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Temporality, Friedrich Nietzsche & Modern Times


Temporality, Friedrich Nietzsche & Modern Times


in conversation with Espen Hammer

What is time? Has our relation to temporality changed time? Norwegian philosopher Espen Hammer talks to four by three about our shifting time consciousness, Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about circular time, the promises and dissatisfactions with modern times and how art might be the key to new existential possibilities.

A central thesis of Philosophy and Temporality from Kant to Critical Theory is that a theory of modern temporality is crucial for grasping certain dissatisfactions that arise in Western modern societies. What motivated you to undertake a study of temporality and to put forth this claim?

Espen Hammer: I had for a long time been working on, and trying to get a grasp of, the post-Hegelian tradition of European philosophy – the line, basically, from Hegel and Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, Heidegger and the Frankfurt School. Among the many things that interested me in this tradition was their accounts of modernity. Modernity, for these thinkers, became a philosophical challenge. At some point I started to realize that a central topic in much of their theorizing about modernity had to do with temporality. It is common to study for example Nietzsche and Heidegger with reference to this issue. However, very little work has been done on how their thinking about time is related to larger concerns regarding the nature and promises of modern life. I ultimately came to think that modernity has brought forth its own kind of temporality, and that these thinkers saw this and wanted to understand its implications. In my book I wanted to return to their views in order to rethink what the modern time-frame involves.


Throughout your work on time, you have focused on historically specific conceptions of time embodied in our social practices and our self-interpretation and experience, rather than the traditional conception of time as a feature of nature. To what extent do you think that an exploration of time in the former senses is separable from one in the latter sense?

EH: I am a pluralist when it comes to temporality. There is physical time, the time of clocks. Then you have all the different cyclical temporalities of nature. Lives and institutions are temporally structured. Finally, you have an everyday experience of temporality, which is not reducible to mere clock-time. I think the everyday experience is largely structured around narratives – the kinds of accounts we give of who we are and where we’re heading. In these accounts we draw all sorts of inferences that help us get a grip of what time is and structure it. Likewise, individual situations in life require us to negotiate a complex set of expectations and demands. We will have to presuppose the existence of inferential relations holding between who we take ourselves to be, our needs and desires, as well as our expectations of others and the commitments our agreements with others confer upon us. A temporal horizon, going beyond the here and now, gets disclosed to us. The now becomes impregnated with what was, our memories and knowledge, and with anticipations of what will and should be. Ultimately, I think that this everyday temporality can never be reduced to mere cosmic “clock-time.” It is inescapably a fundamental part of how we make our experiences intelligible to ourselves.

You describe modern temporality as ‘clock-time’ and have emphasized that it has changed our relationship to the past, present and future. Could you elaborate on what ‘clock-time’ consists in and how it has brought about a shift in our relation to these modalities?

EH: Our modern time-frame is dominated by clock-time. Clock-time, or what I call “homogeneous time” (the time of measurable units of time following one another in a linear fashion), is peculiar in that it makes possible a great degree of social coordination. With the chronometer comes a vast increase in discipline, efficiency, and social speed, transforming every major institution. The factory is totally clock-based, and so is the current office environment and urban space in general, as well as private life. Transportation, business, the flow of information, indeed everything we do, either alone or with others, is to a greater or lesser extent controlled by the clock. Moreover, the very idea of progress is largely owed to technological innovation, presupposing a linear conception of time according to which the past is irretrievable and the future an open horizon. The before and after, the idea that history offers movement, change and development is based on appeals to clocks and calendars. Perhaps most strikingly, the rise of the exact sciences and modern industrial technology would not have been possible without an objective, clock-based understanding of time. With such a time-frame, the priority tends to lie on the future – the openness of the future, in which we project ourselves as active agents. However, it should also be said that the dominance of clock-time tends to undermine or at least weaken other and less abstract temporal orientations. Time becomes all about calculation.


What is the existential price we pay for our modern form of time-consciousness? What do you think has happened to our self-hood in our modern accelerated world, in which there is never enough time?

EH: I focus on two types of dissatisfaction associated with the modern time-frame. One has to do with the experience of transience. As time becomes viewed as a mere succession of homogeneous instants, it gets disconnected from any deeper, more abiding, meaning-giving frameworks. Modern time is, as Sartre put it, “an infinite dust of instants,” where everything comes into existence for a brief moment only to disappear irretrievably into the past. The other dissatisfaction I focus on has to do with meaning. I suggest that there’s a specifically modern type of meaninglessness or nihilism that has to do with accelerated societies’ incessant erosion of pre-given authority and value-patterns. In a world in which few or no permanent and intersubjectively validated cultural, spiritual, ethical or aesthetic contexts in which to experience the bindingness of value are accepted, values appear arbitrary and a quotidian crisis of subjectivity begins to emerge. What is it in life that really matters? Well, if it is up to the individual to decide, then no one can really know.

The instant is indivisible and non-temporal since temporality is succession, but the world dissolved into an infinite dust of instants
— Jean-Paul Sartre

In his The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche proposes a revival of Greek Tragic Culture in order to deal with the dissatisfactions of modernity. However, can a return to pre-modern conceptions of time ever be successfully reinstated, and didn’t pre-modern temporality also have its own dissatisfactions?

EH: I believe that Nietzsche was preoccupied with the question of time and modernity throughout his whole career. As early as in The Birth of Tragedy, his first published book, he offers a strong critique of modernity and seeks to revive, as it were, the ancient, “tragic” world-view that he finds expressed in Greek tragedy. Behind all of this stands a yearning for the sacred and its capacity to regularly renew symbolic authority. In the cyclical time of the kind of agrarian polytheism that Nietzsche has in mind (the “Dionysian world-view”), he sees an antidote to the linear vision of time that later became dominant. As opposed to the meaninglessness of infinite progress and  progression, historical change is supposed to regain its deep semantics.

