Source: Elie During, “Supertime: a philosophical reading of Viveiros de Castro’s temporal perspectivism”, published in Japanese in Shiso, vol. 1124, December 2017.
If temporal concepts are at all relevant to an anthropological understanding of the supernatural—which, in all likelihood, they are—, then surely “Supertime” would be an appropriate term to subsume them all. The prefix “super” should not raise any more difficulty than it does in the case of “supernatural”. Besides, it is convenient to distinguish supernatural time from certain contemporary usages of “hypertime” in the context of discussions about “hyperobjects”, for example. Supertime is not the deep, geological, cosmological and indeed inhuman time of indifferent Nature favoured by speculative materialists. Supertime is not the time of “Hyper-Chaos”, a time prior to physical time itself, a time of pure eventuality, severed from the framework of causality and determinism, predating—if the expression makes any sense here—the ancestral time of the “arche-fossil”. Supertime is simply the time of supernature: supernatural time. it refers neither to the aeons of some arche-time, nor to the quasi-eternity of a “time without becoming”. It is neither Chronos nor Aion. Or maybe it is a particular composition of both.
Now the concept of supertime would have little value if all it had to offer was a revamped version of the so-called mythical time of archaic societies, the sacred “Great Time” popularized by Mircea Eliade’s writings on religion and myths. Mythical time, with its recurring returns or re-enactments of the origin, amounts to a periodic cancellation of diachronical, historical time. It is generally interpreted as a symbolic projection of the unity of reality (tota simul) onto the plane of human experience—a unity which, in itself, must be characterized in fundamentally a-temporal terms. But there is nothing intrinsically “non-linear” about temporal representations displaying a cyclical structure or periodical element, even if they are directly modelled after recurring natural events such as the alternation of dusk and dawn, the cycle of seasons. Edmund Leach famously suggested that we redescribe in terms of “alternating” time flows (analogous to an alternating current in an electrical circuit) what my at first appear as typical instances of cyclical time. The point is that it is not difficult to endow any circular motion or structure with linear order, and this trivial observation alone should warn us against the temptation of overstating differences to the point of turning temporal oddities into insidious instruments of “othering”. If the Great Time of Indian mythologies had no relevance whatsoever with our time-keeping habits or the way we picture the human experience of time, why would we call it “time” in the first place?
Supertime operates at the juncture of diachronic and cyclical representations associated with the idea of time. While it is not another name for eternity, or the a-temporal, one essential characteristic sets it apart from the time of prosaic, worldly events is: it is essentially a-causal, or rather severed from the bounds of causal order as we know it. For clearly, things are acting and being acted upon all the time in supernatural contexts. Only, we are dealing here with extra-spatial, quasi-causes: occult or mystical influences exerting an influence on visible reality from a dimension that is in some sense orthogonal to ours. The resulting temporal regime seems to subvert the objective “order of time” formalized by Kant under the three headings of duration, succession, simultaneity. Supernatural time appears less rigid than the temporal framework or even the general form of time to which we have been accustomed. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl gives ample evidence that, strictly speaking, supernatural events do not occupy fixed locations in space and time—at any rate, since they remain invisible and imperceptible in themselves (although their action can be felt), they cannot be definitely localized. Hence, supernatural events are “floating” around: their action radiates from diffuse, non-localizable sources. A straightforward implication of this situation is that in the absence of rigorous localizability, there is no global linear ordering of events. Some events can be at once future and present, given in the mode of imminence, so to speak. Their impact can be felt in several places at the same time. The second characteristic that must be emphasized is a direct consequence of the non-localizability of supernatural events. Invisible influences operate through non-local action, or immediate action at a distance. Let it me noted that immediate” does not necessarily mean instantaneous (there may be a delay), but it implies that the mediations can be collapsed into the experience of a force or diffuse presence acting directly, here-now, on the spot so to speak. Supernature does not proceed from place to place, its action is not channelled through continuous chains of intermediaries, although it may use these to bear its effects. Its operational mode is rather that of an all-connecting medium whereby every entity is virtually present to the rest of the universe. So much is implied in the idea of supernature being “not exactly a spatial dimension, but a dimension of the sum-total of experience” (Lévy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality, p. 91). As a consequence of being infused by such supernatural agency, causal chains themselves acquire a curious non-local quality. Lévy-Bruhl