In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin coins the phrase “empty, homogeneous time.” Under this view, time bears no essential relationship to human history; it is merely a substrate in which our activities occur and is insignificant in itself. Time only gains meaning as a tool for ordering events or drawing measurements. There is no difference between the moments of the past, present, and future—they only constitute a sequence of events that can be observed. Our sense of time is keenest, that is, when we are passively observing. Each discrete event is similarly indistinguishable. To select one moment is to do so arbitrarily, for each event or action is in principle equal—just as the time in which they find themselves is homogeneous. This is our dominant, if unconscious, view of time, and it accustoms us to boredom and saps meaning from our lives.
Yet it is also the time on which many of our most important institutions rely. The time employed by sociologists, economists, and political scientists who are interested in the change of some variable from t1 to t2 is empty and homogenous. When we order important events, we are understanding time as Benjamin describes: any point is meaningless and arbitrary, no different from any other. Benjamin thinks that this empty, homogeneous time is indispensable for our notion of progress, which requires an unbroken, linear concept of time. Progress does not suffer any recurrences or moments of higher significance that would disrupt its steady march.
The modern concept of nationalism, argues Benedict Anderson, also would be impossible without viewing time as empty and homogeneous. Our feeling of nationhood depends on our being able to imagine the simultaneous activity of all people who share behaviors and characteristics despite never having met one another. There are hundreds of millions of Americans right now leading their lives, passing through empty, homogeneous time. Among the things we share is that we all participate in a “steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity.” We are assured—even if unconsciously—of our coexistence with our compatriots in a way that our predecessors were not, and this is a necessary condition for forming a national conscience.
In the years since Anderson wrote this, it seems that we’ve applied this notion to the global community, and that the globalized economy relies on something like the same assumption to maintain itself. Both the regimentation of labor—clock in, clock out, holiday—and our inexorable faith in technological progress increase when time is emptied of meaning and structure. For a successful supply chain, each link in the chain must be confident that its activity is contemporaneous with the other links’ activities. And consumers are secure knowing that the market hums along without hiccups.
While these institutions depend on empty, homogeneous time, they reinforce it as well. Unceasing activity dulls our awareness of monotony—our sense that things shouldn’t be this way—and becomes the background on which we act. We learn to navigate within the constant blur of activity, but the point of a background is that it goes unnoticed. The market’s saturation with media, most of abysmal quality, inures us to the idea that little is exceptional in either art or action. And this idea may be correct; mindless consumption certainly does not breed exceptions. We are victims of our low expectations. Regardless, the market operates according to a kind of rhythm, but its beats are so frequent that it sounds like a roar. These beats—either new products or pointless, gossipy “news”—are so utterly boring to us that we glance at them and shrug. Nothing stands out, and the roar starts to fade into the background.
And this is good for markets; regimentation and homogenization increase labor efficiency and delude consumers into thinking a new gadget may be what bursts through empty time. Part of advertising’s ubiquitous messaging is that this product will, in a sense, reinvigorate time and enliven a monotonous life. Indeed, advertising tends to operate under the assumption that consumers are bored. Of course, that commodity, as all others, will be incorporated into the background against which we search for something else to redeem lost time.
Except that time hasn’t always been as such. Empty, homogeneous time is something of a historical contingency, and the theoretical framework on which it relies has mostly been superseded. Following Aristotle, thinkers before the Scientific Revolution conceived of time cyclically; not until Newton was empty, homogeneous (he called it “absolute”) time first offered as a positive description of the universe. Not without criticism—from Leibniz most especially—Newtonian time nevertheless predominated for two centuries during which, at least in Europe, liberal political philosophy matured alongside it. It is no coincidence that Enlightenment political thought—intertwined as it was with commerce and Progress—developed alongside a reconceptualization of time. Montesquieu’s doux commerce and Kant’s perpetual peace both were meant to pacify belligerent nations, which would prefer peaceful exchange and democratic procedure to warmaking. Yet even this hope requires that everyone is assured that everyone else is, simultaneously, attending to their own affairs, preparing their own products for market, and committing themselves to democratic institutions. The progress toward peace that this entails depends on an empty notion of time and a succession of continually unexceptionable events. Condorcet’s positivism posited a progressively more rational and peaceful humanity embedded in liberal institutions. And, in the American tradition, Jefferson’s conception of progress similarly relied on the same institutions. All rely on empty, homogeneous time. In Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic, finally, what was initially a description of the universe and an assumption of political life became a feature of the psyche: we cannot but view time as structured in this way.
