The Art of Time, Theory to Practice
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The Art of Time, Theory to Practice

A vicious circle shapes much work on the problem of time in postmodern culture. Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, and others trace a bad reciprocity between crisis in time and cultural crisis more generally: if postmodernity puts time in crisis, there can be no change, progress, or thinking otherwise; postmodernity redoubles, making more trouble for time. Lyotard, for example, defines "time today" as "controlled time" destructive to thought itself and therefore beyond rethinking, beyond repair (76). When Jameson notes that "the subject has lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize past and future into coherent experience," he too means to locate a certain cultural incoherence beyond our capacities to resolve it (25). The "time-space compression" that defines but obscures postmodernity for Harvey largely has the same effect, which might be said to extend across the ages as well, with origins as early as what Richard Terdiman has called the "memory crisis" of post-revolutionary France and recent iterations as various as Antonio Negri's critique of "totality without contradiction" (53), Richard Sennett's account of "short-termism" (9), and James Gleick's complaint against "the epoch of the nanosecond" and "the consequences of haste in our culture" (6, 13). These time-crisis theorists share the view that time is essentially a diversity of forms fatally vulnerable to the singularities of modernity. Human temporality ought to distinguish strongly but flexibly among past, present, and future, to pattern out all possible durations—to serve as a fully open and varied field of opportunity; but "time today" collapses the temporal manifold, sets only a given pace, and thereby limits possibility. Because it destroys any basis for real recourse—due, that is, to the reciprocity between time-crisis and crises in thought, memory, and experience—time-crisis theory tends to suggest that there is nothing to be done about it.

Compare narrative theory: it reverses this vicious circle, arguing all the while that narrative engagement creates human time even as (or just because) modernity would destroy it. As early as Gotthold Lessing's classification of literature as the "art of time," [End Page 273] reciprocalities of time and narrative have been essential to our sense of the nature and value of narrative form. Mikhail Bakhtin, Paul Ricoeur, Frank Kermode, Peter Brooks, Mark Currie and others have attributed human temporality to the "healthy circle" of narrative construction. And they have also implied something more practical. Ricoeur's Time and Narrative mainly theorizes the temporal ontology implicit in narrative configuration rather than its practical use, but his chapters on Woolf, Mann, and Proust show people innovating narrative temporalities for real human uses—temporalities that "transform human action" (2:160). Ricoeur is not alone in raising this question of practice. When Peter Brooks calls plot the "structuring operation peculiar to those messages that are developed through temporal succession" and "cannot otherwise be created or understood," when he concludes that narrative plot is "the product of our refusal to allow temporality to be meaningless," he looks beyond the ontology of narrative time to what "we," after our refusals, actually do with it (10, 21, 323). Frank Kermode's The Sense of An Ending says narrative meets temporal "needs"—that its structures fit it for existential demands that are also, by ready implication, practical demands for "temporal integration" (46). Even Paul de Man implies something similar. Unlikely to endorse any practice of temporal integration, de Man does note, in his discussion of "the rhetoric of temporality," that "the prevalence of allegory always corresponds to the unveiling of an authentically temporal destiny" (206). "The self seen in its authentically temporal predicament" becomes an object of insight, and, in turn, an agent of styles of temporal reckoning even de Man implies "we" might cultivate. In theory, then, human time is a product of narrative's temporal dynamics. Theory often implies practice, however, suggesting that we consider human time a matter of active, deliberate performance, not just a hermeneutical given but an achievement of collaborative human action or perhaps even an individual accomplishment.

Such a practice...