Time and Praxis: 2015-2016

Time is a massive concept. If you were asked to think about it – how it works, feels, changes, what it looks like, how people go about talking about it, or representing it – where would you start?

As a person interested and invested in critical theory, my initial reflex would be to go to philosophers, phenomenologists – writers like Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and so on. Or check in with narrative theorists, think again about what Gérard Genette says about time and narrative in Narrative Discourse.

My second reflex would be to look at art and cultural objects. I’ve been trying to watch and/or reconsider as many time-travel movies as I had time for, everything from Primer or Donnie Darko to something more straightforward like The Terminator. Sometimes you find something unexpected – for example, trying to untangle Primer after watching it last week, Gillet (a fellow Praxis member) commented that manipulating time in films can have a certain scare-factor, almost like it’s a specific branch of horror movies. I’d never thought about it that way before. Time, and the manipulation of time, has the power to frighten us.

Also, games: like Braid, where manipulating time is the only way to solve puzzles and progress through the narrative. Or (at Jeremy’s suggestion) checking out Ian Bogost’s A Slow Year.

And of course, literature. I thought first to a classics like H.G. Wells’ 1895 The Time Machine or Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder,” where tourist big-game hunters go back in time to kill dinosaurs, but (spoilers) someone accidentally steps on a butterfly and changes the whole course of history. Then to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse Five (probably because it’s the first book I ever wrote a book report on), where a character becomes “unstuck in time” as he dips in and out of his life experiences. Or even to something like Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 A Tale for the Time Being (which I’m reading for my oral exams), where relationships with past and present “time beings” might, in some ways, influence one another, even when those cross-temporal relationships are mediated textually.

There are so many movies, games, novels, short stories, poems, and plays I could go to here it’s nuts – not even looking at works with entangled narrative structures like the film Memento or Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (for example). These above are just the first that come to mind, each of which interacts with time and experiences time a little differently.

This is my first time writing here as a Praxis Fellow for the 2015-2016 year. Along with producing a charter, this year we’re all trying to think about time in as many different ways as possible, staying wide open with it and willing to explore any new possibilities, each coming at it from our own unique angle. Throughout the year, in our work and in posts like this, I’ll try to keep track of and share what I feel like I am able to bring to our work from my own unique perspective (apparently even if sometimes that means just talking about a bunch of time-travel stories I’m excited about). We’re only a few weeks in, and I can already say how excited I am to be working with the Praxis team and all the folks at the Scholars’ Lab this coming year. I can’t wait to see what we come up with!

Ethan Reed is a 2015-2016 Praxis Fellow as well as a Ph.D candidate in English Literature at the University of Virginia, working with 20th and 21st century texts. He is also interested in exploring the links between materiality, textuality, and physical computing in and out of the Makerspace in the Scholars' Lab.

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