A DISCUSSION: tIME AND SUBJECTIVITY





James returns to tackle our edition theme of 'Time'. James is a Philosophy MA graduate who's politically informed writing never fails to surprise the reader.


He follows his philosophical forefathers in this intriguing piece, which considers the fragility of time, and how our relationship with its passing can shape cultural meaning. Why are we still impacted by the Bible, the French Revolution or Hegel after all this time? What is the present and why is it so important to us?


Read all about it below






Philosophy is concerned with paradox. There is nothing more paradoxical than pinning down the elusive subject that is your-self. It is an instinctual question we all have, that awe struck moment where you understand the fragility of being alive and the inevitability of your death. Time comes for us all. The conceptions we have of it, the constructions we project, only exist insofar as we do. Time is dependent on us. Universality of time is new and a result of history. Events through history create us. The way we interact with the world is a necessity due to the contingency of time. Reflection remains as a reinforcement of identity. The universality of subjectivity and time, the production of both, is culturally significant. We all like to think of ourselves as unique, special, and so on. How far does time construct who we are?


I probably won’t answer this question in any meaningful way here. In this, I reduce and simplify complex philosophical distinctions between thinkers which are brutal next to academic labour. So, I am sorry to the initiated. The function of this writing is to frame this knot of the mind: the paradox of subjectivity. I will mention the hopes of the enlightenment and how, unfortunately, those hopes were never realised. Hopefully, you draw your own conclusions. I am now going to explore brief sketches about the paradox. Raising the question is half the job in philosophy.


What does it mean to have a ‘present’ moment in time? From a basic understanding of modern physics, time itself does not exist. The present does not physically exist. Time works in strange ways. I am going to sidestep the complexity of our physical world. The duration of time exists in our minds. We create it. Time is a matter of history and the construction of history is a matter of our memory. The numbers on your phone, the clock in your kitchen, the close eye on it at school; time is a contingent tool. Like many emergent technologies of modern life, it aids us in navigating the external world. The present is chosen by us. Moreover, the way we relate to time demonstrates the link between consciousness and the present. Cultural moments exist as events in our memory, providing a robust meaning to our subjectivity. Historical events can give identities to us now. Britain demonstrates a lot of cultural attention to the wars. We celebrate the death of Guy Fawkes and we all seem to know Henry VIII’s wives. Events in time shape identity.


In 1872, the Paris Commune revolutionarily won as a space for the self-emancipation of workers. An initial move of the revolutionary agents was to destroy clocks. Unfortunately, the Commune was violently repressed. However, in that glimpse of a different world those involved destroyed clocks. These were objects that were representations of time; the things that measured their work. In many human societies, taking the earth’s movements and distilling it into something like a clock has a precedent. The modern understanding of a universal time is new. By this I mean conditional on historical processes of modernisation. Universal time means that Nottingham is consistent with London, both clocks are at the same time. This novel idea had its beginnings from trains. There is an obvious motivation to bring all clocks in line with one another. It is a highly difficult task to catch a train to London if Nottingham is working on a different framework of time. The Industrial Revolution made these changes a necessity. We can call this the genesis of the modern world. Trains and the universality of time are building blocks of modernity.


Western philosophy at this time announced the enlightenment of man. Reason was to guide us to the light of maturity, beyond the cave of ignorance. Immanuel Kant was the main proponent of the enlightenment. What are the limits to our knowledge? Our minds construct reality. This process of our cognition erects barriers to our understanding of the external world. We are beings of finitude. Knowing the limits of our rationality is part of the enlightenment. Reason ought to know its limits. The idea of a world, a transcendent one beyond our earth was questioned. The universality of reason, the idea that all humans were the subject to reason, was a revolutionary idea. Reason ought to set us free from the shackles of dogmatism and domination. It entails reflection. A unique feature of reason is this recognition in the process of our mind, to the object in which we perceive. I can reflect on yesterday, the week, or even the year before. I can question my habit, my dispositions towards others. Was I friendly? What am I going to do with my life? Do I drink too much? These are questions of self-reflection. Self is related to ‘me’ in response to you, the ‘I’, the thinking user of reason.


