Notes on:  Latour and Eliasson on the Bergson/Einstein debate on time -- held in Berlin University, Rauminstitut, February 2011

Dave Harris

Latour: Canales seems to have made this debate popular again: public opinion tended to say, before her work in 2008, that Einstein had just settled it by dismissing Bergson's work as mere 'philosophical' or subjective, psychological time.

Latour and some colleagues apparently decided to re-enact the debate between Bergson and Einstein in 1922.  Because it wasn't really much of a debate, with Einstein just being prepared to dismiss philosophical conceptions of time,  Latour and the others included another Einstein in the discussion, 'Zweistein', who was able to offer balanced  contributions after thinking about it.  This reenactment is discussed in the video which I looked at here, the discussion on day three. Unfortunately, the real thing is in French.

[There is also a transcript of what looks like a similar debate at a similar symposium  here]

Latour draws attention to two 'bizarre figures' in Bergson's contribution: the giant or god who is able to see two events far away acting in simultaneity, and correspondingly, a scientific microbe who argues that at the microscopic scale clocks might not actually be synchronised.  The point is to argue that Einstein's personal location as a physicist in the laboratory is an essential part of the decision to compare absolute and relative time [in the twin experiment, where one twin is sent on a voyage, and the other one remains on earth, and then their ages are compared]. Obviously this is going to mesh with Latour's work too. In effect what's being argued is that in order to compare absolute and relative time, there has to be some ways to mediate 'point by point' between the different frames of reference, and this is not discussed in Einstein's account. Einstein is in fact taking a classical metaphysical stance, acting as God in effect -- and it is ironic to call this 'relativity'. Bergson is the relativist! Bergson knows more about physics!

Zweistein would thus stop seeing Bergson as merely subjective, and would admit a metaphysics in his own position -- the issue become comparing metaphysics. B had been allocated a place as subjective. Many artists are similarly trapped. Some have accepted  this position and its inferiority. Revised dialogue denises this split -- there are 2 cosmologies and no-one is interested in subjectivity.  Can B's cosmology be accepted, where duration of time, lived experience equally real. This is Whitehead's position -- can we see an object as both white, as an artist,  and as made of molecules, as a scientist? If we accept there are 2, how can we decide on the success of the positions, as a matter of a gradient rather than absolutely? This is at least worth  considering -- and would have made the debate a tie?

Eliasson: What are the cosmological consequences of this bifurcation [of cosmologies]? More than a tie could be produced?

Latour: Do we live with the descendants of Bergson or Einstein? If E, no more to think about -- if B, can think of, say, Gaia and impact of ecology. Now we know only one planet, it is hard to be all-seeing God.

Eliasson: Good question (on to Part II). So phenomenology ultimately subordinates art to science? Phenomenology was very useful to be creative -- but art is still cornered as you say by cosmology? Creativitiy now needs a cosmological dimension? Would art be different?. [shows pictures of the space they are in, to show different positions and perspectives,someof them doing experiments, dances and shadows etc, interactions between gyroscopes -- shows lots of pictures etc]. Phenomenolgy allowed him to experiment with 'atmosphere' around work -- the people etc and the extent to which it could affect the work. Thge idea was to 'dematerialize' the work, offer new experiences and thus a reconsideration of reality a path from the subjective to speculate about reality, via new experiences, art that disobeys [conventions]. For example, behaviour is different if people expect a plane to be an ice-rink -- the ice somehow has a role, it communicates. Behaviour does not usually flow from new thinking [so it is hard to provoke thinking about reality? Taken -for granted views are socially supported]. There was also a similar experiment with bits of an actual glacier, which showed that [people reacted when it was displayed as art?]. It was the same with walking on unfamiliar ground [on obsidian rock] in Iceland, people lose track of dimensions -- no trees, no vertial lines etc. Oddly enough, fog helps gauge distance. How do we orient via our active body? How are surroundings constituted? What is the role of normativity here? [More installations are shown]. Or the 'sun' exhibition in Tate Modern -- which was somehow linked with climate change, which changed the meaning, even for Tate people -- they became pedagogues! The Tate was really part of the recycling of old industrial site. Again the installation added fog to increase the perception of space.

Latour: Fog and air conditions no longer easy to separate into subject and object. Heidigger showed Sloterdijk how to refer to science and technology but not accept their claims. Fog and atmosphere important in Heidegger...

Eliasson: Subjectivity drove these project but we realized plural phenomena were important. That other people do the same [in the Tate] affects individual behaviour. There is no full synchronization of course.

Latour: 'Installation' marks the difference from individual perception or construction in French...

Eliasson: Art works are not just 'things'. They have consequences and these sometimes produce the work. Folds are based on symmetries beyond Euclid [and these were explicit inputs?]. Esoteric work can be reused in art -- for example to disturb conventional buildings, even without people. One project was to create an 'island' -- a 'Parliament of reality', implying a need to agree on reality, pragmatically.

