Ars Combinatoria: Or, Hegel’s Logic as Chronotope for the Digital Age

by Christopher Vitale (crossposted at Networkologies)

The combinatory is an idea whose time, once again, has come. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich argues that the database is one of the primary apparatus of the new media age. He cites Dziga Vertov’s use of this form to ‘digitize’ the visible world, in films such as Man with a Movie Camera (decades before the advent of the digital computer), as a key precursor of the mode of de/reconstructing the world in the age of computerized media. And yet we can go back further – Leibniz, widely considered one of the forefathers of the modern computer – was himself fascinated by dream of a ‘universal characteristic’, a combinatory which could translate human thought into a series of symbols which could avoid the ambiguities of human language. Combined with production of the first binary numeral system, as well as his attempt to produce a mechanical adding machine, Leibniz’s desire seems fulfilled in the contemporary form whereby inputs hit computers, are metabolized into numerical codes which are stored in database grids, then to be read and output in cybernetic loops with us, their human relay centers.

Manovich has argued that time itself changes in the digital age, it ceases to be the linear time of modernity (which for Vilem Flusser was prompted itself by the linearity of the sentence as promoted by the ‘Gutenberg revolution’), and rather is spatialized by the very form of the database grid. In database time, each cell in the grid contains a moment, retrievable at random, not necessarily placed in the order of temporal flow. Thus, you open one cell in the grid and see yourself as a child, in the one nextdoor, as a geriatric, and in between as split between ovum and sperm. Certain experimental films and books, particularly hypertext fictions, pursue a related notion of temporality which Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, calls crystalline time. In crystalline time, there is still a flow of present to past at the level of the observer, but this observer moves continually amongst a series of ‘cells’ of the past and future, thereby combining the linearity of modern temporal flow with the spatialized time of the computer database. A film such as Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 is an example given by Deleuze of the manner in which ‘time is out of joint’ in the post-war world, producing an interpenetration of memory and imagination, desire and anticipation, all in a multi-temporal present which explores time as one explores a house whose labyrinthine structure is crystalline, and whose rooms indicate moments of time. A film which takes this to the next level, for Deleuze, is Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, in which the protagonists explore a variety of virtual scenarios, what Leibniz would call ‘incompossible’ combinations of events, each of which present alternative futures and pasts, many of which could not exist at the same time. For Deleuze, Resnais’ film presents us with one of the most advanced images of the crystalline time appropriate to the postwar age.

Videogames present perhaps some of the most advanced forms of crystalline narration available today, in forms which go beyond the inherent linearity of time within film. Many contemporary videogames present the player with virtual worlds which are like Leibniz’s combinatory of possible worlds as presented in his Monadology (leading Ken Wark, in Gamer Theory, to refer to Leibniz’s God as a sort of cosmological video-game programer). Key events lead to forking paths which separate the world of play into parallel realities, only one of which the player can follow at a time, but which by playing multiple times and making multiple choices, allow for an exploration of incompossible parallel realities. Such an approach uses a linear formation to explore the potential permutations of time as algorithm, as spatio-temporal crystal. What’s more, on the level of the code whereby the game itself operates, the form of the database generates this time-as-crystal via a mode of production whose form is analogous to its content. The crystal is in many senses the form of time, or as Mikhail Bakhtin would say, the ‘chronotope’ of our networked digital age.

What’s more, there seems to be something fundamental about this form of time in relation to contemporary quantum physics, which seems to increasingly lend support to the notion that quantum states are able to explore multiple spatiotemporal potentials before they actualize. Many physicists seem to feel that it is only our macroscopic time which works in linear fashion, and even then, physicists argue that this linearity likely breaks down at extreme conditions, where it returns to more ‘spatial’ forms. Black holes and singularities destroy the distinction between macro and micro/quantum, dragging time and space back into a sort of pre-individuated (or as Whitehead would say, pre-‘extended’) state. According to many contemporary theorists, were it not for the flow of energy (negentropy) in our universe, time might not in fact have an ‘arrow’ or direction at all. From such a perspective, ‘time’ is fundamentally multi-directional, it only takes on linearity in specific situations. Our contemporary cultural mileu may in many senses then be a return or resonant echo, if on a more macro level, of what exists as our quantum foundation. [For more info on all of this, see a text like Paul Davies’ About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, or recent books by Huw Pryce or Julian Barbour].

