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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art
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Duration

If Whitehead’s process philosophy expands our awareness of spatial and empirical relationships, Henri Bergson’s is directed far more towards a re-examination of temporal and psychological experience. His principal observation is that our spatial perception of objects in the world is only possible because of a prior awareness of temporal duration, and thus a sense that the world of static objects is in fact dependent upon process, a view shared by Whitehead. In different ways, both see the conditions of experience as continuity or flow in opposition to everyday habits of thought that picture the world as solid and stable, based upon fixed concepts. Bergson’s focus on duration or la duree is a means of contesting the distortions of spatialised time expressed through our reliance upon chronological time, a reliance, he assures us, inconsistent with the immediacy and variability of lived experience. It reveals, we could say, a disjunction between inner and outer worlds, the reduction of an intuitive, individualised sense of experience to an administered system for living. Duration, as Bergson defines it, slips beyond the constraints of quotidian time for the sake of a flow of time contrary to such seemingly ‘natural’ laws. An awareness of duration is an attention to other rhythms and speeds of conscious experience that no longer relate in any absolutely direct way with the passing of time in the implacable regularity of a ticking clock. This is something with which we are already familiar. During those rapidly diminishing hours preceding an imminent deadline or that interminable clockwatching when awaiting the commencement of something or the arrival of someone, this other duration, so often hidden from sight, makes itself known. John Berger expresses this opposition of intensive and extensive temporal experience rather well in his own discussion of time as a process of‘accumulation’ and ‘dissipation’:

Despite clocks and the regular turning of the earth, time is experienced as passing at different rates. This impression is generally dismissed as subjective, because time, according to the nineteenth-century view, is objective, incontestable, and indifferent . . .Yet perhaps our experience should not be dismissed so quickly. Supposing one accepts the clocks; time does not slow down or accelerate. But time appears to pass at different rates because our experience of its passing involves not a single but two dynamic processes which are opposed to each other: as accumulation and dissipation. The deeper the experience of a moment, the greater the accumulation of experience. This is why the moment is lived as longer. The dissipation of time-flow is checked. The lived duree is not a question of length but of depth or density.

(1984: 35)

In Berger’s description, an accumulation or density of experience has a palpable effect upon the subjectively felt dissipation of time. But other affects are also apparent. Within and throughout Bergson’s own oeuvre, his idea of duration undergoes a distinct change, from a sense of being entirely embedded within and specific to consciousness, to a sense of being immanent to the universe, a shift also evident in Berger’s text. He too rehearses the movement from a notion of duration as subjective experience to duration as a law of nature:

A natural equivalent to the periodic increase of the density of lived time can be found in those days of alternating sun and rain, in the spring or early summer, when plants grow, almost visibly, several millimetres or centimetres a day. These hours of spectacular growth and accumulation are incommensurate with the winter hours when the seed lies inert in the earth.

(1984: 35)

Whitehead’s organic philosophy of process, event and spatial context finds some degree of temporal equivalence in the theories of his contemporary. In Bergson’s work the language of event is translated into a view of time that endures rather than passes. Duration, he says, is ‘mutual penetration’ or (perhaps rather too mechanistically) ‘an interconnexion and organization of elements’, none of which may be entirely distinguished or isolated from the whole of which it forms a part (1910: 101). He uses the image of a melody to describe such mutual relations, which expresses both the endurance of the past in an experience of the present (an essential aspect of duration in which the past lingers in the present through the function of memory) and the inseparability of the elements of duration. By enduring, past and present states are no longer set alongside each other in a ‘before’ and ‘after’, but instead form an organic whole:

as happens when we recall the notes of a tune, melting, so to speak, into one another. Might it not be said that, even if these notes succeed one another, yet we perceive them in one another, and that their totality may be compared to a living being whose parts, although distinct, permeate one another just because they are so closely connected?

(1910: 100)

As Bergson explains in Creative Evolution, we habitually discriminate the flow of life into bounded fragments, from our timetabled daily programme to our division of the year into definite seasons. Thus, we project time into space and express duration in terms of extensity, a continuous line or chain of discrete instants or states, ‘as if [each state] formed a block and were a separate whole’ (1998: 1). As one early critic of Bergson put it, temporal experience is thereby ‘infected’ with spatial imagery (Lovejoy 1912: 527), nowhere depicted more graphically than in the art of the Futurists. Despite its conceptual provenance as an art movement expressly influenced by Bergson’s ideas, Futurists like Giacomo Balla produced only spatialised images of time divided into distinct moments.3 Bergson cites film as the apotheosis of spatialisation, mimicking the fluidity of life with a sequence of frozen images, and it is precisely this cinematographic illusion that Futurist paintings replicate.

Bergson’s concept of la duree is thus a lived time that bears little synchrony with chronological time, although it appears to be simultaneous with it. There are two ways of regarding this duration (which we may think of as two aspects of conscious life): beneath homogeneous duration — the reliance on a sense of time’s linear flow measured in succeeding moments — we may perceive or distinguish a duration whose heterogeneous moments permeate one another; and beneath a perception of life distinguished into discrete states, in terms of sensations and sensory awareness, lies an undefined, indefinite pool of states (Bergson 1910: 128). This is key to our understanding of Bergson, since he claims that a fundamental awareness of duration and the self has disappeared beneath the demands of social life and the constraints of language. As social creatures we have a tendency to solidify impressions in order to express them in language, that is, to limit experience to the means of expression or representation. The fleeting and changeable nature of our impressions thereby succumbs to something fixed and static. Perceptions, sensations, emotions and ideas are in essence confused, ever-changing and inexpressible, beyond language, existing within a qualitatively inflected time. But they are organised and clarified, projected into a quantitative time, in order to be understood and communicated. In religious terms it is rather like the shift from a mystical or apophatic view of God that eschews all attempts to render him knowable to a didactic faith that solidifies the inexpressible into something more readily conceivable. Don Cupitt has suggested that in many ways Christianity’s emphasis upon the presentation of God in the incarnation, central though this is to the Christian faith, has overshadowed the mystery of his incomprehensibility and therefore ‘something light and dialectical turned into something leaden and clumsy’ (1997: 37). This is clearly at work throughout the Western history of Christian art, which has served a certain type of faith willing to portray divine mysteries, from the annunciation to the resurrection, that, strictly speaking, remain inimical to representation. By contrast, Islamic and Judaic injunctions forbidding the depiction of deities and histories have perhaps, at least aesthetically, avoided this translation of the ineffable into the pictorial. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the history of an anti-representational avant-garde, equally rigorous in its injunction against figuration, is so closely aligned with a cultural shift in which the art museum has replaced the cathedral as a place of spiritual nourishment. Whether in the museum, gallery or cathedral, Bergson’s awareness of the limitations of language has tremendous bearing on an experience of art and on failed attempts to form representations of that experience, a failing endemic to much art writing.

 
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