quotes one of his sources, summing it all: “no death is natural or accidental, but the disease or the accident by which it is immediately caused is the effect of supernatural agency”. Thus, remote presence and action at a distance is the general rule. Or rather, rather, action without distance. Here we take our cue from Raymond Ruyer, who crafted a sophisticated theory of trans-spatiality to account for the non-compositional nature of phenomena such as the self-sustaining unity of the field of perception or the holistic quality displayed by higher organisms. If the effects of such action nonetheless occur in a spatiotemporal framework of some sort, neither space nor time can be represented as homogeneous, divisible, measurable media, following the tradition that views the former as the order of the coexistent, and the latter as the order of the successive. As far as the general representation of time is concerned, the form of Supertime does not come equipped with any clear intuition of global succession. Lévy-Bruhl acknowledges that, if one were to set aside the spontaneously negative characterization of supernatural in favour of a more positive account, its genuine content would reduce to a certain feeling of duration in the sense popularized by Bergson: a special insight into the concrete process of things evolving or undergoing alteration (Primitive mentality, p. 93, 96-). Thus, Supernatural time is deemed to be essentially qualitative. If we try to give this intuition more substance, however, it is difficult to resist the temptation of picturing “lived” supernatural time as the obverse of objective time, the shadow image of physical/mathematical time. The underlying assumption is not hard to uncover: at the end of the day, temporal representations are held as anamorphic deformations of some proto-experience of time rooted in lived duration. This primitive sense of duration is further elaborated in contact with an indifferent “time of nature” which we have grown accustomed to count measure with the help of hourglasses and mechanical clocks.
Surely, we can do better than that. Here is a hint. Following Viveiros de Castro’s lead, we first need to take seriously the idea that there is no such thing as a multiplicity of cultural islands (or monads) expressing, i.e., interpreting the one world from their particular perspective. This familiar understanding of perspectivism is really an elaborate form of cultural relativism. What we need to think, instead, is a multiplicity of worlds displayed by different perspectives. The same applies to temporal perspectives, or perspectives upon natural and supernatural time. In fact, we may argue that the coexistence and communication between such worlds and temporal frameworks raises metaphysical issues of an entirely new kind, which need to be stated at a more formal level than what we have been discussing thus far. I venture that Supertime, the time of supernature, is in essence formal, because it is based on a second-order organization of temporal experiences, in the plural. That is why Supertime must not be confused with an exotic variety of mythical time, or an animist interpretation of some underdetermined proto-temporal experience universally shared by all cultures. To state it briefly, what assimilates Supertime to a second-order concept: it refers to a time emerging from the confrontation of diverse perspectives, each bearing its own construction of “time” and “temporal experience”.
Bluntly stated, Supertime is the time of reciprocity—the time it takes for achieving a genuine reciprocity of (temporal) perspectives in a context involving heterogenous modes of existence. What is meant here by “reciprocity” is an operation of a specific kind, affecting thought itself even before it has been played out and performed in particular activities such as hunting, ceremonies, rituals, etc.). Reciprocity must be understood as the active exchange or switch between different (temporal) perspectives or frameworks. It is not a particular occurrence or happening to be reckoned with. It does not directly affect beings (by altering some of their properties, for example), but the relation they entertain with each other qua perspectives. Yet, relations are not mere nothings either, they are not superadded mental constructs, elements of a cognitive map projected on the world by an individual trying to get a grip on her surroundings. Relations are active ingredients in the concrete process of becoming that alters and individualizes beings. In this particular case, that of temporal reciprocity, relations require more than the mere capacity of oscillating between several durations or timelines endowed with different qualities, such as speed or density. Reciprocity is not merely an instance of what Piaget described as a capacity to mentally reverse the flow of time and retrace our steps to achieve the coordination of two or more durations in terms of a point-to-point correspondence between common instants of time. One may picture the situation as one involving a switch between two such frameworks or coordination regimes, similar to what is at stake in the situation described by Einstein when two sets of observers in relative motion try to picture things in terms that would make sense from the other’s perspective. (Bruno Latour provides a thought-provoking sociological reading of this general situation in connection with Einstein’s Standpunkttheorie: “A Relativistic Account of Einstein’s Relativity,” Social Studies of Science, vol.18, n°1, February 1988, p. 3-44).
