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Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique

Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique

by Bliss Cua Lim

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Under modernity, time is regarded as linear and measurable by clocks and calendars. Despite the historicity of clock-time itself, the modern concept of time is considered universal and culturally neutral. What Walter Benjamin called "homogeneous, empty time" founds the modern notions of progress and a uniform global present in which the past and other forms of time consciousness are seen as superseded.

In Translating Time, Bliss Cua Lim argues that fantastic cinema depicts the coexistence of other modes of being alongside and within the modern present, disclosing multiple "immiscible temporalities" that strain against the modern concept of homogeneous time. In this wide-ranging study-encompassing Asian American video (On Cannibalism), ghost films from the New Cinema movements of Hong Kong and the Philippines (Rouge, Itim, Haplos), Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films (Ju-on, The Grudge, A Tale of Two Sisters) and a Filipino horror film cycle on monstrous viscera suckers (Aswang)-Lim conceptualizes the fantastic as a form of temporal translation. The fantastic translates supernatural agency in secular terms while also exposing an untranslatable remainder, thereby undermining the fantasy of a singular national time and emphasizing shifting temporalities of transnational reception.

Lim interweaves scholarship on visuality with postcolonial historiography. She draws on Henri Bergson's understanding of cinema as both implicated in homogeneous time and central to its critique, as well as on postcolonial thought linking the ideology of progress to imperialist expansion. At stake in this project are more ethical forms of understanding time that refuse to domesticate difference as anachronism. While supernaturalism is often disparaged as a vestige of primitive or superstitious thought, Lim suggests an alternative interpretation of the fantastic as a mode of resistance to the ascendancy of homogeneous time and a starting-point for more ethical temporal imaginings.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822345107
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/21/2009
Series: a John Hope Franklin Center Book Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 362
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bliss Cua Lim is Associate Professor of Film & Media Studies and Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Read an Excerpt

Translating Time

Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4510-7

Chapter One

Two Modes of Temporal Critique Bergsonism and Postcolonial Thought

The cinema is a legatee of modern homogeneous time. This argument finds its fullest elaboration in the work of Henri Bergson; nevertheless, cinema's entanglement in modern time consciousness is latent in historical accounts of cinema's emergence amid a host of technologies that ushered in profound changes in our apprehension of time and space. The cinema belongs to the shared genealogy of mechanical clock, wireless telegraph, and railroad, that is, to the tendency toward the technical denaturalization, homogenization, and standardization of time.

This chapter is composed of two main sections, the first of which explores the ontological critique of homogeneous time elaborated by Bergson. Beginning with Time and Free Will, written in the years from 1883 to 1887 and published in 1889, Bergson offers a critique of spatialized time contemporaneous with the railroad industry's successful promulgation of standardized public time in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, a rationalized temporality that is still part of our global inheritance today. Bergson offers a corrective theory of time, one that disrupts our habit of thinking time in spatial, numerical terms. Bergson's corrective philosophy of time is emphatically visualist, a visualism that can be grasped in two ways: first, as a suspicion of seeing and of optical technologies. Bergson argues that in order to regard time as homogeneous, one must first visualize an empty space in which increments of time can be laid out for measurement. Similarly, Bergson repeatedly equates spectatorship-watching the clock or the moving images of a cinematograph-with our failure to apprehend the heterogeneity of true duration. We misrecognize our own duration as coinciding with the trajectory of the clock hand, or the movement-in-general of the cinematographic apparatus. Yet Bergsonian visualism, I argue in this chapter, also has a second valence, one that holds out the possibility of forging an alternate route through Bergson's suspicion of vision and the cinema.

