      I’m not in agreement with Harris, by the way. The general trend seems to be towards consilience instead of focusing on differentiating between crystals, though. In other words, it is becoming apparent that the specialisations of knowledge is no longer relevant and a time for selection and heredity is upon us after the initial variation after the Enlightenment.

      If Lyotard is correct, we should not bother too much about distinctions but being metanarrative agnostic is sufficient. Rather, we could be cognisant that we are busy with language games and constructing metanarratives instead of replacing one grand narrative with another (as Sam Harris appears to do).

    • Lennon

      Bert: I think one of the reasons for the lack of interest in humanities, particularly history, is the increasing superficiality of modern (particularly “Western”) society. If there’s no immediate gain or use, then it’s not worth knowing. It seems that knowing what colour underwear Kim “Cardassian” was wearing at some-or-other high society party or who won Survivor is more important.

      The other problem is in the telling, especially in the classroom. All but one of my history teachers were absolutely boring. The only respite I had during my matric year was when we were forced to watch the film ‘Gallipoli’ while covering the events leading up to WWI, at which point I took a nap.

      Very few people that I know actually care for the shennanigans of our forebears, but I’ve found that their interest can be held by adding a little “colour” to the stories. Since I have no qualms about the use of profanity, this is actually quite easy to do (and it helps that none of my friends have any reservations about profanity either).
      While you can’t do this in a classroom or lecture hall, I’ve found it to be highly effective in social gatherings. Sadly, it still illustrates superficiality.

      There are other ways of keeping people “entertained” just as was done in ‘The Mark Steele Lectures’. The use of “clean” humour works rather well as both my brother (who isn’t as keen on history as I am) and I laughed our way through two seasons and learnt a few things along the way.

    • Rene

      Wonderful post, Bert!

    • Richard

      I think the issue of social science is a reflection of a much deeper change occurring in society. If we accept that culture is what we produce as a shared product of our lives in a group (something that gives meaning to our lives by referring to a shared mythology a la Gadamer) then technology is simply the next type of shared experience. In that way, technology is not simply a product of culture or a certain type of culture, it becomes culture. This process is accelerated by the advent of multiculturalism in the West, in which the idea of host and immigrant culture has become anathema. Without anything into which to acculturate to give a shared identity, two (capitalist-friendly) human “products” are swiftly pushed to the fore: sport, and technology. In Britain during the time of the Olympics, you saw how it was being made into a tool to create a national identity. With so many immigrants, the older ideas of identity simply evaporate. Cathedrals become piles of stone, ancient standing stones no more than rocks on the landscape. As this process continues, present cultural mechanisms of presenting signifiers of value/meaning, etc., simply aren’t up to anything. The idea of culture (and indeed) history as narrative has been abolished by a wholly neutral (without history, race or gender) culture of physicality and electronic meta-world. In much the same way as capitalism is an abstraction of the struggle of life (money as power), so this becomes an abstraction of shared life.