Tuesday, 5 November, 2019

I –

Casting Futures in the Thick Present

This seminar inquires into what Helga Nowotny identified in 1989 as the tensions arising between a ‘subjective local time that sees itself confronted with a public world time.’  It is time for a new understanding of the implications of this simultaneity – with the emergence of ‘nowness’, ‘thick present’ and ‘situatedness’ – and the concurrent need for realising one’s own time (Eigenzeit).

The question is:
Who are casting futures?

The Illusion of Simultaneity

Thirty years ago, Helga Nowotny – in Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience (original 1989, translated into English in 1994) – explored how the illusion of simultaneity took over the world. As global communications networks spread ripples of what felt like immanent occurrence around the globe, another temporal tension began building: the tension between global, networked, technologically-interconnected time and local, disconnected, individual time. With that grew the desire to

gain ‘temporal sovereignty’ over one’s local time, which is now visibly and noticeably integrated into world time. It is not so much the very long and the very short time, the time of history, of the ‘longue duree’ and the specious present, of the perception of the flow of time in split seconds, which seek contact and resolution in a juxtaposition charged with tension, but one’s own, subjective local time that sees itself confronted with a public world time which – spatially extended over the entire earth – professes to be simultaneous.

(Nowotny 1994: 18-19) [1]

Eigenzeit was both the term used for the time ‘proper’ to bodies in motion within Einstein’s theory of relativity as well as the term Nowotny uses to refer to one’s local or individual time. Within the tension arises an awareness of the existence of multiple timescales or time-cultures. With this awareness arises the acute realisation of how milliseconds can mean the difference between being able to take part in a global economic trade system or not or how access to communications technology and the flow of immediate exchange can both liberate you from your local time as well as bind you within the temporal dominion of another time-culture. Today the Netherlands choses to synchronise with German time rather than choose for a more natural, solar-centered time zone, and outsourced workers in Asia exchange their own nights in order to function during the working hours of European or North American companies. And today, vulnerable societies from the Pacific Islands and the Arctic are making compelling arguments and pleas for economically powerful nations to act globally within a timeline that will protect their unique ways of life.

The lecture by Eric Kluitenberg gives us insight into the way time has shaped and been shaped by thinkers within european society. Practical and artistic artefacts related to time have exerted influence within layers of local as well as international time structures. 

Speculative Reorganization of Time

Now, thirty years later we seem to be moving toward an unbearable pressure on our being-in-the-present. The complex industrial and technological systems that have been set in motion – economic, energy extraction, agricultural, mobility, connectivity – have extended, sending their fibres beyond our current time position and wrapping back toward us, determining our imminent responsiveness in an ever-accelerating need for preemptive action to avoid negative future probabilities. 

The preeminence of the (specious) present has already waned, and it is no longer a given which mode – past, present or future – is primary. As Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik put it:

If the leading conditions of complex societies are systems, infrastructures and networks rather than individual human agents, human experience loses its primacy, as do the semantics and politics based on it. […] We are instead in a situation where human experience is only a part of—or even subordinated to—more complex formations constructed historically and with a view to what can be obtained in the future. The past and the future are equally important in the organization of the system and this overshadows the present as the leading configuration of time.

(Avanessian and Malik 2016: 7–8) [2]

Caught up in this system, an individual can easily feel there is no stopping or diverting these networked, vast and embedded machinic systems, rising up like a deterministic wave to crash back at us, swallowing our futures.

We are surviving, but how? How might we reclaim the spacetime of a maneuverable present, free from the imperative of preemptive action, free to cast shared, perhaps symbiotic, futures?

Storying in the Chthulucene

‘Good stories reach into rich pasts to sustain thick presents to keep the story going for those who come after’

(Haraway 2016: 125). [3]

In her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016), Donna Haraway combines khthôn and kainos, to create the timeplace Chthulucene: where the earthy, manifold khthôn become entangled in a kainos of ongoing beginnings, a ‘thick, ongoing presence, with hyphae infusing all sorts of temporalities and materialities’ (Haraway 2016: 2). There we learn to remain tenaciously enmeshed in our mutual living and dying on a damaged earth.

In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.

(Haraway 2016: 1)

Part of this ‘risky game of worlding’ (Haraway 2016: 13) is storying. Through new stories, stories of our past and stories by means of which we give shape to possible futures, we can start practices of casting futures in a thick present. Imminent and embedded futures. The short way forward, backward, and in-between.

Through her work with nine Colombian migrant women living in Europe, Ximena Alarcón-Díaz has developed INTIMAL, a physical-virtual embodied system for relational listening, a unique way of storying through telematic sonic improvisatory performance.

With the theoretical backdrop mentioned above – thinking with Helga Nowotny, Armen Avanessian, Suhail Malik and Donna Haraway – we have invited theorist Eric Kluitenberg and sound artist researcher Ximena Alarcón-Díaz to share stories of time – as ‘technological object’ and as ‘a malleable category to reinvent ourselves’ – with us and promote a discussion inspired by the writings mentioned above and the work of our guest speakers.

What stories will we tell each other today? What stories will we tell each other tomorrow?


  1. Helga Nowotny, Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience. translated by Neville Plaice, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994
  2. Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik, “The Speculative Time Complex” in The Time Complex: Post-Contemporary. [NAME] publications, 2016
  3. Donna Haraway Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. London: Duke University Press, 2016