What does it mean to reflect on the year of 2020? How are phones changing social interactions? If the earth warms up and biodiversity collapses: what does that mean for the future of life on the planet? To reflect on the society you are in, the historical moment you occupy, is quite different to reflections of the self. The enlightenment of Kant is tied to modernity. Georg Hegel was a philosopher who took up this mantle as a champion of modernity, after Kant. If Kant was focused on this rational self, this possibility of human rationality, Hegel contended a collective understanding of the self. No subject is formed through self-reliance. Take the world of human relations. Consider Nottingham. This is an intersubjective world. A world of many subjects (individuals), full of life, meanings, etc. The ability to reflect and reason is affected by the environment of the subject. Intersubjectivity codifies the subject. Human relations, the world of intersubjectivity, is paramount to your own subjectivity, your sense of self. You, in your life, go through stages. You are born, you become an adult, you get elderly. Intersubjectivity is similar. It changes over time. Societies change. The identity of one moment in time, a present moment that felt fixed; already had the future there alive in that moment of appearances. You are contingent on history. More than this passivity, subjectivity is conditional on how we consciously and actively relate to the present and the past, and the idea of the future.


Hegel would suggest our identity is a matter of self-consciousness. We can think of this as being aware of one’s own existence. The famous passage that elucidates this point is called the Master-Slave dialectic. Kant was concerned with the cognition of the subject on the object. Through a cognitive process of understanding, we can make sense of the world. Hegel’s recognition is related to a folding relationship with the other. The other is not you, but without the other, you would not be an ‘I’. You relate as a ‘me’ to the ‘other, and ‘I’ to yourself. To become a thinking self, a form of intelligence, this recognition is key. You have no hair and a beard. The other has hair and no beard. Through the similarities (you both have a form of hair) and the differences (the content of the hair) you come to understand who you are. The real dialectical movements are the complexity of how this process of recognition actually happens. The intersubjective web of relations affects you, and you affect it. You are part of a whole, a totality, an absolute. You are not formed through a void, but a condition of this process. Self-consciousness is the awareness and perception that your existence as a subject is a process of relations with others. I am aware I am a self because I am not the other. Self-consciousness can be reduced to identity.


Karl Marx’s work haunts philosophy. His thought re-orientates the concerns of German Idealism, which started with Kant and finished was by Hegel in turning the shell of idealism inside out towards the material reality of concrete politics. Marx’s work operated as a critique of political economy. The political economy of the industrial revolution was capitalism. Marx haunts us because of the depths and practicality of his critique which still remain useful today. How do our identities relate to the reality of economic production? How does ideological power shape us? Philosophy will never forgive Marx for shaking the foundations of abstract thought, centred on understandings of subjectivity through the historical materialist analysis of time. Marx’s philosophy attacks the presuppositions of our common sense ideas. What does the meaning of freedom mean in the abstract? The universality of rights and suffrage is an empty gesture if the structures of productions remain the same. Marx aimed to demonstrate that we, as subjects, change the course of history. The true power and analysis of society is in production. Production of ideas and things shapes our social relations. Production centres class as a category of subjectivity.


If Kant hoped to discover universality for the possibility of human reason, and Hegel sought to understand how self-consciousness shapes history, Marx is not forgiven for demonstrating the uncomfortable reality of subjectivity. Production dictates subjectivity. The way humans form their identities is through the contingency of history. We are subjects of history. Capitalism as the reality of social production gives identity to us all. Way to attach ourselves, to reflect on ourselves, with the signs of capitalist production. The modern individual is self-conscious of their own progression within history. We get up, work, have hot water, maybe a family: all our needs are satisfied. The modern world gives us all we desire. The progression of our world has led to the disenchantment of nature. What was once viewed as mystical has been tamed by the might of our rationality. Hegel thought modernity was a matter of progression. The dialectical unfolding of reason through history.


What is progress? How are our desires and needs constructed? Science has given us an understanding of the word beyond our immediate comprehension. The work of Albert Einstein changed our conceptions of the physical world. In the past diseases would have killed us, to now being dissolved with a pill. We are healthier and more knowledgeable. The revolution of reason and the progress of modernity has made major steps in human development. It might be said: we know more, but from this acquisition of more we are aware we understand less. The dichotomy of appearance and reality is vital. The appearance of progress is woven into our identities. We grew up knowing we live in good times. Our desires for commodities and the need for something better is constructed. The ‘concept’ of the concept has been stolen by the advertising industry. The philosopher has been supplanted by a suit with an instrumental reason for profit. Everything is a machine. We have erected Cathedrals of capitalism, places where you can eat genetically modified beef or buy clothes that were made from slavery. Our subjectivities are constructed with the appearance of progress, pushing a vast space between what we think we are and the reality we actually occupy.