While Nietzsche’s view is fascinating, it is also deeply reactionary. Apart from Wagnerian opera, which he still adored at the time of writing The Birth of Tragedy, he failed to find much in contemporary culture that would support such a cultural revolution. (Of course, fascism did emerge only a few decades later, grotesquely caricaturing Nietzsche’s understanding of tragedy by trying to turn off all of society into some sort of “tragic spectacle.”)

The Greeks were certainly obsessed with the problem of transience. It was central to the great ontologies of the Eliatics, and became an existential problem in both the Epicurean and the Stoic traditions. Life’s brevity – the contingency of everything – these are issues they grappled with. However, it is fair to say that most of these thinkers, with the exception of the Epicureans, had recourse to a conception of immortality. Plato, for example, distinguishes rigorously between immortal soul and mortal body. The religious framework gave their thinking a particular direction.


One of Nietzsche’s most famous and obscure ideas is that of the Eternal Recurrence. On some readings, this should be conceived of as a substantive metaphysical doctrine. What do you think is salvageable from this conception?

EH: The short answer is: nothing. It is indefensible as a cosmological doctrine. As part of a requirement for successful living (“ask yourself whether you can joyfully affirm the return of this moment over and over again forever!”), it encourages cruelty and a cold disregard for suffering.

We may need to think about how life can be affirmed. However, that thinking must involve our relationship to the other. Nietzsche’s mistake is to view affirmation from the point of view of the solitary self. He turns the question of affirmation into one of individual enjoyment. It becomes too narcissistic, and as a result it just returns us to the unencumbered, “buffered” self of nihilistic modernity.


Does Nietzsche succeed in offering a strategy by which we can affirm a transient world through this idea and by that token solve the problem of nihilism and boredom that characterizes modern time?

EH: Nietzsche has some deep and interesting things to say about “letting go of the past.” He is interested, if you wish, in the phenomenon that Freud referred to as mourning. However, he radically overstates his case. Extreme mourning of the Nietzschean kind is just coldness and indifference.


The Early Nietzsche famously claimed that ‘only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified' (Birth of Tragedy, 33). Do you think that the arts are better equipped than philosophy to transcend modern temporality and thereby provide new existential possibilities?

EH: There has been quite a lot of reflection on this issue, especially in the German tradition. Schopenhauer, for example, seems to have believed that aesthetic experience has the capacity to carry us, as it were, into some sort of timeless, Platonic realm, beyond the ordinary, everyday life of human finitude and suffering. Nietzsche, as you mention, takes an even more radical view, arguing that the aesthetic point of view can make possible a kind of cosmic joy in which suffering would not, as in Schopenhauer, be negated but affirmed. While Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s accounts may seem excessive, I have a lot of sympathy for their turn to the arts as a source of new and potentially life-changing experience. To see new existential possibilities is not likely to be a matter merely of rational persuasion. You must experience and be affected by something in order to radically change your priorities. If aesthetic experience involves the discovery of unexpected ways of mattering, then, yes, it may be what we need in order to rethink our temporal economies.


You suggest that one promising line of response to the problem of modern temporality is to be found in figures such as Adorno, Benjamin and Bloch. Part of why they are of interest is because they do not attempt to wholly transcend the modern framework. To what extent do these figures offer a positive alternative to modern time, or do they only offer ephemeral suspensions to our dominant form of temporality?

EH: Rather than breaking out of the modern framework, or searching for some kind of transcendence of modern time, these thinkers seek in a way to radicalize one aspect of the modern time-frame, namely the sense of transitoriness. Benjamin, for example, is looking for a form of transcendence beyond homogeneous time that involves paying attention to the most fleeting fragments of experience. Adorno, likewise, tries to deconstruct our standard continuities and abstractions in favor of close attention to the “non-identical.” In the book I especially pay attention to Bloch, who tries to develop an alternative account of futurity grounded in a conception of “prospectivity” – a kind of anticipatory waiting in which we are open to the other, the different, and the unexpected. I find these views fascinating and promising. However, they need to be keyed to various types of concrete social experiences, perhaps in the aesthetic domain.

Time is a commodity –
perhaps the ultimate commodity

Returning to Nietzsche and following his project of the ‘trans-valuation of all values’, should we – or are we able to – devalue our current conception of time, in order to liberate us from the constraints posed on human existence though modernity?

EH: Yes, but it is not an easy task to see how that can be done. What I call the modern time-frame is deeply embedded in the way institutions operate, individual identities are shaped, and how our system of norms is shaped. It underpins our whole industrial civilization, the workings of capitalism, and lies at the essence of technology and the information society. We live in societies that are obsessed with speed, and where the very idea of waiting is frowned upon. Time is a commodity – perhaps the ultimate commodity. We keep pushing forward, being endlessly on the way, searching for more and more enjoyments, experiences, developments, consumer goods, etc. Ultimately, what this means is that we keep turning our backs against something. But against what? I have lately come to think that it is nature that we are rejecting – anything that stands opposed to our cherished autonomy.


Norwegian philosopher Espen Hammer is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. With a main research interest in the post-Kantian tradition of philosophy, and in particular on German Idealism, his work focuses on questions related to ethics, politics, phenomenology and aesthetics. He has published on subjects such as temporality, Theodor W. Adorno and Stanley Cavell.