Drawing on David N. Rodowick's discussion of Deleuze's Cinema books, I suggest that the visual analogues that suffuse Bergson's writing-photograph, cinematograph, spectatorship-should be construed as historical "images of thought." Such figures are not merely conceptual objects of denunciation; rather, visual analogies enable Bergson's temporal critique and ground the modernity of his approach. Deleuze asks a crucial question of Bergson: has the cinema always been with us? Is it, as Bergson maintained in Creative Evolution, a cipher for the age-old flaws of human perception? Or, to ask Deleuze's question in a different way, could Bergson's temporal critique have been possible prior to the advent of the cinema? An alternative path through Bergson begins with a consideration of the cinema's historicity, its own unforeseeable "creative evolution." Bergson's searing treatment of the cinematograph appeared in print in 1907; a hundred years later, we feel the enduring force and relevance of that critique but are well aware that Bergson's cinema-as reducible to the cinematographic apparatus-is no longer our own. Our global cinema-predominantly narrative, industrialized, and media-convergent, a social institution circulating among diverse publics-is not the mechanical novelty Bergson encountered in the medium's earliest years.

The second part of this chapter traces the emergence of modern time consciousness, a reified time that for Karl Mar levels the qualitative heterogeneity of human labor into abstract labor time; homogeneous labor time lies concealed at the heart of the commodity form. Though the concept of progress, according to Reinhart Koselleck, is minted in the eighteenth century, the decisive ascendancy of a world-historical homogeneous time can be traced to late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century transformations in the experience of time and space. In the United States, national standard time was operationalized by railway managers in 1883; the following year, the International Meridian Conference inaugurated the worldwide adoption of twenty-four standard time zones calculated from the Greenwich Prime Meridian.

Like Benjamin, Koselleck sees progress as the defining attribute of modern historical consciousness. Both concepts-modern historical time and its central feature, progress-were fired in the furnace of global imperialism from the late fifteenth century onward. In the crucible of empire, the emerging ideology of progress was twinned with its obverse: anachronism. Again and again, colonial expansion and the European encounter with radically heterogeneous worlds were temporalized. Though intractable differences divulged by culture contact always threatened to expose the fiction of a single homogeneous present, such differences were temporally managed by distancing the indigene from the colonizer's present. Koselleck's "contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous," Fabian's "denial of coevalness," and Chakrabarty's "anachronism" are names for allochronic gestures, tactics of temporal distancing that translate heterogeneity into the terms of homogeneous time.

The cinema is implicated in this modern temporal elitism. As filmmaker-theorist Fatimah Tobing Rony demonstrates, early ethnographic cinema is a kind of time machine that transports the primitive to a "faraway present." This chapter closes with a discussion of Rony's experimental video On Cannibalism, a work that dislodges the rhetoric of anachronism by upholding the force of lived experience. Rony's video exposes the ruse of temporal exclusion and brings both the nineteenth-century ethnographic imagination and the contemporary spectator into the ambit of temporal copresence and accountability toward those encountered as savages.

By orchestrating a conversation between two ways of mounting a critique of homogeneous time-Bergson's ontological method and a postcolonial challenge to modern time consciousness-this chapter interweaves visuality, plural temporalities, a refusal of anachronism, and a recognition of untranslatability, uncovering topoi of temporal critique that will be elaborated in the rest of the study.

Part One. Bergsonism

Bergsonian Dualisms and the Corrective Philosophy of Time

In Time and Free Will, Bergson introduces us to the founding dualisms of his philosophy: the distinction between heterogeneous time, or pure duration, and homogeneous time, or time-as-space.

Pure duration is Bergson's name for an authentic understanding of time, a time "free from all alloy," that is, purified of spatiality. To pure duration Bergson accords the experience of our ego when it "endures," that is, when it experiences "succession without distinction," when time is lived as an organic whole, an interpermeating, indivisible, and hence, nonnumerical multiplicity. Bergson's figures for pure duration are often musical or aural: he compares pure duration to the memory of a musical phrase in which "we recall the notes of a tune melting, so to speak, into one another." Bergson contrasts to pure duration a second, habituated and erroneous, conception of time as a "homogeneous medium." Homogeneous time consists of "project[ing] time into space," inaccurately representing time as a simultaneous jutaposition of distinct instants.

