Kubler’s proposal to reformulate time, a meditation on critical theory

April 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

The new metaphysics is critical theory. In a godless existence the question of a human source [ontology] is still relevant. The assumed “source of being” found in theory is that people are primarily the constructions of their modes of thinking; theory, by guiding & broadening thought, both indicates & dictates the parameters of these modes of being. It holds a secure place in the modern world, standing distinct from psychology for not being a practice [for which set rules are a requirement], & remaining at all times defined as mutable hypotheses. Theory makes meaning from chaos, just like its predecessors — scientific practice, history, art, & theology — had done. All of these take ideas, & their creation, as a medium to illuminate or enrich existence.

Questioning what creates meaning is the ultimate open-ended sequence of thought. The extensions of the pursuit of meaning & knowledge are so broad, however, that conflating all meaning-actions is rarely useful. As such, it is usual to keep scientific considerations clear of artistic ones, for instance. George Kubler does the unusual in his seminal work, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, by considering science & art side by side. Both are taken as consciously-crafted material, under the same sign of an instinct to creation, in the way that archaeology would treat a headdress on equal footing as the remains of a carriage. “Science & art both deal with needs satisfied by the mind & the hands in the manufacture of things. Tools & instruments, symbols & expressions all correspond to needs, & all must pass through design into matter” (10).*

Kubler uses the cycles of innovation & replication to refine notions on how we observe time. History, as one of the common mass-illuminations tells us, is written; the past is not history, though it is history’s medium. We access the past with its residue: artefacts. “Man-made objects of all kinds correspond to human intentions in historical sequence. Prime objects correspond to prime traits, or to mutant intentions, while replicas merely multiply the prime objects” (43). The re-classing of objects in The Shape of Time is proposed to overthrow our habitual divisions of things by style & type, suggesting instead that they be considered for their relation to solving a problem [satisfying a need]. Prime objects correspond to new solutions to a problem; they are the first unit in a formal sequence. Replicas, on the reverse, are removed from the situation of need; they are formal objects.

This proposal to reformulate time is ostensibly very controversial. Yet the line of thinking is a direct inheritor of structuralism; in both cases, the formulation of a thing is used to demystify its apparent solidity under a name or a function [thus the shift toward the solution of a problem & away from definition by more superficial measures]. “Whenever we group things by their style or class, we reduce redundancy, but it is at the cost of expression” (125) — no one would argue otherwise today. Unfortunately, Kubler was unable to express the connection between structuralism & his own proposal clearly — only alluding to it in the negligible preamble — which has kept this curious work on the intellectual periphery.

Another contention with the mainstream is the book’s pessimism at prospects of progress or change. The text seems to be resigned to the fact that there is in the world an insufficient — & already exhausted — quantity of forms. This stifles future invention.

It is possibly the potentialities of form & meaning in human society have all been sketched out at one time & place or another, in more or less complete projections. […] As it is, our perception of things is a circuit unable to admit a great variety of new sensations all at once. Human perception is best suited to slow modifications of routine behaviour. Hence invention has always had to halt at the gate of perception where the narrowing of the way allows much less to pass than the importance of the messages or the need of the recipients would justify. (123—24)

Through this lens, our modern society is experiencing a lull in the introduction of new formal systems [i.e. a scarcity of prime objects]. & so, there is a continuation of new solutions for past problems. That there are continuous anthropological questions is natural. We are perhaps simply in an age more sensitive to depth-ambiguity, to equivocal solutions in competition. This is, in fact, the stratagem behind the success of capitalism; its longevity is promised by an ever-perpetuating world of competing adjustments. The shortage of prime objects also attests to modern rootlessness [post-colonial, digital, rejecting heredity] which avoids materiality.

Using Kubler’s reformulation of time, we can give a satisfactory response to the question why the currency of criticism has experienced unprecedented, unfettered inflation over the past decades. Critical theory is more than a “struggle with oneself as well as with the age” [to abduct a key from Alfred Kazin’s famous essay The function of criticism today, 1960]. Criticism has become a form. It is no longer necessarily tied to an exterior text, written or otherwise, for people are recognising in great numbers its usefulness as a tie to life instead. Critical theory has replaced the meditation genre, which is the impetus for both philosophy & literature.


* The author is patient with both sides of the tug-of-war between art & science, but does not support reducing the worth of the former on the basis of utility: “Human sensibility is our only channel to the universe. If the capacity of that channel can be increased, knowledge of the universe will expand accordingly” (66). If anything, Kubler may betray a greater commiseration with art for its “richly clustered adherent meanings. Works of art specify no immediate action or limited use” (26) — they are open signals, perfected/completed only with an audience. Art is better suited to augmenting that channel to the universe, then.


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