The Philosophy of Nowness: Time, Facebook and Poetry

27 Mar

I have been doing some research with a PhD from Austin, Texas, Eryn Whitworth. Eryn has been interviewing users of Facebook both here, in England, and in the USA, particularly younger users – late teens, twenty some-things. Most of them are complaining that Facebook makes them feel constrained, constrained as regards how they orient to time. Apparently, it makes everything seem too instant, their actions on Facebook seem ‘kind of rushed’. To paraphrase, they feel that their actions on this SNS  ‘are like too now’.  To put it in more sterile words: something about the experience of Facebook affects their sense of the past, the future, of how the temporal arrangements of their doings normally are.

I think these complaints, although not expressed in ways that might be immediately clear, are pointing to real issues, though I think it is in the use of Facebook as much as anything intrinsic to Facebook technology that produces that oddness – this is socio-technical shaping we have here, not technological determinism. Be that as it may, the research I have been doing with Eryn – what it is pointing towards – is leading me to think not just about SNS, but about much contemporary philosophy and HCI, the design space I work within. It is allowing me to make links between, for example, the causalism avowed by many Anglo Saxon analytic philosophers from the Sixties onwards and the contrasting concerns of Wittgenstein in Cambridge, England, before that; it leads me to Derrida too and his fellow Parisian Lefebvre; and it leads to contemporary Wittgensteinians, such as Theodore Schatzki at the University of Kentucky, whose work has been published in the past twenty years. And this, in turn, is making rethink some of my own research (such as reported in my book, Inside the IMF (1998) and in my current research on designing new social network experiences.

The links that have been formulating in my mind are as follows. There is a so-called orthodoxy in main stream analytic philosophy that derives from Donald Davidson who wrote, in 1963, that ‘common sense’ reasons are, more or less, descriptions of ‘the causes’ of human action. His view was that, though common sense may not be equal to a scientific analysis, nevertheless it was the right way to think of human action in this particular respect: action is caused in the way that common sense implied, he wanted to argue. Davidson hoped to add some sensitivity to this claim by noting, amongst other things, that there might be lots of causal reasons that could be deployed to explain or describe action. It might be difficult therefore to actually ascertain what the ‘real’ ones were in any particular instance. This made scientific studies of human action different from scientific studies of, say, physical objects, where the essential true cause of things could be found with certainty. This led him to coin the odd term anomalous monism, to label the fact that, in his view, science is the way to understand human experience, but there are oddities about the problem: it presents anomalies to standard science.

In my view – and the views of many though it has to be said not the vocal majority – Davidson’s argument is peculiar for a whole host of reasons. Most particularly it is odd in that it limits the ways that human nature and experience can be understood, explored and described. Instead of relying on and exploiting the enormously rich everyday forms of expressions we have, his view is in effect a proposal to replace that richness with what can what best be described as the stubborn and narrow  language of one who awkwardly insists on there ‘having to be’ only ‘one’ way of understanding human action. This narrow view turns around the idea, the dogma, that actions are always caused, and hence only the vocabulary of causality can be used to explore that action. This view can also be said to make human time linear: a thing causes action through time, in sequence. Thus Donaldson’s causalism is also a kind of temporal linearism.

Without saying any more about the limits of Davidson just now, basically what he did was disregard the transformation that Ludwig Wittgenstein had brought about in philosophy in the decade before Davidson wrote, namely, a transformation that freed philosophy of its dogmas. Davidson unfortunately allowed dogmas to be revived, and indeed added a dogma, that actions were caused and had to be caused (and hence a dogma that human action is to be understood through time, as linear).

Wittgenstein had created his transformation by arguing that explanations of, for example, ‘ultimate causes’, was really a corruption of how to properly understand the nature of language and the way it is used to account for, describe and constitute human life. In Wittgenstein’s view (in my opinion the correct view), causes are sometimes evoked to explain human action, but this use is, typically (in ordinary life, that is to say), deployed in unusual circumstances. Causes are invoked to explain how actions have an unusual hue, such that for example one might say of some one that he or she is forced to do something because of some cause – they are obliged to and hence ‘could not act normally – as they might choose to’. Or, to put it another way, causality is a phrase that points towards certain thresholds of comprehension, where the borders of what is understandable have been reached. Causes do not explain all action in other words; quite the reverse. Davidson got the wrong end of the stick with his claim that common sense made causes central to how action is accountable. Wittgenstein wanted to argue, in contrast, that ordinarily the ways in which human action is understood, described and accounted for in and through language (words) is so rich that causes are only sometimes a useful way of understanding or accounting for behavior; more often other better vocabularies of explanation are at hand and should be deployed.