For all the above reasons, Supertime can be considered a formal concept. In this respect, it is not unlike the concept of physical space-time, provided that we recover its original meaning in the context of the first theory of relativity. Before being a shapeless four-dimensional Riemannian continuum—or an arbitrarily deformable structure, adjusting to the de facto distribution of matter-energy—, space-time was introduced as a formal arena in which different kinematic perspectives could be embedded, along with the transformations required for moving between them. The concept of Supertime has the same level of formality, it belongs to the same logical type, as that of space-time itself, regardless of the important differences that mark off the anthropological context from the idealized situations described by the special theory of relativity (the main difference lies in the fact that the notion of “space” invested by physical theory implies that transformations between perspectives form a group in the mathematical sense of that term, thereby conferring a universal and thus homogeneous meaning to reciprocity, at least locally, in ideally “flat” spaces tangent to the variably curved space-time that corresponds to actual reality).
This reframing of the idea of supernatural time is consistent with the way the very notion of supernature has come to be thoroughly re-elaborated by Viveiros de Castro in his extensive work on Amerindian cosmologies. The basic idea is reminiscent of Lévy-Bruhl: supernature is not another world of spiritual entities or essences, nor a mere invisible extension of the visible world. It is coextensive to the world as such, or rather, it is a formal dimension of any world, to the extent that a world is primarily made, not of substances and essences distributed across a common space, but of interlocking perspectives or points of view transforming into each other in different, non-symmetrical ways. The way Viveiros de Castro takes up this issue involves a second-order transformation of the very idea of perspective. “Perspective” acquires a new meaning in the process by which it is applied in the Amerindian context. Very simply, it is redefined in temporal rather than spatial terms. This is hardly surprising if we remember that, according to Viveiros de Castro, transformation or metamorphosis—a vital notion in the context of animist cultures—are just synonyms for “perspective,” or rather, for the exchangeability of perspectives that is characteristic of the way Amerindian ontologies deal with the situations involving interspecific metamorphosis or shamanic transformation.
These issues find a direct cinematographic illustration in Achipatpong Weerasethakuhl’s movie, Tropical Malady (Sud Pralad, 2004). In the closing sequence, we are confronted with a shamanic encounter between the main protagonist and its tiger-human double or totem—a term I use in a very loose sense here. The scene takes place in the jungle, at night. Briefly stated, what we are witnessing is the operation whereby the human character enters the tiger’s perspective and is finally captured by it. When this is achieved, the voice-over goes on to say: “Now, it is myself which I see…” This oracular formula points to an oddly specular perspectival experience which I believe the filmmaker manages to capture nicely, drawing on the temporal resources offered by the art of cinematic montage.
A few formal choices immediately strike the viewer. The most obvious one is that of a fractured temporality: the editing technique conveys a general feeling of discontinuity and non-linearity. Duration is at once stretched out, dilated, and constantly chopped up, interrupted by empty black screens interspersed throughout a narration which does not seem to follow any regular chronological order. The tiger is at first presented to us as a shadowy figure detaching itself against the obscure background of the silent night… Then it appears in full light, as if a torch had been switched on. The visual effect amounts to a figure-ground reversal of some sort. Furthermore, the tiger looks straight at the camera, in frontal view. As everyone knows, the camera-gaze is generally excluded from the grammar of classical cinema, not only because it gives away the game by revealing the underlying technical conditions of cinematographic experience (a camera is always running as we watch, hidden from view), but more profoundly, because it undermines the continuity of cinematographic space and time. Why? Because the camera gaze, by pushing the shot/reverse shot technique to its utter limit (two perspectives aligned at 180°, an axis that one must avoid crossing at all costs), reveals in fact an impossible viewpoint. Literally, it gives visual presence to a blindspot in the space of perspectives. It is as if something in the shot started unfolding, as if the image as a whole was imperceptibly rotating, so as to turn its back to us.
The overall result is a fracturing of the temporal order attached to the classically perspectival structure of cinematic space, with its lines of sight converging on the horizon, its surfaces neatly receding in the depth of field… The gaze is arrested, it is forced to hover over the screen, so to speak, because there is no smooth merging of perspectives into one another, nor the suggestion of a third system of reference which the spectator could occupy, allowing for a continuous panoramic survey of the entire cinematic space. What we are left with is a brutal jump cut, a discontinuous shift from one perspective to another: tiger/human, human/tiger.
