‘Seeing Things in/as time’

Text by Abby Mellick Lopes

[Presented at Making Time in Sydney, 23 Feb 2013]

    1. 1.     Object Time

    Typically we understand time as clock time, as a measure of duration. The clock is an organisational tool and it has been organising our time since the 14th century. Clocks have caused us to think of time in a certain way – sequentially – as a linear commodity to ‘spend’, ‘save’ or ‘waste’.  Time is money. Clock time brings every thing into ‘synchronicity’, a word that literally means ‘same time’. The clock has taught us that time is a measuring system located outside of and imposed on being.

    The regulation, synchronisation and standardisation of time managed the lives of citizens through work from the early years of the C20th. It gave birth to the idea of efficiency, an idea that has become a structural logic across many areas of life.  In essence, efficiency is a machine metaphor applied to human beings.  You might have seen Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, which provides a brilliant satire on assembly line production as an ontological designing of human beings. The production of objects was also a production of subjects.

    Says Tony Fry (1994, p.136): The way we make ‘things’ and the way in which these things act has a profound effect upon how we ourselves are made, and what we become.

    Design has mostly been in the business of creating and proliferating ob-jects. Objects are symbolic forms primarily designed as mediators and facilitators of ongoing economic exchange. As such, the object privileges eidos, the product image, and makes real a certain way of seeing things as static, discrete, complete, inanimate and independent. The word ob-ject literally means that which is put before us and blocks our way. Objects bring with them a certain kind of temporality. Jean Baudrillard (1998, p. 25) said “We live by object time: by this I mean we live at the pace of objects.” He talks about a coercive temporality that comes with the territory of objects where they “impose their disjointed rhythm – their unpredictable and sudden manner of being present, of breaking down and replacing one another without ever aging  – upon human beings” (Baudrillard 1996, p.159). Object time then is manner of being present that overrides things in their contextual and temporal specificity.

    The common experience of time scarcity is related to an increase in convenience devices that rather than saving our time, divide and fracture it. We are compelled to enter into the temporal logic of the devices we use, which depletes the experience of duration and the finite nature of things.

    1. 2.     The time of things

    But what if we understood time more as a medium (Fry 2009), something we are in? From the perspective of time as a medium, we can understand that every thing has its own time, in time. No thing is static or inanimate – every thing has what Don Ihde calls its ‘own weight’, its own directional force. While objects need to be plugged in to an external energy source to work, in Heidegger’s terms ‘things thing’  – they have their own energetic momentum. Every thing here around us is a gathering of time and is travelling in time. And every thing has its own end. Even this water bottle will eventually become nothing, but it is more durable a thing than I, unfortunately, and is therefore traveling much more slowly. The time of things is contingent on design.

    “All design(ing) is design in time” (Fry 2012, p.112). When we design we gather together and displace the existing energetic momentum and potential of things. Selecting materials, forming, joining, making and remaking are orchestrations of temporality. Every designed thing, in Kiel Moe’s (2007) words, is a ‘mongrel of local and global conditions’. Throughout human history, we have made things to carry on our trace. But while what we make might endure through centuries, the finite nature of human being is an ever-present horizon. There is possibly nothing more evocative of finitude, of absence, than the half-made thing whose maker is gone.

    1. 3.     Chronophobia

    Attached to the notion of the passage of time is a deep aversion, even a fear. Chronophobia is a term originally from philosopher Bernd Magnus that means ‘a morbid fear of the duration or immensity of time. A loss of temporal bearing and the anxiety that results.’ (Medical definition)

    It is disorienting, even uncanny to abandon the routine of everyday life and grasp the idea that time is nothing but change. That everything always happens for the first time. This is the meaning for me of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s well-known words … no one ever steps into the same river twice.


    The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges in his 1946 essay, “A New Refutation of Time”, writes; 
“And yet, and yet . . . Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.”

    Borges refers in this essay to the fear and inevitability of mortality. And it is worth remembering that this was written just after World War II when the experience of death, of the finitude of every thing, was so tangible as to be almost mundane.

    Now, the refutation of time – chronophobia – is embedded in western culture. It is played out in the 50 billion dollar a year cosmetics industry, which promises to resist or even wind back the disfiguring, entropic quality of time. It is at the heart of the modernist aesthetic, which was (and still is) dominated by a desire for timelessness and the illusion of permanence. The flat, clean white surfaces of iconic modernist buildings like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye were both highly intolerant and highly susceptible to wear and weather and therefore extremely high maintenance (Mostafavi & Leatherbarrow 1993). Yet the ‘white aesthetic’ is ingrained in everyday life. You can see its coercive influence in everyday, labour-intense practices of washing and cleaning, mowing and ironing that seek to remove all contaminating traces of time and restore lawns, clothes, bathrooms and kitchens and so-on to unworn, as-new conditions.

    In this respect, design has acted as therapy for chronophobia, feeding our pathological practices and obsessions with more products and more infrastructure to defy duration. By specifying the conditions for ‘comfort, cleanliness and convenience’ in the words of Elizabeth Shove – design is in the business of hiding, forgetting, deleting time.