Accordingly, Wittgenstein’s argued that when philosophy wants to investigate the relationship between human action and understanding, when it wants to answer the sorts fo questions Davidson was interested in, it should not turn to science. Science privileges reductionism and temporal sequencing as the cine qua non of all reasoning; this is apposite for certain tasks but not, in Wittgenstein’s view, when investigating meaningful human action. Investigations of that ought to be of a more philosophic kind. They should explore human nature by describing and investigating the diverse and huge topography of understanding encapsulated in and made possible through ordinary language – and this would  include the complex relationship humans have to time made visible in the sense of time oriented to and described in everyday life.

There is an especial claim here that I ought to mention since it will bring us back to the contemporary world and Facebook (in a moment, if not in the next few paragraphs!). This claim is that language and the contexts language describes are not limited but are enormously rich and diverse: the forms of life that people make, the topography of their societies, have not only developed dazzling diversity but have constantly and endlessly been re-crafted;  in small ways and in large: changes occur as people do new things and discover different ways of leveraging their aspirations. As they do so, so their sense of ‘being’ is pushed and the boundaries of language stretched into new meanings: this affects not only the causes of their actions, if there are such, but also their relationship to other elements of the way of being, including their management of and sense of being ‘in’ time, of the sense of actions as having a before and an after, of being sequenced or otherwise.

Resisting dogma and seeking to explore human experience

Let’s get back to Davidson. Though his article was viewed by many (especially in America) as putting an end to the Wittgensteinian revolution in philosophy, others since have kept the Wittgensteinian candle alight – though falteringly. In France, for example, in the early Seventies it seemed that Derrida was leading investigations into the ways in which language terms encapsulated not just the everyday routines of life but also the psychological experiences of existence, particularly as it was felt through and articulated by the reading of text: books, novels, philosophy, prose of all kinds (See his Of Grammatology of 1974). This seemed to point to a new territory for the kinds of inquiries Wittgenstein thought the philosophical imagination could apply to.

Unfortunately Derrida disappointed many on this count. One reason was that he seemed more interested in creating a cult of obscurity than in exploring human experience in clear, articulate ways. He still seems to suffer from this problem as evidenced, for example, in the contrast between the Preface he provides for Malibou’s book, The Future of Hegel (2005) and Malibou’s own writing in that book. Malibou’s writing, though difficult at times, suffers from none of the deliberate obscuratism of Derrida’s own Preface. The pain of those that had hoped Derrida might provide a robust creative leader for a resistance to the reemergence of dogma is manifest in for example in Anthony Kenny’s book series, A New History of Philosophy.

Be that as it may, other philosophers have sought to keep alive the flame of clarity and resistance to dogma that Wittgenstein momentary brought to philosophy. In Britain, for example, there is (the late) Oswald Hanfling; there is P.M.S. Hacker at Oxford and his now passed away colleague Baker; there are others – there is even a gang called the New Wittgensteinians. All these philosophers have been complimented by the Wittgensteinian tradition in sociological associated with the Manchester school of Ethnomethodology (See Ethnomethodology and the Human Sciences). In the USA there are equally many in sociology and philosophy:  I won’t list them all.

Time and Human Experience

But I do want to turn to a Wittgensteinian philosopher from Kentucky: Theo Schatzki. Recently he published a book with the rather awkward title, The Timespace of Human Activity: on performance, society, and history as indeterminate teleological events, (2011: Lexington Books). Here he argues that the way we understand ourselves is through a particular understanding of time: our acts have a purpose to them, they are teleological as he puts it, but the purpose is not predetermined: we act in ways that are essentially and profoundly indeterminate: we can change our minds, we falter, or we choose to do another thing.

When put as simply as this, his claims seem obvious and not really connected to Facebook. It might also appear that the suggestion that we have ‘indeterminacy’ (as he puts it), is unacceptable since it is evidently not the case that ‘anything can be’ – as seems to be implied in the phrase. Schatzki would be the first to admit, however, that we are bound by a complex weave or matrix of commitments, routines, expectations, our own abilities and inclinations and these order the things we do. Nevertheless, he would go on to insist that at the heart of human action indeterminacy is always there.

The main target of his argument is not with, say, causalists, though that is the way I am wanting to take it here and their implied temporal linearity. Rather his concern is to get a sense of how time and space are interjoined in human activity in a way that does not look like the simple space and time fit as a physicist might imagine it.

Schatzki’s  concern is to describe time and space in ways that fits the human experience. His argument is with wrong theories of time and human action. So, for example, he argues that whereas there is such a thing as linear or clock time, the sense of time constitutive of experience in everyday life is, in contrast, different because it makes out the present to have a particular order to it that includes the past and the future. The distinction between the past, the present and the future, so obvious and clear with linear time, is somewhat distracting if you are trying to understand this sense of time (time as it is lived), he argues.