As Deleuze has remarked, Bergson's method, intuition, is dualistic (opposing duration to space, heterogeneous to homogeneous, quality to quantity) and fixated on purity ("pure duration" or "pure heterogeneity"). Deleuze points out that the dualisms of Bergson's method are rooted in the realization that our experiential reality is ruled by composites. Commonsensical perception yields neither pure time nor pure space but spatialized time, the time of clock and calendar. Thus, Bergson's emphasis on purity stems from the desire to go further than surface experience in order to recover our capacity to intuit a difference in kind between the two pure tendencies, time and space. The Bergsonian philosophy of time is strongly corrective in thrust: the dualism between space and time figures spatial thinking as an "intrusion" into an authentic understanding of time as duration. In Bergson's early work, his corrective theory of time proceeds largely at the cost of a devalorization of space, though at moments he acknowledges that homogeneous space is a perception, an "act of the mind," rather than the true nature of space. As Deleuze notes, in Time and Free Will duration had been "confused with duration as a psychological experience." Bergson subsequently moved away from this early idea of duration as the sole property of the consciousness that endures (an entirely human-centered notion of time, since there would be no time without consciousness); in Creative Evolution, Bergson characterizes himself as crafting "a philosophy which sees in duration the very stuff of reality." This evolution in Bergson's thinking forced a reassessment of space as well: no longer the mere repository of impure homogeneous time, space would be conceived as heterogeneous and authentic, just as the former human-centered duration would be recast as a generalized ontological duration.

Time is at the core of all of Bergson's philosophical work, forming the heart of his method (intuition is thinking in terms of time rather than space) and grounding its founding dualisms (the dichotomy duration-vs.-space is implicated in all the other Bergsonian dualisms). For Bergson, ordinary knowledge, like science, cannot adequately come to grips with real duration: "We do not think real time. But we live it, because life transcends intellect." Time cannot easily be thought, but it is always lived, felt, intuited. Here he explicitly moves away from the ground of intellect, which often ends by objectifying time, to the realms of feeling and intuition, the register of his methodology. For this reason, Bergson writes that the work of philosophy must be to interrupt our "habitual method of thought." Bergson's attentiveness to ordinary perception is complemented by his rigorous fascination with science. Elizabeth Grosz writes that Bergsonism "is a conceptual reflection on the accomplishments and limits of the sciences, concerned with the production of its own unique concepts, but perhaps required by the sciences if they are to gain self-understanding." Instead of "making philosophy a form of passive acceptance of the givenness of the discourses or practices of the sciences," Bergson retains a critical, never obeisant, perspective on scientific claims. Bergsonism functions both "alongside" and "underneath the sciences, making explicit their unacknowledged commitment to philosophical and ultimately ontological concepts." Whether in our everyday practices or in Newtonian science, both of which treat time as a measurable, calculable factor, the consequences of misconstruing time as homogeneous are, for Bergson, far-reaching. The misprision of homogeneous time involves a blindness to "that heterogeneity which is the very ground of ourexperience"; in the cinematographic character of our ordinary perception, Bergson argues that this temporal misprision leads to a false apprehension of movement, as discussed in some detail below. But most crucially, for Bergson, homogeneous time must be resisted because it obfuscates our sense of our own freedom. For Bergson, freedom is inextricably durative, both because the whole of our past informs each decision we make and because our future is completely unlike anything that has gone before, entirely insusceptible to calculation. If we liberated our conception of time from its objectification by language, science, and mathematics (one glimpses here a Bergsonian variant of the concept of reification), then we would recognize the truth of our own duration-our ceaseless transformation, our ever-new invention and becoming-as well as that of the universe. Whydoes Bergson declare that homogeneous time "is nothing but space, and pure duration is something different"? Notions of chronology always entail a concept of space. Conceiving of ordered events in time means taking each element as a distinct unit that can be assigned a position in relation to the others, implying a spatial-conceptual jutaposition. Hence notions of temporal order-of a chronological past, present, and future, of before, during, and after-are always spatial and quantifying in spirit.

Similarly, an understanding of time as numerical, measurable, or calculable (clock or calendar time) is necessarily homogeneous and spatialized. Bergson points out that the concept of number is homogenizing by definition: to count is to regard discrete things as identical, to elide differences in order to total them up. Number, he insists, is no mere "collection of units"; it always already implies a way of thinking in homogeneous terms. "It is not enough to say that number is a collection of units; we must add that these units are identical with one another, or at least that they are assumed to be identical when they are counted." For Bergson, time is multiplicity but not sum: this is because sum proposes a tally of identical elements, whereas duration is heterogeneous succession. As is evident in this discussion of time as number, Bergson's critique is not leveled only at commonsensical thinking but at scientific and mathematical accounts of time as well, which regard time as a measurable quantity.

