PRINT February 1991


Three Times

Once upon a time the world was a wheel: day was followed by night and night by day, winter by summer and summer by winter, birth by death and death by rebirth. About three thousand years ago that wheel changed into a stream, where everything flowed forward, nothing repeated itself, and every opportunity lost was lost forever. We know the wheel by heart and from looking at watches. We learned about the stream at school, in history class. But nowadays that stream is changing into a sand heap, the grains of which are distributed ever more evenly, though here and there they tend to fall into improbable clusters. We might have heard about the sand heap in discussions of science but we don’t really grasp it yet. This is a pity, because that sand heap is a playground for art—improbable clusters of elements formed not by accident but on purpose.

When the world was a wheel, the problem was justice. The judge was time: everything had its appointed place, and people who left their place, though they were heroes, could not avoid punishment by time and in time. Time circled through the world to bring everything back to its place. The wheel world was a tragedy: one could not escape fate, which was the same thing as time, the judge and hangman.

When the world was a stream, the problem was freedom, for everything seemed to be the effect of some cause and the cause of some effect—everything was determined. But we could learn about that chain of causality with the hope of somehow manipulating it, through science and technology. (The question of how science and technology con liberate us if they are themselves determined has never been satisfactorily answered.) The stream world was a drama within which we tried to act; time flowed from the past toward the future, establishing the chain of causality.

In the world as sand heap, the problem is accident. There can be no doubt today of the general tendency toward an ever more uniform, ever more probable distribution of the particles that constitute the world. The second law of thermodynamics says so, and if we doubted that law we would have to stop believing in science, which is our only source of knowledge, and on which our daily life depends. The second law, in fact, gives us our concept of time: time is precisely the tendency toward entropy, toward a uniform distribution of the particles of matter and energy. Still, improbable, accidental clusters of particles do continue to emerge. Some are very ancient, like hydrogen and helium atoms. Others are much more recent, like the biomass on Earth, or like the human brain.

These accidents in which particles accumulate rather than disperse seem to contradict our notion of time: they are like loops in which time is reversed. One might say that these loop will return in the end to the general tendency, that they are “negatively entropic epicycles” sitting on the entropic straight line. Or one might say (as some now do) that the en-tropic straight line itself may prove to be a segment of a circle: that the “Thermic Death” that will eventually follow the “Big Bang” will give rise to another Big Bang, and so on forever. But neither of these solutions helps, for the problem the sand heap poses is not whether time is a straight line (as it was in the stream world) or a circle (as it was in the wheel world). The problem is that time sometimes seems to run backward. If time is understood as the tendency toward an ever more probable, ever more even dispersion of particles, how can improbable situations arise (as in fact they do), and furthermore, how can such situations become even more improbable, even more complex, with time? For instance:what “negative time” was it during which hydrogen and helium atoms not only emerged themselves, but gave rise to other atom types, and those to ever more complex types of molecules, those again to the biomass, and that again to the human nervous system?

The obvious answer to this question is that the whole problem is the result of muddled thinking. Suppose we agree on the tendency toward an even distribution of particles. The sum of those particles is finite (the world is a “closed system”); we more or less know its size (the mass of the world) and age (the age of the world). Still, the sum is very big and the world is very old. So it is not at all surprising, but to be expected, that particles should have collided accidentally with each other even while tending toward a smoother distribution. In a game of so many pieces, and of such long life, every possible accident must necessarily happen. To speak of a “negatively entropic” tendency in accidental clusters of particles such as the human brain is to have missed the whole point about the sand-heap world: accidents are inevitable in a heap this big. There is no “negative time,” and no problem.

This answer might be obvious, but it begs the question. It maybe a statistical inevitability that accidents will happen in the long run, but this in no way denies the fact that every individual accident is an unexpected event—a “miracle.” In an overall view of the sand-heap world, the accidental emergence of the human brain seems necessary and inevitable, but if one looks at the brain as an isolated cluster of particles, the series of accidents of which it is the result seems so improbable as to force us into saying that the brain is a miracle. That cumulative series of accidents, in fact, must be seen as a “negatively entropic” process, as an “evolution.” That is to say: as a process that unrolled in a time opposed to the time of the sand heap.

One thing must be retained, however, from the unsatisfactory answer to our question. Although we apparently have to admit that there are negatively entropic, evolutionary processes within the sand heap, we cannot maintain that those processes have a purpose. The results of evolution are miraculous, but evolution is still a blind and mindless game of a huge number of pointlike particles. It’s true that time inverts its course in places—that the sand-heap world allows for miracles. (There were no miracles in the stream world, only the effects of unknown causes.) But the sand-heap world excludes a purposeful creator. It presents itself as the result not of a creative project but of blind chance.

Let’s look now at the three times sketched here from the point of view of what we call “values.” The time of the wheel world (“magic” time) imposes moral, ethical values: crime and punishment, just retribution. It is a time for holiness, and for fear and trembling. The time of the stream world (“historical” time) imposes epistemological values: science and technology, emancipation through explanation. It is a time for disciplined action. The time of the sand-heap world (“post-Modern” time) imposes esthetic values, and unexpected, miraculous situations. It is a time for creative artists. Magic time is ordered by the sage, historical time by the scientist, post-Modern time by the artist.

The artist is central in our time (more so than in the Renaissance) because to create is to produce unexpected, improbable situations, and we now know that the nonhuman universe does the same thing. There, however, such situations come about by chance. The artist, on the other hand, a cluster within the sand heap, turns accident into purpose. The human brain in general, in fact, is an accidental cluster that can miraculously turn accidents into purpose, a highly improbable miracle. It is the work of the artist that epitomizes this process, for the artist deliberately turns time around to point to ever new information, ever less probable distributions of the grains of sand.

The three times, of course, are not completely consecutive; they overlap in our minds, our thoughts, our feelings. We have not “overcome” circular time, which beats out the rhythm of our daily living. Historical time governs our decisions and the acts we base on those decisions. As for post-Modern, sand-heap time, it remains an uncomfortable, confusing concept, which we have not yet incorporated into our experience and thinking. Yet it is this new time that shapes artistic creation. And thus it helps to make artists more conscious of the task to which they are committed: the inversion of the absurd tendency of the world toward entropy, toward ever more probable (and therefore ever less interesting) situations. Which is to say that artists are committed against the mindless stupidity of the world.

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at São Paulo University and at the École Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.