The field that you are standing before appears to have the same proportions as your own life.
– John Berger
A couple of years ago a friend of mine gave me a small collection of essays by John Berger, which almost looks like a pamphlet, called Why Look at Animals. Besides this pamphlet and Ways of Seeing, I am not familiar with the range of Berger’s work, but I welcome the invitation from Dougald Hine to co-host a session at Redrawing the Maps as an opportunity to become so. Reading through some of his essays, it is clear that Berger is an astute thinker about temporalities, and it seems to me as if his writing is infused very much by the same kind of thinking that underpins the Time culture project. The following are a few thoughts inspired by these readings. The session, entitled “A Breakout from the Prison of Modern Time Is Possible”, will be taking place at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London, this Monday at 6pm.
Perhaps the founding moment of the undertaking we call Time-culture, or the moment we found the common insight that sustains it, was a conversation about Eigenzeit, the inherent life-time of anything. That is, time defined in terms of any thing’s internal process of coming into being, maturing, decaying and vanishing. In this way, everything has its own complete time whether it is a person, a geographical feature, a dragonfly or a social institution. This multiplicity of Eigenzeiten, of own life-times or time-scales, is what makes up the present. Like a hot summer afternoon song of cicadas.
This insight is simple and profound at the same time. Every thing goes through its own process of birth and death, yes. The real discovery comes when we get past words and tune into the multiplicity of life-times that surround us. Hear the cicadas. And that is something no amount of blogging, discussing or reading can do. But we noticed that we often bring the kind of attentive listening or watching that is needed for this tuning into to bear on Art. To understand a painting, a symphony, or a sculpture we need to temporarily stop our own lives in order to experience their timescape. This experiencing occurs while our own life-story is on hold.
This doesn’t just happen with Art, of course, but in a society that tends to value speed and efficiency above all else, this is one of the few places where we can really appreciate it. You simply won’t arrive at understanding by forcing your personal time unto a work by Matisse, speeding up a record by Leonard Cohen or briefly glimpsing at one of Rodin’s sculptures. Somehow Art exists outside clock-work time. We need to lose ourselves to experience that other time. In much the same we as we lose ourselves when we have climbed a mountain and look out over a landscape, appreciate the sun setting on the horizon or wander aimlessly through a forest. This mode of engaging with the world quite likely stems from our deeper embedding in nature. As Berger observes: “[t]he aesthetic emotion we feel before a man-made object … is a derivative of the emotion we feel before nature.” (1)
Reading through some of Berger’s essays with an eye for time, it becomes clear that he is an acute observer and conveyor of the otherness of time. In the short essay Field, Berger captures the process of losing himself to the timescape of a field which he regularly passes on his way home from the nearby city. A railroad crosses the road he travels by and, if the level crossing is shut, Berger spends a few minutes gazing at the grass, the trees and the wildlife in the adjacent field. Reflecting on the pleasure that the field gives him, he wonders why he never goes for walks in the this field?
It is a question of contingencies overlapping. The events which take place in the field – two birds chasing one another, a cloud crossing the sun and changing the colour of the green – acquire a special significance because they occur during the minute or two during which I am obliged to wait. It is as though these minutes fill a certain area of time which exactly fits the spatial area of the field. Time and space conjoin. (2)
In such moments where there is no immediate next thing that grabs the attention we can relax and cease engaging with the world directly through thoughts. Such experiences exist at a level of awareness which is pre-verbal, as Berger goes on to suggest. In a society which lacks pauses, this movement from engaging with thoughts, processing information, and reacting to external stimuli to letting the mind free wheel and quieten is rare. Most often the multiplicity gives way to singularity. The cicadas become silent. And not just metaphorically, our lifeworlds actually shrink as we stop listening to the choir of voices that inhabit our environment.
A major task for us today is to resist the diminishing of our worlds through the stealing away of our attention and awareness of temporal otherness. The silence that is spreading over the natural world is partly due to the fact that we have collectively stopped appreciating and valuing these other voices. We have stopped attending to them.
It doesn’t have to be so. If we recognise our moments of deafness, we can begin working towards tuning back into other timescapes. The payback is immediate as we reclaim our attention from advertisements, our compulsive monologuing, following virtual dead ends. All we need to do is listen. As Berger observes what goes on in the field, he says:
Having noticed the dog, you notice the butterfly. Having noticed the horses, you hear a woodpecker and then see it fly across a corner of the field. You watch a child walking and when he has left the field deserted and eventless, you notice a cat jumping into it from the top of a wall.
By this time you are within experience. Yet saying this implies narrative time and the essence of the experience is that it takes place outside such time … The visible extension of the field in space displaces awareness of your own lived time. (3)
What happens next is an experiment in freedom – the act of displacing awareness of our own lived time is not just a light hearted exercise we do for pleasure, it is a deeply political and revolutionary act. This is a point that Berger brings across in exactly the way that, if we have been listening, Art can do when it really speaks to us. Time is intimately linked with space, or rather place, as Berger points out in Field. By divorcing time and place, digital time – “[a] vertical time with nothing surrounding it, except absence” – threatens to break our sense of belonging. It effectively disenchants the world:
Read a few pages of Emily Dickinson and then go and see Von Trier’s film Dogville. In Dickinson’s poetry the presence of the eternal is attendant in every pause. The film, by contrast, remorselessly shows what happens when any trace of the eternal is erased from daily life. What happens is that all words and their entire language are rendered meaningless.
Within a single present, within digital time, no whereabouts can be found or established. (4)
If we let time become singular, if we lose our ability to recognise other timescapes, and retract into the virtual world of digital time, we will lose our home on the planet among the bluebells, the oak trees and the deer. We risk becoming immune to the eternal if we surrender to the demands on our attention that digital time puts on us. The fragmentation of attention diminishes the quality of our presence, and we are never fully in one place. Without attention we are lost. What distracts attention kills our potential to be free.
This is why resisting the progressive notion of time as linear, singular and above all placeless is profoundly political. It is about power. Tuning into the timescapes of the other, allows us to dissolve the separation that modern life requires of us. That is what is meant by that beautiful metaphor thinking like a mountain. By thinking like a mountain we open the possibility of becoming other.
This is what Berger finds in his Field. And, it seems to me, something that is intricately woven into his writing. In the essay that concludes Hold Everything Dear, he observes about Jitka Hanzlová’s photography of a forest:
Every one of the crossing energies operating in a forest has it’s own time-scale. From the ant to the oak tree. From the process of photosynthesis to the process of fermentation. In this intricate conglomeration of times, energies and exchanges there occur ‘incidents’ that are recalcitrant incidents, unaccommodated in any time-scale and therefore (temporarily?) waiting between. These are what Jitka photographs.
The longer one looks at Jitka Hanzlová’s pictures of a forest, the clearer it becomes that a break-out from the prison of modern time is possible. The dryads beckon. You may slip between – but unaccompanied. (5)
1) ‘The White Bird’ in Why Look at Animals, Penguin, 2009
2) ‘Field’ in Why Look at Animals, Penguin, 2009
4) ‘Ten Dispatches About Place’ in Hold Everything Dear, Verso, 2007
5) ‘Looking Carefully – Two Women Photographers’ in Hold Everything Dear, Verso, 2007