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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