Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Friday, May 28, 2010

Shards of Time

The salt of the Earth

Adrian Ivakhiv and Christopher Vitale have been posting about temporal “crystals” (a Deleuzian term), somewhat in response to some posts here on the Cocteau Twins. These crystals appear in art that uses time as one of its raw materials (such as cinema). They are crystalline because they suspend time present over time past (and sometimes time future), creating an illusion of stasis in a temporal flux.

One reason for the soundtrack-ing of contemporary political ads is precisely the “crystallization” of feelings in a periodic structure (that's what a crystal is). Verse–chorus forms are ideal. Perhaps even more ideal would be shoegazer style verse–verse or chorus–chorus forms, because of the temporal disorientation that a more simple periodicity would evoke. What do I mean?

These temporal crystals are akin to development sections in classical sonata form or to what Aristotle calls the “middle” of a story (at least, a classically realist one). If you turn on the radio and hear a burst of story coming out, can you tell whether you're in the middle or not?

Aristotle says narratives have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. This used to seem stupidly obvious to me, until I realized that he was talking about a feeling of beginning (aperture), a feeling of middle (development) and a feeling of ending (closure). Not the mathematical middle of a sequence of pages or the first and last pages of a book.

What's the feeling of being in the middle? For the most part it's a feeling of cycling. Events keep turning around on themselves, playing out their implications. (Think of the development section of a sonata in which all the musical subjects get inverted, played backwards and so on.)

The feeling of being in the middle has to do with the periodic organization of temporal rhythms. Now in a story you have two faders to play with: frequency (number of events) and duration (length of events). And you have two channels: plot (the chronological sequence of events) and story (the narrated sequence of events).

For our purposes here, “event” = anything with a verb. (Strictly limiting myself to structuralist narratology for simplicity's sake.)

In the middle of a story, the ratio between frequency in the plot and in the story is inverted, on the order of 1/n or n/1. Likewise duration. In other words, an event that only happens once in the plot may be narrated many times (and vice versa). An event that only takes a few seconds in the plot takes many chapters in the story (and vice versa). This sense of discrepancy organizes our feeling of narrative rhythm as developing, that is, oscillating, running on the spot—a temporal crystal. It's a feeling of distortion.

Most classic realism pops this distortion bubble at a certain point. It's easy to do. All you have to do is narrate an event with a frequency and duration ratio of 1/1. Think of the Bourne trilogy. It's all closure all the time in those movies. Closure is precisely the feeling of ending induced by the illusion of isometric ratios between plot and story.

The effect is analogous to suspension in music (chords shifting over a drone or a high pedal point, or shifting over one another in a staggered way). Disco uses suspension precisely to keep you on the dance floor. The form of electronic dance music tends towards total periodicity, resulting in some beautifully static yet fluid structures.

Thus the mid-section of Solaris (not the mathematical middle but the Aristotelian one as defined) is the zero-gravity episode where everyone floats (literally and figuratively) to a Bach cantata, in front of a Bruegel painting. Of course, the whole movie is heavy on this kind of suspension.

And, without doubt, Wordsworth's “spots of time” are crystalline in this sense.

And, without doubt again, highly appropriate for an age in which we are becoming aware of the ongoing, developing hyperobject called global warming—or that ooze in the Gulf. Or that plutonium...

A crystal lattice is a place where electrical forces are balanced. Everything cancels out, so that for an electron at the lowest bandwidth of energy, the lattice is effectively transparent.

Close to the ground state (absolute zero), particles of matter go into quantum coherence (they become the “same” particle). Matter in this state thus becomes radically transparent and other particles (say an electron beam) can pass through it as if nothing were there. The idea of separate particles no longer means anything at this point. It's a kind of hypercrystalline state (in a metaphorical sense), total transparency without solidity or locality. I imagine a more or less similar effect could be achieved in narrative. In such a state, no singular events would stand out from the transparent ocean of time. In this sense, perhaps not metaphorically, what is called a “particle” would be a kind of closure, like an irregularity that stood out from the transparent ocean.

Steve Alexander, “Not Invented Here”:

Rollercone, “Fictions”: