The present as spacing

1.            The idea of the present confronts us with the old-time question of time. Whatever the present might be, it cannot be approximated without grappling first with our conceptions of time and temporality. At the same time, after Einstein and despite the lasting prevalence of Kantian ideas, one cannot probe time and temporality without addressing the question of space. Thus, it should not incite any controversy to state that the present is constituted spatiotemporally rather than just temporally. This view, however, is certainly not unanimous. Borges, for instance, thought that the conceptual coupling of time and space was simply blasphemous. Viewing time and space as two distinct elements, he conceived of no experience that was not temporally determined, while conceiving time itself to be independent of space.

2.            Time, Borges reminds us, remains the central problem of metaphysics, which is, also according to Borges, none other than an incarnation of fantastic literature. Then, is it that thinking about time cannot be done outside the realm of fantastic literature, in particular, and literature in general? If time cannot escape its constitutive relatedness to space, then, is (fantastic) literature the only kind of discourse that can help us to conceptualize space?

3.            In “Tiempo” Borges, with characteristic lucidity, captures the core of the problem. In the essay, he says: “time is an essential problem. I mean that we cannot do without time. Our consciousness is continually passing from one state to another, and that is time: succession” (1996, 4:199). If time is constitutively ephemeral and transfixed in a perennial state of passing, how can we speak of time’s identity when identity hinges on the duration and continued sameness in the form of permanence. In other words, identity cannot be recognized outside of spatiotemporal duration. A contradiction undergirds not so much time as such, as the exercise of conceptualizing time’s identity. Time passes. Identity, on the other hand, endures. The identity of time emerges upon the synthesis of successive temporality, a continual line that relates the past to the future. Time becomes the sequential organization of multiple, infinite nows.

4.            Sequential organization presupposes a particular configuration of space, namely spatiality. Placed in successiveness, the now becomes nothing but a point, which is a spatial element, or an element in space.

5.            According to Bergson, duration, rather than succession of time, enables the emergence of consciousness. The fundamental difference between space and time can be found in the fact that space can remain whereas the temporal moment cannot remain intact as it comes into being in unceasing movement and change. Thus, duration is also, Bergson sustains, susceptible to unceasing movement and change because time is inevitably succession. This points to the negativity of time, a negativity that is grounded on the phenomenon that one moment is negated by the succession of another moment.

6.            In Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of LifeMartin Hägglund notes that “Philosophies of time-consciousness have usually solved the problem by anchoring the synthesis [of time] in a self-present subject, who relates the past to the future through memories and expectations that are given in the form of the present. However, this solution to the problem must assume that the consciousness that experiences time in itself is present and thereby exempt from the division of time.” Now, if for Borges no human or non-human element sits outside the configuration of time, which is conceived as an infinite succession of moments, then, no mind could leap out of the succession to perform the synthesis of time. Just as Hägglund argues, this mind must be “exempt from the division of time” (17).

7.            The indivisibility and inalterability of the now-moment must be put into question. If Aristotle’s principle of noncontradiction thinks the now as something that cannot be and not be at the same time, how is it that a given now enables without ceasing to be the succession of a different type of now? How can the singular and unchanging event of a now precede the singular and unchanging event of the next now? The answer needs to be indistinctly negative for both questions. According to Aristotle, time, as we generally know and experience, would not be possible based upon a single and unalterable now. For the experience of time, at least two nows are necessitated and with two the spatiality of the now is extended and affirmed.

8.            Time cannot be conceptualized outside of a spatial configuration. The notion of linear successiveness already configures a particular spatiality for time. Time may not be necessarily spatial, but it certainly comes into being spatially.

9.            The present cannot be thought delinked from the phenomenon of presence, which suggests that the now cannot be conceived as indivisible and inalterable. Hägglund develops this point by deploying Derrida’s idea of the trace, which bears a spatiotemporal constitution. “The trace is necessarily spatial,” Hägglund argues, “since spatiality is characterized by the ability to remain in spite of temporal succession. Spatiality is thus the condition for synthesis, since it enables the tracing of relations between past and future” (18). The trace, albeit spatial, cannot endure no remain permanent. It is always exposed to the becoming brought by the future. This future, it seems to me, remains both certain and utterly empty. Emptiness is what enables it to encompass the becoming of the trace from the past. It is the trace subject to the becoming in the future that allows the synthesis of time.

10.            The trace spatializes the impossibility for either the past or the future to be conceptualized without the spatiotemporal anchoring of the present, namely without being present (i.e., the presence) in the present. Without the trace, the past and the future may be statistical probabilities but certainly not metaphysically possible. The potential of the future hinges on the existence of the trace. Borges’s literature speaks little about the future. The idea of the future appears, rather, in the figure of eternity. In “Historia de la eternidad” Borges writes, “Without the idea of eternity, without a sensitive, secret mirror of what passes through every soul, universal history is lost time, and along with it our personal history—which rather uncomfortably makes ghosts of us” (1996, 1:364; 1999, 136).