This situation contradicts our phenomenological intuition regarding what a perspective means. Or rather, it complicates the kind of temporalization or vectorization of the gaze that it is generally implied by the very idea of attaching the gaze to a particular location or “viewpoint”. The soul, as we know, has been held in the Western tradition as a metaphor for perspective—or maybe it is the other way round? In any case, a certain idea of the subject and its relation to the world is closely tied to the very concept of a viewpoint. The soul, Leibniz said, has its point of view in the body. It is not primarily a matter of representation, but of situation. We shall come back to this shortly.
Now, as regards time, what conclusion can we draw from Weerasethakuhl’s dramatization of the shamanic exchange of perspectives? I have referred to the discontinuous nature of the editing. It is not exactly as if time was suspended. It would be more accurate to say that it does not flow but proceeds by sudden bursts or jumps. Or maybe we should think in terms of percolation, to follow Michel Serres’ insight in The Five Senses. Time is an energy building upon itself, developing along a vertical dimension. In his Dialectic of Duration, Bachelard spoke of a “formal time”, a “vertical time” perpendicular to the stream of lived duration. A time beyond becoming.
This is nice as it is, but in the context of anthropological reflection, the question takes on a more concrete aspect. It amounts to this: how does one capture the space in which perspectives come to be folded into each other, instead of being distributed across space—the space of cultural differences—, juxtaposed according to the location of their respective points of views? One simile suggests itself naturally: the isometric—or axonometric—representation of the “transparent” Necker Cube, displaying two seemingly contradictory orientations at once A similar notion of formal transparency is at work in all instances of visually ambiguous figures relying on the mechanism of figure-ground (see Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, “Transparency: literal and phenomenal”). Rubin’s illusion, in that sense, provides the ideal emblem or visual diagram for the exchangeability of perspectives which is so central to animist cultures. Here is what Roy Wagner says about the tabapot discussed in his ethnographic field work on the Tolai people of New Britain. In his afterword to Viveiros de Castro’s 1998 lectures on “Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere,” he writes that the tabapot is “an imaginary self-parallax that is more than real, and that defines the human condition.” In order to spell this out, he refers the reader to a phenomenon which natives describe as a literal reversal of perspectives: “The Tolai say that: ‘When you look at a tree whose foliage cuts the shape of a human face against the sky, and then go back and forth in your picturing of it—tree to face, face to tree, and so forth, that is a tabapot. Man is a tabapot, for his desires are encased in the outline of his form, yet he wants what is outside of that form. When he gets it, however, he wants to be enclosed back in the human form again.’” (in Viveiros de Castro, The Relative Native, p. 319)
The transparency of reversed perspectives, the instantaneous parallactic shift involved in their mutual transformation, is one way of to approach Supertime as a variety of vertical time. As Roy Wagner observes, it bears obvious analogies with “the third point” described by Castaneda in The Power of Silence. The underlying idea—if I am not mistaken—is that there are different types of attention that one may order according to varying degrees or types of logical complexity. As one may have guessed by now, these levels are not to be confused with steps or stages in an unfolding process of continuous intensification. They must be considered in synchrony. The first-degree variety of attention concerns the possibility of discerning figures, shapes, visible essences. The second-degree variety aims at the invisible, hidden aspect of things. More generally, it aims at the background, the aura, the dreamlike halo surrounding every figure or its shadowy double floating around without being localized anywhere. The third attention provide further insights into the hidden side of reality, as much as it articulates the first two perspectives in a new way. It is not defined by its content, but by the general function it fulfils. The third attention, as presented here, is nothing but the differential between the first and second types of attention. This is how Roy Wagner puts it: “The sum and difference of the first attention and the second attention, the absurd and uncanny figure-ground reversal that holds all of perception and creation to its sticking-place, is the third attention, ‘which is available to mortal beings only at the point of death.’” (The Relative Native, p. 315). If this is indeed the case, it is fair to hold Supertime as the closest approximation of death within life itself. And I would follow Wagner once again in his suggestion that we think of the “third attention” as an ultimate insight into the nature of Supertime itself. If we give it enough thought, the form of becoming may well offer a glimpse into the tota simul unity of duration as such. Then, “one [may be] able to grasp and hold (fixate within oneself) a parallactic shift at the crossover point between the eternal presence of space and the eternal passing of temporal extension (‘duration’).” (The Relative Native, p. 322). In this regard, Supertime may share certain features with the Great Time of mythical thinking, as well as with the Space-Time idea popularized by relativity theories, but it comes in a distinctive form and with a host of problems of its own.