There is another experiment, instead of talking. We see how synchronized people are if they close their eyes and raise their  hands when they think a minute has passed. Think of a collective dimension if you wish. [They do it]

Part III -- questions

Q: The B/E debate was read closely by Heidegger who published -- the Notion of Time, nutshell of Sein und Zeit.Heidegger's themes of locality and intentionality of the thing. And also the role of the 'actants' in the installations --[machines do not have conventions?]
L:  The cosmological turn is different from Heidegger's interest.  Whitehead is more relevant? Bergson points out the  human interests in even buying clocks. [Not an answer at all!]
E: I need to read more Heidegger! I think of eating as a social activity - the origins of food, as things, show wider relationalities and trajectories. But the contexts often lose their power and relevance. Art can revalue these, to make them visible.
L: Is their interobjectivity?
E: But this can mean the modern idea of regulating masses, eg to make them consumers
L: I am extending intersubjectivity to include objects...
E: Our value systems are like 'sleepers' in spy stories. We must become aware of them, through art, especially as the end of the world is nigh [sic] .
L: The ethical dimension is apparent in your art, but is absent in the B/E debate. The glacier example raises the issue of our responsibility -- do we answer calls like these? If so, our responsibility then becomes cosmological, not just intentional?
E: We know about the climate but still there is no responsibility. We should not just moralise, although there is a personal dimension. How does responsibility turn into action? Art is also subjective, but it can turn the artist into an object outside of the self, especially with installations, but you have to be present.
L: So there is some other agency calling art for the spectators to experience? This is beyond morality, and, for Kant, we should exclude Nature to develop our morality. But now Gaia is coming back. Kant is frightened into morality by Nature? So which call should we respond to? Is it just a matter of size of the threat? Interestingly, the great threat seems to have induced indifference, people are blase. How do you manage this, to make people responsible not blase?
E: [Another example, he walks in slo-mo -- to draw attention to the park, not walking through it ]. This is a classic Eastern German park, and artists were encouraged to change it [?]. He seemed unpredictable and threatening, not engaging. There is very little interaction in this park normally, as a legacy of East German planning [?]. Slowness is valorised differently in the East [Asia this time?], but suspicious here. Photos of this walk stimulate further thought.
L: So you are showing that public spaces have a will of their own?
E: Another example -- deforestation in Russia produces tree trunks drifting  in the Arctic Ocean, and, after drifting a lot, sometimes run ashore in Iceland. He picks them up and put them in a container -- but they got lost. The same feeling as seeing trees on Iceland beaches (Iceland is tree-less), a gift from Gaia. He tried to retrace the path from the point of view of the tree. Trees are so rare in Iceland -- the trunks became commodified. People were awestruck.The trunks had travelled so far...
Q: Your stories are needed to get us interested?
E: It is hard to dissect the project. Talk about the project is separate.
Q: E's book on the driftwood -- nothing that humans could do would be as interesting as the presence of the wood.So objects are gripping on their own. Objects do cause discussion etc. There is no need to attribute consciousness to objects. The biological evolution of consciousness means it is no longer something unique to humans.
L: Animism is taboo, easily dismissed, but objects do have lives of their own, agencies. But relying on the term consciousness, big in Bergson, limits our thinking. Inanimism is equally strange, though, like Kant's denials of Nature. Why did we ever imagine that trees were simply inanimate? E's work on relativity includes strange objects with agency...
Q: So use another word than consciousness? I had radical intentions in using the term.
L: B used creativity --but inanimism is a creation despite our work, even in science.
Q: I am not afraid of the implications. Art has always thought of rocks having a soul, with art designed to liberate it. But this led to more humanity, and the notion of artistic genius. But there can be authoritarian tendencies.

[Then I gave up and skipped]

E: Scientists can help relate time and dimensionality in art. I can colonise scientific language.
Q: The B/E debate was very short and the issue was a universal frame or simultaneity required a human perspctive even to read clocks? Did E claim that art had an effect on the space around it -- and is this an Einsteinian line?
E: I intended to be non-phenomenological -- but I am not unhappy to be Einsteinian.Space is full of intentions but these are hard to quantify and analyze -- every brick in Berlin has lots of will and consciousness. I am aware of this in my art, that it is performative,so is it the same for the city? And is performativity dependent on people being present? When I am performing, eg walking in slo-mo, I have an effect.
L: For Bergson, the issue is the composition of extensions, extended space. In cosmology how does space extend and how far? B congratulated E for grasping local spaces out of earlier experiments --but then jumped to an absolute, abandoning composition. The history of perspective shows an early stage without extended space. Euclidian space itself is a composite of earlier notions of space. B says E extends 'too quickly': he was composing one. We are not in space and time, but we compose them around ourselves. E's work shows this, but E leapt to a metaphysics.
E: These notions are found in some architectural schools too -- combining the local and the global, as in understanding climate. One example [LaCaton Vasselle?] used buildings as raw materials from different countries and assembled them together -- glasshouses, houses etc. Or put new facades on old buildings.
Q: Theatricality combines the two presentations?  L's re-enactments provide the clue -- common in his work and connected to the notion of actors? Scientific labs as theatres? Also in E - - artworks as stages, perfomance. Theatricality can be an insult, meaning not real -- is that implicit in the work here?
E: There is a difference between staging and hosting an event -- the former means taking a stance, maybe moralising. It has been necessary to play down theatrical components,although they are good at representing time and narrativising, and presenting immediate experience. But the presentational issues are important and we need to be careful. The point is to allow coproduction. For example, he refused permission to perform at the Tate, to keep it as a public space, and was embarrassed when he gave into Cunningham's dance company.

back to social theory