11.            Hayden White alerts us to the principal operation by which modernists irrupt the linear temporality of realism. They create based on “the dissolution of the event as a basic unit of temporal occurrence and building block of history.” Such dissolution “undermines the very concept of factuality and threatens therewith the distinction between realistic and merely imaginary discourse.” White adds that “The dissolution of the event undermines a founding presupposition of Western realism: the opposition between fact and fiction. Modernism resolves the problems posed by traditional realism [which I have called classical], namely, how to represent reality realistically, by simply abandoning the ground on which realism is construed in terms of an opposition between fact and fiction” (66-67). Even though such dissolution does effectively destabilize the once solid distinctions between factual and fiction, it does not undo the linear temporality of history that still sustains the narrative of the boom. Drawing from Hägglund’s ideas, I suggest that modernism’s fragmented temporality does not mount to a temporality alternate to the linear one. Modernist temporality attains the significance of what it is only when reeled into the linear temporality of historicity. And this owes to, as Hägglund argues, to an irreducible structural necessity of time. That is, the modernist temporality that purports to be an alternative to linear temporality only becomes intelligible when placed within the framework of historicist temporality. The event only adopts significance vis-à-vis a historicist backdrop of time. Attempting to do otherwise would require that the ontological reality of time be denied.

12.            It is precisely in the site of configuring time and space that narrative technique meets with other technologies —and system—of representation, and thought. Perhaps in simple terms, I say that in literature time cannot be considered independent of space because its representation necessitates space. Benjamin notes that “The spatio-temporal line of argument links film and photography to social change through the concept of “shock,” which Benjamin was to elaborate in his 1939 essay on Baudelaire (“Some Motifs in Baudelaire”) and which he already assumes in the Artwork Essay, especially the first version. The adaptation of human perception to industrial modes of production and transportation, especially the radical restructuration of spatial and temporal relations, has an aesthetic counterpart in the formal procedures of the photographic media—the arbitrary moment of exposure in photography and the fragmenting grip of framing and editing in film.”

13.            Jean Franco suggests that the boom novels experimented with ways of representing the present epoch from the utopian position of wanting to sever ties with their immediate literary past. She explains that for the boom writers, history amounted to be a “cycle of failed experiments, for their novels reenact the inevitable foundering of those other booms—of rubber or coffee, of bananas or mining that left a landscape marked by the monuments of failure. Despite their espousal of modernity they were as haunted as their predecessors by the specter of anachronism, by the fact that they were thinking what others had done before them in Europe or North America.” In The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City, Franco explores in detail the novels of the boom against the geopolitical backdrop of the Cold War. About the boom novels, she continues to say, “Their novels explore the breakdown of hegemony at the point where the subject himself is no longer able to believe in achievement as an ultimate good” (9). According to her, the boom novels thematize the loss of belief in most of the systemic ideals (republican, liberal, and capitalist) that had directed and sustained the (occidental) organization of the state, civil society, and a version of national culture in most Spanish American countries since the late 19th century. The theme of ideological loss or disbelief adopts particular form in the spatiotemporal configurations that become central part of the novels’ aesthetic experimentation. In sum, a fractured aesthetic coincided with multi-directional narratives lines to challenge the notion of the novel as a paradigmatically univocal tale. Such plurality of voices presupposed a form that could perceive such plurality without compromising its meaning or purpose.

14.                     The totalizing novels of writers like Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Cortázar reflect both chaos and structure. In other words, structured chaos defines the formal lines of such novels, and structured chaos prefigures the spatiotemporality that undergirds such formal lines. Structure and chaos; or rather, chaos being wielded by structure’s modernist formal control. Whatever element of chaos time may in essence have, it undergoes structural confinement to enter perceptual universe. Temporality, as a result, cannot be but structured chaos. These novels endeavored to make evident in the body of their narratives the complex relationship that perception holds not only with philosophical time, but also historical. Time, just like history, became understood as structured chaos. The inscribed-structure reflects the need for some form of order, less aesthetic or stylistic than symbolic and ideological. As a result, the topos of chaos must not be bestowed with any a priori ethical charge.

15.                     Derrida’s Specter of Marx can further complicate our understanding of structured chaos’s form, which time undertakes in most of the boom novels. Derrida reminds us that time presupposes the possibility of succession. The becoming space of time is predicated on the notion of the trace, in which the disappearing of the now coincides with the emergence of the subsequent now. The trace spatializes the succession of nows and thus time itself. We must grapple, however, with a paradox here: it is the trace instantiated by space that exposes the impossibility of anything being present in itself or as such, be it time or otherwise as the concept of something’s identity becomes profoundly spatiotemporally torn from within. Not a ruin, the trace offers synthesis. The identity of the trace, however, comes into being always and only delayed as it coincides with what Derrida names “spacing.” Spacing indicates the becoming-space of time, and the becoming-time of space, Hägglund says in his book. The trace inscribed in the now can only be recognized as the current iteration of an anteceding now that has come to disappear. The configuration of time and space presupposes the trace, and vice versa. The circularity in place here does not contain any a priori ethical charge; it is neither ethical nor unethical. Rather, the circularity configures the encounter of chaos and structure that manifests its-split-self in the trace or spacing.

16.                    That spacing is the present.



Eunha Choi
Eunha Choi

(New York City) is currently finishing her dissertation, which analyzes short- and long-form fiction to re-conceptualize realism outside of its entrenched opposition to modernism. Situated at the intersection of philosophical reflections and literary theory, her work examines aesthetic forms to forge new models of reading and interpretation. She helps coordinate Crítica del presente and Crítica de la crítica.