All of which, surprisingly perhaps, bring us to Hegel. Few thinkers would seem, at first glance, more contrary to this form of networked, spatialized time than that of Hegel. The thinker of the dialectic, of the linear progress of time, Hegel seems the thinker of the linear flow of temporal progress par excellence. And yet I feel that Hegel has much to teach us about what it means to think the potentials of this seemingly ‘new’ type of temporal form.

Many miss the non-linear side of Hegel’s approach to temporality, his ‘database’ side, if you will, because they put the emphasis of their readings on the early parts of his texts at the expense of their ends. And this makes sense: Hegel’s books are beyond dense, long and arduous, they are filled with abstruse digressions into outdated scientific topics which may or may not turn out to be essential to later parts of the argument. Reading Hegel is an exercise in frustration (with perhaps the Encyclopedia Logic being the quickest of the bunch, and that’s not saying much). But for those who do get to the end of one of his works, the fact that the temporal model outlined at the start of his works, one in which linearity prevails, is itself made by the end to seem overly simple, is a key insight. While at the start of Hegel’s work, linearity prevails, by the end, not only does spatiality prevail, but it is shown to be that from which linearity emerges.

The implications of this might not only potentially useful in regard to furthering our understanding of database forms of temporality, but in regard to contemporary theory. Slavoj Zizek’s highly influential reading of Hegel as a thinker of the radical split, of the fundamental dehiscience of the now, hinges upon a very particular reading of Hegel’s relation to time. My sense is that this ek-static, contemporary reading of Hegel is as one-sided as those which reduce him to simple linearity.

As I’ve argued in previous posts, Hegel’s works are written in performative fashion. What this means in regard to time is that time in fact operates, both as described and as deployed, in a different manner in all the three parts of any of his books. In the Logic (either version, Encyclopedia or Science of), Hegel emphasizes that the movement of time between the moments presented in his first section, on ‘Being’, is that of ‘passage’ between distinct and separated entities. In the second section, on ‘Essence,’ time is presented as a splitting of the present into the virtual experience of a part of the present which is past and one which is the future, both of which are contained within the present. This is the form of time privileged by Zizek, in which the past is always a nostalgic fantasy, and the future always an wishful illusion. The model of time operating within the final section of Hegel’s Logic is that of the ‘Concept’. This is for Hegel the more ultimate form of time, one which encompasses the other two in their disjunct unity. For the Hegel the Concept is that which gives rise to time: it is not only the splitting of the now into past/present, nor the passage of time between past, present, and future, but the unity and difference of these two approaches within a sort of ‘disjunct-unity’ which does not merely ‘move’ in time, or ‘split’ itself in time, but is in fact all of these as unified and different at the same ‘time.’ The concept, for Hegel, presents us with an atemporal genesis of time itself.

But what exactly does this mean? For Hegel, each part of his work not only describes the aspect in question, such as ‘Being’, ‘Essence’, or ‘Concept’, but also the parts thereof – parts which are composed of the approaches to the world described in ‘earlier’ parts of the text. Thus, ‘Being’ is described three times – once in the section on Being, then seen through the lens of Essence, and then again both of these preceding approaches to Being are recast from the perspective of the Concept. Thus, not only does ‘Being’ change along the way, retroactively reworked, but it shows three different faces, so to speak, the final form of which contains the preceding two. The result is that Hegel’s books are like fractals, they are expansively ‘self-similar’ up and down at multiple levels of scale. But if we are to understand them at the level which he considers the most fundamental, that of the concept, we need understand them as self-similar not only within each section, but between them as well. The result is that his books necessarily need to be read, and the model of time presented therein understood, as structured around a far more complex model of time than has generally been thought.

For in fact, if we read Hegel’s book as presenting simply three models of time – Being (progression), Essence (splitting), and Concept (atemporal genesis) – we in fact read the three sections merely under the mode of thought appropriate to the first section of the work, that is, the ‘lens’ of Being. We hypostatize the three forms, without considering them through the lenses of Essence or the Concept. If we then try to fix this by viewing the three approaches to time (Being, Essence, Concept) through the lens of Essence, we get another three models of time – Being (progression as produced from an original scission which is its essence, thereby giving rise to all three models presented under the lens of Being – Zizek’s reading of Hegel, as it were), Essence (a scission of time into a progression and atemporal genesis, thereby giving rise to all three models presented under the lens of Being), and Concept (a scission which gives rise to progression, scission, and atemporal genesis, thereby giving rise to all the previous models . . .).

Taking this chain of logic to its final, hypercomplex conclusion, we need to be able to see how this all plays out form the perspective of the Concept – Being (a progression through all three models of time till we finally understand it as atemporal genesis, thereby giving rise to the previous models – the common caricature of how Hegel’s works function), Essence (a series of intertwining scissions leading up to the folding of atemporal genesis into itself, thereby giving rise to the previous models . . .), and finally, well, the most fundamental model of all, or the Concept of time as understood under the lens of the Concept itself. But what might this be?

The Concept of Time under the form of the Concept is in fact rather similar to what quantum physicists might describe as the varying forms of the disjunct-relation between micro and macroscopic levels of time. That is, the time of the Concept, understood ‘Conceptually,’ is in fact all the other eight models just mentioned, all at once, both understood as unity (Being), giving rise to each other (Essence), and Concept (as all of these both in unity and difference). That is, we have yet another fractal threefold division within what previously seemed to be the final category.

In the first of these (or the Concept of time under the Form of Being), we see what in fact corresponds to what we have discussed in the first part of this post, namely, time as combinatory – database time. But what in fact might lie beyond this? This is where Hegel might help us think beyond time of the database. Continuing this line of logic, the second approach to the time of the Concept (this time viewed under the scission of Essence), views time as giving rise to itself from the atemporal. That is, this approach concerns how time comes to be by means of the splitting of itself from the atemporal from which it emerges and will return. This is precisely what quantum physicists describe when they discuss transitions from quantum multi-temporality to and from macroscopic linearity. But what is the last, keystone approach to the notion of time, that is, the Concept of time, viewed Conceptually? It is all of these, all at once. It is as if one could be like a quantum particle, in many places at once, all of these approaches incompossible yet folded into each other, but then also be like a macroscopic entity as well, differentiated in each of the preceding forms. At once
temporal and atemporal, both within the database and outside it, flowing yet spatialized, this notion of time is more than just a combinatory, but the combinatory which thinks itself and is the knowing of itself at every level of scale, in its unites and differences.

And this in fact helps us understand precisely what is at stake with the Hegelian notion of what it means to ‘know’. The word in German for ‘the Concept’ (often unfortunately translated as ‘Notion’) is Begriff. Derived from the verb greifen (to grasp), a literal translation of a ‘the Concept’ is as a ‘grasping’. Any introductory reading of Hegel presents this basic translational quirk, one which is difficult to render in everyday English. But as some scholars have argued, this grasping can also be translated as ‘the knowing’. And in fact, that is precisely what Hegel aims to produce with his works. Knowing is more than a thing, or process, or even a database. It is rather the interplay, intertwining, and interpenetration of all these levels. Hegel’s model of time is thus much more than a simple combinatory, going beyond this to what might best be described as a sort of hyper-complex, video-game-like ‘crystal’ of time in the process of ‘playing’ itself – even as it is ‘writing’ itself – and all at the same time and separately, and all the states in between. And here we see precisely why Hegel’s texts are necessarily performative, because language itself begins to break down in any attempt to simply describe such a supra-linear, and hence supra-linguistic, concept of time

Many contemporary post-structuralist approaches to time, which are much more limited than that presented by Hegel, can perhaps learn much from such an approach. And this in fact seems where a thinker like Deleuze, who in most of his works presents time as a Bergsonian flow of duration, may be going in his later works, with his notions of time as crystal or network of Leibnizian worlds. From such a perspective, the Bergsonian and Zizekian approaches, as well as many others, including that of the databse, are included as elements/moments (whatever such terms might mean within the model of temporal/atemporal knowing presented by Hegel). And perhaps this truly provides us with, to use a much maligned word, a ‘post-modern’ approach to the issue of time, one which no longer asks which form of time is true, but which, in a given situation, works.

And is this not the situation we see in contemporary videogames, in which chronotopes of various sorts expand and contract, putting as at one moment in the mode of collecting coins while a clock ticks down, another moment frozen into a section of cinematic interaction while watching ourselves linearly unfurl from a distance, another moment exploring the multiple pathways of a game as so many incompossible futures, even as pulling back into special screens to modify our parameters as time is paused? Hegel’s time is video-game time, and increasingly, perhaps, it is the time we live.

Welcome to the chronotope of the digital age.


~ by chris on November 22, 2009.

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