It can be put this way: the order of time in everyday life isn’t best thought of as linear, as an action being the output or consequence of prior events, as if time were merely a series of events in a cause-like order. Rather, things often seem to turn out as if they naturally follow on from prior events but, in the actual moment when a person is undertaking an act, a person is aware that they might choose to do something in some other way, i.e., do it differently. Of course these choices are made given the circumstantial constraints that have to be navigated through and taken heed of there and then. Nevertheless, though a person is constrained by habits, rules, regulations and such like, a person is always confronted with the possibility that what happens next may take various forms.

Consequently, the experience of living entails experiencing how the past constitutes threads that exist in the present and lead to the future. There are numerous of these at any moment or juncture, framed by the diverse things that we are about, our personal affairs, our business activities, our practical tasks, each of which constitutes its own set of frames or threads. Each of these unfold in various ways, sometimes with the past imposing itself upon us and at the other times the present (or the future) imposing itself in different ways. In some cases the past might still excites us, for example, just as what might happen in the future might excite us prospectively, in another case.

All this seems a long way from Facebook. But Schatzki goes on to say that, as a result of this, this complex organization of how time is for the human,  that people therefore sometimes feels – indeed often feel – as if they are rushed headlong into things, as if these threads or trajectories impose themselves on people in ways they cannot resist. ‘One cannot stop’, one can hear them say.

Poetry and time

I mention this now not merely as a way of reflecting on my reading but to open up a discussion about the sense of nowness that many feel is too constraining when the use Facebook.

One of the French philosophers of the quotidian who emerged somewhat in the wake of the disappointment of Derrida, was Lefebvre. Amongst his books is rhythmanalysis (2004). Just as Schatzki and others mentioned above, he argued that experience is best thought of as a set of interlinked threads or practices and processes that tie the past and the future in the present moment. But he also said that there are certain social practices that allow people to stop and pause and grasp the rush of nowness in a clear view. Certain art forms did this, he proposed, like poetry. With poetry the tempo of experience is paused, albeit fleetingly, so that it can be seen in clear light and calmly, with no afflicting sense of the past or the future rushing headlong. In a sense, poetry (and certain other forms) allow the sense of time to stop, to pause.

It seems to me that one can interpret the complaints we are hearing about Facebook as being ‘too now’ in just these terms. One could say that users of Facebook recognize that there is no poetic moment available in the system. Nor have they been able to define a social practice for themselves that lets them make that ‘pause’. With Facebook they cannot stop, ever; there is no pause. There is no poetic mechanics to allow it.

We are not alone in coming to these findings. Other researchers are finding the same. This is what Sosik, Zhao & Cosley argue in their “See Friendship, Sort of” paper of 2011, for example. They report that new functions developed by Facebook, like ‘timelines’, make the situation of feeling stuck in ‘nowness’ worse: timelines simply presents the past as a literal series of sequential events that lead to ‘now’. If one comments on one of these things from that past, that comment is not treated as having a complex relationship to the past, the present and-or the future, as a delicate part of a complex timespace matrix that one is working through, but as something that can only be to do with the present: the past becomes NOW. This is evidenced by the fact that buddies on Facebook remark on those comments by saying things like: ‘Oh why are you mentioning that? What has that got to do with what we are doing now?’, etc.

Thus the time – human time – is corrupted by Facebook (and functions like timelines) in a way that destroys the patterned ways that time is experienced. Facebook users find the technology makes the past subservient to, and constitutive of a present in a way that is so crude it ends up making everything become just ‘now’, just the present. This present is feeble, without rich temporal colour: no subtle looking back at the present, looking at the past from the future, looking at the present from the past. And because of this, Facebook somehow tyrannizes its users. Facebook freaks people out: ‘it’s too like now’.


Davidson, D. (1963) Actions, Reasons, and Causes’ in Davidson, Action & Events, OUP, 1980: 3-20

Derrida, J. (1995) Preface, in Malabou, 2005, op cit, ppvii-xlix. Harper, R. (1997)  Inside the IMF: An Ethnography of Documents, Technology, and Organizational Action, Academic Press, Inc. Orlando, FL, USA.

Lefebrve, H. (2004) rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life, (Trans S,. Elden & G. Moore), London Verso Books. Derrida, J. (1974) Of Grammatology (Trans G. Spivak) The John Hopkins University Press, USA.

Malabou, C. (2005) The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, Routledge, (first published in French in 1995).

Schatzki, T. (2011) The Timespace of Human Activity: on performance, society, and history as indeterminate teleological events, Lexington Books, Maryland.

Sosik, V.S., Zhao, X. & & Cosley, D. (2011) See Friendship, Sort of: How Conversation and Digital Traces support Reflection on Friendships, in Proceedings of CSCW 2011: ACM Press, Seattle: pp1145-1154.


One Response to “The Philosophy of Nowness: Time, Facebook and Poetry”


  1. What we talk about when we talk about (online) worry « Social Media Collective - July 24, 2012

    […] recently read a post that Richard Harper wrote earlier this year that works through discomfort with Facebook in terms of […]

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