The scientific and mathematical view of homogeneous time that Bergson disputes is the legacy of Newton's clockwork universe. In 1687, Isaac Newton's classical mechanics declared time to be absolute, uniform, and mathematical. The notion of time as number founded the spatialized, measurable time to which Bergson so strongly objected, time atomized into divisible units. As Stephen Kern puts it, "No motif gives as graphic a reminder of the atomized nature of time as a clock." With the special theory of relativity of 1905 and the general theory of relativity in 1916, Einstein would challenge the Newtonian view of empty, uniform time irrespective of events by proposing that time was not absolute but relative to the observer's motion; in effect, there could be no singular, absolute clock time in the universe. In the sciences, the Newtonian temporal legacy has been contested by relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics.

Bergsonian Visualism

Though the visualism inherent in Bergson's critique of homogeneous time would be fully elaborated in his critique of the cinematograph in Creative Evolution, Bergson's suspicion of vision as bound up with homogeneous time can be seen as early as Time and Free Will, where he argues that the homogeneity of number necessarily involves a visualization of space. Counting time (ever-accreting seconds, minutes, and hours tallied toward a measurement of elapsed time) presumes that "an instant of duration" "waits" in space to be counted. At least until habit allows one to perform calculations by rote, the concept of quantity requires a picturing of number, a visual representation of accretion or diminution in an ideal space. "In order that the number should go on increasing in proportion as we advance, we must retain the successive images and set them alongside each of the new units which we picture to ourselves: now, it is in space that such a jutaposition takes place and not in pure duration." Thus, for Bergson, the imagined homogeneity of quantifiable time is rooted in the spatial and the visual: "Every clear idea of number implies a visual image in space." In an analog clock face or the tabular grid of a calendar, time is measured and divided into uniform segments. These units of time are spatialized as distinct and nonpermeable increments, equidistant and separated from the other, like points on a number line or links in a chain.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. Clocks for Seeing: Cinema, the Fantastic, and the Critique of Homogeneous Time 1

1. Two Modes of Temporal Critique: Bergonism and Postcolonial Thought 43

2. The Fantastic as Temporal Translation: Aswang and Occult National Times 96

3. Spectral Time, Heterogeneous Space: The Ghost Film as Historical Allegory 149

4. The Ghostliness of Genre: Global Hollywood Remakes the "Asian Horror Film" 190

Epilogue. Writing within Time's Compass: From Epistemologies to Ontologies 245

Notes 253

Bibliography 305

Index 323

What People are Saying About This

Lesbian Rule: Cultural Criticism and the Value of Desire - Amy Villarejo

Translating Time is vital, fresh, expansive, and exciting. A strikingly sophisticated thinker, Bliss Cua Lim argues that a linear and progressive understanding of historical time, and its practice of history and history-writing, domesticates other times into a manageable past marked as retrograde, primitive, and naïve. Lim denaturalizes such an understanding by bringing to the fore films (and traditions of storytelling on which films are based) that depend on nonsynchonous histories. Her book will have readers far beyond the field of cinema studies, and it will push that field toward new and crucial questions.”

Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America - David L. Eng

Translating Time will set a new standard in cinema studies. It is not only deeply philosophical, bringing a much-needed postcolonial critique of historicism to cinema studies, but also a learned study of Asian, and especially Filipino, cinema in the context of postcoloniality and globalization. I learned an enormous amount from this book. It is quite an achievement.”

The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity - Tom Gunning

“Bliss Cua Lim’s extends ideas about the uncanny, the fantastic and the genre we usually call the horror film beyond its usual references to Hollywood and European cinema, which is fully welcome in this new era of global cinema. But it does much more than that. Her consideration of the uncanny and fantastic open up the profoundly untimely nature of fantasy films—and new possibilities for conceiving of the history of cinema.”

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