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The direction, pace, and sound of a clock’s hand, every new year’s free throwaway calendar, a societal expectation to be punctual; we are surrounded by mechanisms that illustrate and operate according to our view of time as a sequence of moments.
Even for the most self-reflexive, one’s arrangement with time is rarely questioned. After all, brush away every thing and we are all living in seconds, minutes, hours, and days, are we not? Familiarity at that level, practically instinctual, generally need not be interrogated. Evading our gaze, time appears more like space than like stars.
If anything, in order to make sense of things like personal growth, grief, bodily decay, love, and more, a presumed position of the individual along a natural timeline is more likely to become fundamental. According to an article in The Scientific American, the idea that our past flows through the now into the future, linking our experiences into a rational chain of events “is built into our language, thought and behavior. How we live our lives hangs on it.”1
I am unsure of how animals conceive of time or if they even do. Humans assume that time flows. The way a life can be experienced and understood, as a static sequence of events, sustains the presumption not only that time is made of the past, present, and future but also that these stages are directionally interlinked.
Thus it is with controversy that some scientists have generated research and arguments for a delinking of stages, calling our basic conception of time into question.
Physicists are not abandoning or burning the ship. Although seen by many as rogues, such physicists would tell you they merely recognize the limitations of their field. While it has helped humans to explain a good many things, ‘proving’ the simple notion of sequentially linked events seems beyond our system of physics. Over a century ago, Albert Einstein was asking the same questions while developing his theory of relativity.2
One example of a modern anti-time physicist is the Brit, Julian Barbour. Barbour argues staunchly that time is not a chain of interlinked events but rather a collection of “nows,” individually existent and independently complete moments.
Barbour’s conception of time is rich with existential potential but robbed of a core notion, namely that our engagement with “the now” is enmeshed with our engagement of “the past” and “the future.” Time is not viewed as a set of dominoes/events but instead as a blob or swirling cloud of those same events. Imagine time as infinite snapshots of the universe, but not a flipbook.
Barbour makes use of a mathematical analogy to illustrate this non-sequential way of viewing time. For example, a number line factually conveys a hierarchy of values and it’s plain to see that “every integer exists simultaneously. But some of the integers are linked in structures, like the set of all primes.”3
The meta-lesson is that the inertia of sub-systems can have dramatic effects on other values within the big system. Focusing on the integer analogy, the function of the sub-system of primes is to highlight 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and so on, while it simultaneously irrationalizes or deletes 1, 4, 6, 8, 9, and anything else that is divisible by a number other than itself and 1. Primes exist in sequence but their nature is to stand alone. This quality is not incidental, there are consequences for the other values; along the continuum of prime numbers, it’s as if composite numbers do not exist.
Along any one flow, a number of values will not occur. Although the invisible figures may be numerically sound and fit they are excluded by any number of sequences that not only reflect the rules of mathematics but go so far as to create them.
Plus turnabout is fair play in the math arena. Along the continuum of square numbers, which create the rules of numerical possibility all the same, it’s the primes that disappear.
All of the possible flows come together to engrain mathematical logic into any number line. Yet, how does such logic hold given contradictions like those between prime and square numbers?
I want to insist against room for compromise here; the same system that sustains a rationale behind rules requires that each of its values perform every necessary function. Barbour’s integer analogy demonstrates more than the idea that nows may relate to each other in multiple ways at once. Beyond mere permission or potential, nows must exist within a multitude of arrangements; and, all values naturally exist “within time” as opposed to being linked through it by anything other than an individual’s perceived sequence of experience.
Sensitivity to this coexistence of contradictions is essential to both Barbour’s conception of fragmented time and my argument. When it comes to numbers, their value and function are actually far more complex than would be suggested by a number line accurate though it may be.
And the value and function of any experienced moment may be far richer than suggested by traditional conceptions of time.
My sense of justice has been developed through my lived experience, an organic product of my being. What can be stunning is the acknowledgement that I have not been completely aware of which components were forming Voltron. Equipped with retrospect, however, I better understand how and why I became what I came to be.
Since each answer brings along more questions, Barbour’s abstract notion of time can offer instrumental resources in managing the chaos of oneself during the revisionary process.
Frequently tempted and ever required by socioeconomic circumstances to retool our own identity, the mode of being a Person of Color pushes the limits of sequential time. Starting points are hazy and the arc can appear disjointed, uneven, sprouting multitudinous paths fraught with the ghosts of miscalculation, naivety, weakness, and outright betrayal. Past, present, and future, so interwoven with our identities, never escape existential flux.