    Let’s consider an example – the so-called ‘birthday apple’. This is a Granny Smith I bought yesterday from the so-called ‘Fresh Food People’. In spite of appearances, apples on sale now are off-season and are likely to be up to 10 months old. So this scenario is only possible because of the extensive use of refrigeration and cold storage.


    1. 4.     Defuturing

    The refrigerator is a form of what Tony Fry (2003) calls defuturing: the agency of unsustainability in the medium of time. It is an object delineated by destruction.

    The very idea of ‘freshness’ is an invention of the refrigerator and is dependent on the resource-intensive infrastructures of industrial food and the human debt and ecological damage all of this entails.

    The fridge migrated from novelty to need in a relatively short period of time. Shove and Southerton (2000) call it a ‘time machine’, orchestrating patterns of food provisioning, domestic and industrial practice and allied technological devices.

    Refrigeration does something other than snap lock or partition time and arrest the appearance of senescence. It is a form of sensory deprivation – anaesthetic. The birthday apple is without smell, without taste.

    Timothy Morton explains: “aesthetics derives from perception, but the history of the aesthetic has been the story of how bodies, and especially non-visual sense organs, have been relegated and gradually forgotten, if not entirely erased.” (2007, p.165)

    Refrigeration eradicates the multisensory indices of time – smell, taste, and tactility. It puts out of practice the ability to glean information from smell. Now fruit and vegetables come wrapped in polyethylene with bar codes for efficiency and use-by dates to accommodate our sensory incapacitates.

    But we can’t stop there. Refrigeration has also diminished cultural knowledge about food preservation and the socio-material practices that go along with it. If the refrigerator were to be eliminated, many of us (but of course not every body here) would be exposed in their non-knowledge. During the Brisbane floods of a couple of years ago, the supermarket shelves were bare, not because of a lack of food but because of a lack of refrigeration. If we were to actively design out the refrigerator, subject it to what Fry calls ‘elimination design’, we would need to recover those practices, give them new life and disseminate them through modes of community initiation and social learning. This is what Making Time is about.


    1. 5.     Futuring

    Design is a material practice that prefigures the future. The act of preserving food is a mode of what Fry calls futuring, an act of making time. In counterpoint to the ob-ject and its refutation of duration, is the design pro-ject – a prefigurative act that initiates specific change in a situation. Futural design goes ahead of cultural change and invests in change that may well exceed the duration of individual human lives. Danny Hillis of the Long Now Foundation, an organisation that meditates on the short-termism of our current culture, says: I plant acorns knowing full well I will not live to harvest the oaks they will become. 

    Futuring is teleological – it has its own end in sight and takes responsibility for this end. It is not about bringing things into the same time – that is the domain of objects. It is about reflectively interrogating what exists – our material, intellectual and emotional resources – and creating opportunities to take this potential in a different direction. This is called ‘redirective practice’ (Fry 2009). So all that cleaning and washing and mowing and erasing I talked about earlier are expressions of care that are real and socially and symbolically necessary. This care could be redeployed as repairing, maintaining, growing and giving time to things as they decline from object-being. This is the kind of redirection that is imperative as we face a climate-changed future.

    Redirective practice includes regenerating histories as much as prefiguring new futures.  But in regenerating histories we need to recognise we are designing a world within the world we have already designed. The current interest in localism has more than a tinge of sentimentality about it that is important to resist or at least question. We need to design in and with the world we have, including its mess of existing temporalities and contradictory ideologies. Every thing is ‘a mongrel of local and global conditions’. The water we use to grow organic food probably has trace contaminants; the backyard soil we grow might come from chickens that have been fed genetically modified grain. It is impossible to immunise our selves from the extensively and intensively designed world and the artificial ecologies we have created. We have to learn to care for our mongrels as well.

    Preservation opens up a different experience of time.
    I have two things to share:
    My mother-in-law grew up in rural Portugal without any refrigeration. She learned to preserve food by means of salting and drying. She makes chorizo at her home in Sydney and I have the recipe here … I have made up a portion of the marinade used for the meat, which is dried over an open fire.

    I spent all day last Saturday with friends making pasata  – bottled tomato sauce. It was incredibly exhausting but it made me realise the value of doing something productive with friends – actually making something together. It brings a new dimension to friendship when you give time, work together, exchange knowledge and share the results.

    Baudrillard, J. (1996). The System of Objects. London/ New York: Verso.
    Baudrillard, J. (1998). The Consumer Society: myths and structures. London: Sage/TCS.
    Fry, T. (1994). Remakings: ecology, design, philosophy. Sydney: Envirobooks.
    Fry, T. (2003). “The Dialectic of Sustainment” Design Philosophy Papers issue 5, 2003.
    Fry, T. (2009). Design Futuring: sustainability, ethics, new practice. New York: Berg.
    Fry, T. (2012). Becoming Human by Design. New York: Berg.
    Moe, K. (2007). “Compelling yet unreliable theories of sustainability” Journal of Architectural Education vol.60 no.4 pp. 24-30.
    Morton, T. (2007). Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Mass.: Harvard University Press.
    Mostafavi, M. & Leatherbarrow, D. (1993). On Weathering: the life of buildings in time. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
    Shove, E. & Southerton, D. (2000). “Defrosting the freezer: from novelty to convenience a narrative of normalization” Journal of Material Culture. Vol.5 no.3 pp. 301-319.


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