With the end of the Enlightenment, around the turn of the nineteenth century, we were left with the theoretical framework for Benjamin’s empty, homogeneous time which in turn structured the political thought of the period. We are its heirs, and, especially in the Anglo-American world, live in societies designed by those steeped in that era’s thought, now reinforced both by the market and by explicit political commitments enshrined in written constitutions or embedded within our nation’s political cultures.
A century past the end of the Enlightenment, empty, homogeneous time was exposed as false. Einstein’s general theory of relativity undermined Newton’s claim to offer a true description of things—distinct from the current understanding of Newtonian mechanics as a useful set of calculations under certain conditions. Meanwhile, around the same time, Heidegger demonstrated that Kant was wrong—or at least incomplete—about how we experience time. If our institutions continue to force allegiance to meaningless time—and it seems they do—then they perpetuate a false reality. In so doing, they minimize our number of meaningful experiences, driving them to the point of nonexistence. This is a pernicious effect of modernity that goes almost entirely unremarked upon.
There is something clearly unnatural about describing our experience of time as empty and homogeneous. It is a distortion of how we actually experience it, as anything but linear, empty, or homogeneous. Take memory, for example—not the kind where we strain to pick out some recalled detail, but rather where some stimulus causes us to re-experience something from the past. Proust calls this the mémoire involontaire; its simplest form is some scent or flavor that transports us back to our childhood kitchen. For Proust’s narrator, the taste of a madeleine cookie revivifies his past, making it present, if only fleetingly. Memory also makes the past present for us. We are participating in some event that preceded us in empty, homogeneous time, and which we should not be able to experience again; yet we do. This disrupts the linearity of events. Expectation and hope function similarly. We are always somewhat oriented toward the future—whether it be planning or something more foundational like Christianity’s joyful expectation. We are pulled from the present by the past and the future.
Likewise, Gadamer and others describe how literature mediates understanding between past and present interlocutors. Art can “overcome temporal distance” by its own “meaningful presence.” The act of “conversing,” as it were, with some long-dead author is in a sense something that happens outside of empty, homogeneous time. It yanks us from our historical moment and the author from hers, and when we meet and share meaning, it is somewhere outside and above a definite historical moment. This is the best way to understand reading scripture; when we read and understand or are inspired, we are pulled somewhere outside the flow of time, even if incompletely. Of course, we are not physically transported, but we are no longer experientially present in empty, homogeneous time; we are somewhere else.
This is something that our premodern predecessors understood far better than we, even if they never systematized it. They envisaged higher moments that stood outside time and which would recur with some regularity. On Good Friday, liturgical participants understood themselves as actually participating in the Passion. It was not an empty recitation of written details but a participation in something that stood outside history and which was real and present at that time. The purpose of the ritual was partially to facilitate the experience of real participation. This experience was sustained by distinguishing between human and divine history. Moments in the latter, separated by centuries in earthly history, were linked more closely than the intervening years would suggest. And they would recur. There is a reason the Liturgical Calendar is cyclical—not just for the sake of measurement, but because the same events reoccur, or persist, in part by our participation in them. Time has content that is inseparable from the cycle itself. There is a necessity to the Liturgical Calendar; the Passion cannot but be succeeded by the Resurrection. This, in effect, imposes a narrative on passing time—something we do with or without the aid of such a calendar.