The philosophical question to ask about modernity is: what has the worship of reason given us? We all stand here today in a world that seems inadequate in addressing the malaise of common sense. What was started as a utopian dream of freedom remained a projecting of an appearance, a perspective. Simply, reason was in many ways used for the efficiency of violence. It was an instrument for those in power. A tool not for emancipation, but for the imposition of dominance and the extending of violence. In the abstract freedom; in the concrete void. The advancement of the human by technologies of science was spearheaded by power. Knowledge, it might be said, is one side of a dominant perspective. The conceptual relationship of knowledge and power is closer than appearances suggest. Perspective is important in time. The ways we are conscious of time, is in many ways, a matter of perspective. Sometimes moments of the past can stretch into the future, shifting perspective on an object in which we are all familiar with, providing an angle that distorts our stable understanding. Perspectives change our attention. What is knowledge, truth, and reason but another way to interact with the world? Is placing reason on top of Olympus not another way of favouring power and dominance of one perspective?


Being conscious of time presupposes a subject, an attention point of identity. What is a universal subject? Language and meaning are undermined by power and contingency. In the abstract, philosophical discourse sounds like the furthering of freedom, however, universality may only apply to some. Kant was deeply racist. His anthropology explicitly stated that reason was a faculty of the European man. Hegel saw the culmination of history being in Prussian constitutional monarchy, and had a hierarchy of civilisations and culture. Progress here clearly wasn’t inclusive. Marx hoped progress would be realised by the universal subject: the proletariat. Capitalism would end and the socialisation of production would commence. This never happened. Reason without understanding power, the power that conditions our subjectivity, is an empty shell of an abstract idea. The conscious being feeling the passing of time and observing the events of history internalises a long process of violence.


Reason reflects blindly to power: what does this mean for now our present? To be conscious of the time now. Time feels frozen. My body still feels, my hair grows, but relations that really define our attention, the intersubjective web of social relations has stopped. Maybe the issue of the vanished present is in our own subjectivity, our own identity? Our identity defines time. Culture is a good indication of a presence, a moment. It’s quite common for the critic to sit and pass judgment ‘there is no imagination in mainstream culture’. Maybe, this lack of imagination resides in the death of a perspective. The word ‘we’ encompasses a meaning of identity. What is the perspective of ‘we’? The idea of an in-group; the ‘we’ is not ‘them’. The forming of identities through this differentiation. What does it mean to get subjects to unconsciously plug into and attach themselves to these dominant forms of perspective that produce subjectivity? Our institutions have violence woven into them. The meaning of a ‘we’, a forming of identity through signs that we are unaware of, excludes attention from the image of this violence. Knowledge of violence is always a representation, never facing the ugliness of the empirical violence. It is not we who are violent, they are violent.


Hollywood is an iconic symbol of culture. This proposition of a lack of creativity is nowhere more evident than in Tinseltown. The perspective of the American, the subjectivity of the empire, could plausibly be sat in the waiting room for death. Novelty is dead, but who has killed it? The dominance of an identity, the angle of their perception plugs into all cultures. Time is based on us. History from perspective. The stalling of collective imagination does not speak for ‘we’, it symbolically represents an empire in decline, a dominant perspective supplanted. Hollywood is about the hero, the villain, those who need help. These are the codes that represent the structure of their storytelling. There is only one way to tell a story, don’t you know? Hollywood sells the production of subjectivity. They have investments in universal subjectivity. In the abstract it is Kantian, a soldier of reason. In the concrete it shows its face, the universal character of capitalist and colonial subjectivity. An identity you are subjected by. Violence is not just ignored, the attention of the violent sphere in the production of subjectivity is not allowed. Progress is never violent, they proclaim. We are the good guys.


I do not have any real arguments or conclusions, but thoughts that have escaped my head regarding the nature of time and subjectivity. Our relationship to time, history, and culture is contingent; dependent on what we decide to remember and what events we are conscious of. The present has stopped. Time coming to a halt gives space to reflect. Identities are dependent on each other. Philosophy has been obsessed with the subject. Is the paradox of us a pseudo-problem? If reflection is a reinforcement of identity it matters who is doing the reinforcing, the perspective that is dominant. Attention is important in creating meaning from time. Is progress a conceptual way of hiding violence? The dominant perspective only culminates in a memory, our subjectivity attached to this code of subjectivity. Only rupture disrupts this code.