Events yet-to-be-experienced naturally remain uncertain but even the past bends as our memories retrieve or identify instances of aggression yet-to-be-understood. A deep familiarity with the processes of racial patterns cannot help but trigger a range of defensive deduction.
The POC is destined to unforget countless moments we did not even intend to remember. Those unforgotten moments and their lurking nature do not exist independently of our bodies. They are best understood like Barbour’s nows. They are not left behind. All of these moments are part of our life before we are even aware of their presence. We absorb all nows and become saturated and surrounded by them.
Many nows remain hidden in time, squares on a prime number line. Upon sudden exposure, however, nows of racism reveal a hollowness and rottenness within certain branches and roots of our past, some growth more important than other. Rebuilding necessarily follows. For the health of the larger structure, replacement foundation is sought after or found within. POC survival is marked with a continuing need for the interlinkage of events to be fragile, alterable, salvageable, but not set in stone.
All possibility resides in the now, a structural fact of Barbour’s conception of non-sequential time. All possibility must stay in play in order to compensate for the lack of linkage in our alternate view of time – no flow is necessary when each moment has the potential to instantaneously sync up with any other.
The now pre- and post-dates our entire lives while defining every individual moment. Sensing the now in a paranoid way, we may even put our lives on hold to hold the now at a distance. Behold the creeping flipside of optimistic privilege; such expansive possibility offers great danger and risk to a consciousness of color.
Not to be lamented, certainly by whites, all people do not face stigmas comparable to those directed at POC in the United States. However, my argument does not presume that white people don’t reflect, or change, or grow, that whites are not betrayed, that whites encounter no struggles. And while it may seem prima facie silly to conceptualize the vast majority of white America in terms of self-liberatory racial struggle, regardless of the white contribution to collective progressive momentum, that is not really the point.4
In fact, my argument hasn’t much to do with white folks as it comes from and seeks mainly to describe a perspective of color. Closer to the point is that whites are not systemically encouraged to question their status as human, are less likely to learn existential doubt at a young age, and thus may be more susceptible to an easy flow of time. Although I recognize that my argument may be interpreted as an indicting or challenge to white personhood, my intention is to stir curiosity as to whether “colored people time,” CPT, our infamous meta-time-zone, validates the findings of modern rogue physicists and vice versa.
Centuries of society have been designed by whites and for whites, regardless of any one white person’s intention. And due to the exponential contextualizing influence racism wields in each and every now, the range of possibility is huge for a POC living in modern America. The aware child of color must live within, not through, a web of confusing and hostile nows produced by other children, adults, and institutions that are themselves descendants of structural racism.
CPT starts so early it is difficult to distinguish between a learned habit and an inherited way of being. Existence for the person of color, per se, is premised on a wholly different view of time and reality where historical stability and settled fact come to be regarded as baubles of privilege. It is not about how textbooks are revised annually to include accurate and appropriate historical content. It is not about comparing current American attitudes about race and gender to those of the 1950’s to those of the 1900’s to those of the 1850’s. It’s not about discovering explosive information in one’s personal past.
POC are born off the deep end, not thrown in. Forever with our specter like a best friend. Destined by generations of ancestral perseverance, tragedy, and struggling, we learn to swim in the womb. We are the fish who see the water.
Each moment of revision ultimately contains a rearranging of values that are distinct for whites and non-whites. Non-whites live in a chronological ether where answers do not come easily or sometimes ever and survival means producing our own justice detached from the mass of sequences and values that our experience has taught us to beware of.
In terms of comprehending the multiple ever-present nows people of color engage, modern physics is providing helpful intellectual resources. It’s just that CPT clock hands are turned by gears of self-love and protection, emitting healing vibrations toward the shadows of the system.
Unforgetting is not exceptional but rather our norm. We breathe in between those moments between days, hours, and minutes. We exist in those escaped instances that keep each official second ticking in perfect sequence. You do linearity. We connect the dots.
Our déjà vu is different. Doubt is inside our design and with one eye on the big picture we are seeing new things all the time. We are the primes.
written by: Martin Osborn @o_z.z_y
1. Craig Callender, “Is Time an Illusion?” Scientific American, June 2010, online
2. Tim Folger, “Newsflash: Time May Not Exist,” Discover Magazine, June 12, 2007, online
3. Adam Frank, “The End of Beginnings and the End of Time,” About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Free Press; September 27, 2011, excerpt online
4. All life is a struggle, granted, but it is not my goal to describe the phenomenon of collective struggle so that those who most benefit from the traditional system and history can automatically assume inclusion among its resistance. For the reader interested in this point, I plan to directly address the position of radical whites in a system of whiteness in a later piece.