The problem with our being browbeaten to see time as empty and homogeneous is that we lose recourse to one of our most important ways of finding meaning in our lives: constructing narratives. As individuals, we tell our lives as a kind of story. The past and the future reciprocally give and receive meaning from the present and from each other. Dostoevsky’s antihero in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, finds himself in a Siberian prison camp, rightfully convicted of a senseless murder. He finds his labor meaningful partially because it is a way to atone for his crime and partially because it is preparation for what is, he hopes, his future Christian redemption. In fact, without his crime, we wonder whether he would have arrived before the Gospel in the first place. Constructing a narrative is thus a way of redeeming evil in the past; finding purpose in hardships in the present; and maintaining hope for a transformed future. The complete absence of hope in any redemption from present suffering should come as no surprise. It has been sapped by institutions that impose a vapid regularity on life.
Nor is it only individuals for whom narratives are vital. Communities are built around narratives of a shared past, which may be expanded to include new members, but nonetheless inform present collective action. Whenever we refer to “our” values in our decision making, we always refer to something that arises out of a tradition that largely takes narrative form. In the American tradition, the concept of “equality” is loaded with the baggage of American history, including appeals made in the founding’s documents and, now perhaps more importantly, its evolution through this country’s ugly racial history. No genuine appeal to equality can exist that doesn’t at least tacitly have this history in mind. The past informs the present and, in struggling for equality in the present, an ugly past can take on a new, vindicated meaning. Equality is now conceived as a struggle, and we do not begin anew each time we reach for it when making a decision. Something similar can play out at the subnational level.
It is this ability we are gradually losing as monotonous modernity redirects our focus only to the present. We are denied that there is any validity to the kind of mediated understanding that Gadamer describes or significance to the memories with which Proust is concerned. It is no wonder that communities feel sundered from their traditions. They attempt to solve problems collectively yet are entirely cut off from the sources that would allow them to do so. They then fragment and wonder aloud at either their polarization or their sclerosis, depending on the community. If, as mentioned above, Anderson is right that empty, homogeneous time was necessary to sustain the concept of nationhood, then it seems it undermines other necessary conditions as well. But it is clear that a reinjection of meaning will have to be accompanied by a rethinking of time.
If empty, homogeneous time is reinforced by globalized capitalism, entertainment saturation, and the assumptions of the political structures we have received from the Enlightenment, then those institutions must be re-worked to overcome the notion of time we have inherited. Plenty of ink has been spilled on how this might be done, and it is not my intention to lay out a plan for overturning these things. But there is one modest proposal that might represent a positive step.
A useful historical heuristic is to mark major changes in eras by changes in calendars. The transition from the Julian calendar—itself marking Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire—to the Gregorian coincided with the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, a dramatic reconception of time itself and the overshadowing of the prior Roman-Christian political and social order. Likewise, Robespierre and the French Revolutionaries, as part of their crusade to destroy the vestiges of Christian France, replaced the Gregorian calendar with the French Republican calendar.
In the same vein, I would like to propose that we overhaul our public calendar—not the twelve-month one but our system of public holidays and how they relate to each other. This entails a system of holidays that, combined, form a year-long narrative, reconnecting the public to its traditions that our smattering of isolated, hollow holidays no longer does. And while I would prefer that this borrow heavily from the Liturgical Calendar, there would nonetheless be virtues to a new, distinctly American public calendar. It would impose a narrative back onto empty, homogeneous time, ripping us out of its clutches and allowing us, individually and collectively, to find the meaning we have been so desperately grasping for.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. ↩︎
Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft. For Kant, empty, homogeneous time is something we impose on phenomena aprioristically; it structures, rather than is derivative from, our experience. ↩︎
Heidegger, in Sein und Zeit, belies the notion that we experience time as a succession of basically undifferentiated events. For him, our basic comportment is one of anticipation, which folds the future back onto the present and projects the present out into the future. ↩︎
Marcel Proust, Á la recherche du temps perdu. ↩︎
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. ↩︎
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. ↩︎
I hope to expand on this in a future musing, but consider that today we basically celebrate a dozen or so public holidays which are basically state-sanctioned abstentions from work. The state makes no effort to celebrate the achievements of labor on Labor Day and collapses Lincoln’s birthday—an opportunity to celebrate the Reconstruction Amendments and the end of de jure slavery in the United States—into a generic “Presidents’ Day,” where we ostensibly celebrate Lincoln and Millard Fillmore alike. ↩︎