Notes for “QUESTIONS of POWER” (6), Infinite Plasticity, Time, Space, and Alien Dynamics

Brandon Avery Joyce
13 min readSep 5, 2023

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The British humanist-pragmatist F.C.S Schiller was quoted by William James as saying that “The world is essentially _______, it is what we make it. It is fruitless to define it by what it originally was or by what it is apart from us; it is what is made of it. Hence… the world is plastic.” James then says that Schiller “adds that we can learn the limits of the plasticity only by trying, and that we ought to start as if it were wholly plastic, acting methodically on that assumption, and stopping only when we are decisively rebuked.” A pandynamic metaphysics, based as it is upon the making and unmaking of the world rather than the establishment of an ontology, would naturally be inclined to agree with Schiller there. However, it can do so without seconding Schiller’s anthropocentrism since this infinite plasticity ultimately can and should be defined “apart from us,” just as it need not be defined with respect to a Divine Creator, as it was for theologians like our venerable inceptor, William of Ockham. The world is unevenly pliant yet wholly plastic in that it could be made, unmade, and remade in its every feature or aspect, though not necessarily by us feeble mortals, nor by even a Divine Creator, but hypothetically by some confluence within its total nexus of powers, by some of its parts in conspiracy against the whole.

Both conceptually and etymologically, pandynamism obviously rhymes with omnipotence. Both suggest that nothing in this world is beyond the reach of power. Because of this suggestion, or because of their Biblical belief in God’s almightiness, some Abrahamic theologians found themselves in a dunk tank of dynamic questions that ancient and modern philosophers avoided by quarantining power with the help of essences, laws, facts, and axioms. The theologians on the other hand took seriously the question of what happens when all things in this world are susceptible to power (even if they did so by placing the seat of this power outside of the world, beyond effect, in the transcendental form of a god). This led them right into a thick of dynamic issues, into the contradictions of theodicy, for instance, or the Franciscan distinction between potentia ordinata (a power which explains the world-as-it-is) and potentia absoluta (which explains the world-as-it-could-be). Through these speculations, they were — more than anyone before or after — acting very methodically on Schiller’s assumption of infinite plasticity until they were “decisively rebuked,” which sometimes, it seems, they were.

Most all of them, William of Ockham included, maintained that not even God Himself could violate the law of non-contradiction or stick two contrarieties together in a single instance. Some, like Aquinas, also claimed that God was powerless to alter the past, piggy-backing off Aristotle who once said: “For this alone is lacking even to God, to make undone things that have once been done.” Even for a supposedly almighty being, then, the now was likewise defined as a threshold of impotency. Before it, His Almightiness shrank. Moreover, though nothing may be necessary across time, it does seem as if, once things have been minted into actuality, upon the razor’s edge of the instant, a sort of order — an Actual Order — reigns unchallenged until it is eagerly deposed by a coup of new actualities and possibilities. As William of Ockham corrected Aquinas, this really doesn’t amount to any kind of “necessity,” since this actuality was never necessary by any law, logic, or ineluctability, across time or a priori, but does represent what we may think of as a kind of determinacy: the milk’s been spilled, the vase now lies in pieces. With spilled milk or a shattered vase, neither mishaps are or were necessary or irrecoverable, and though some powers could clean the milk or glue the vase back together, nothing could efface them as misfortunes on the Ledger of Time. We’d still have to lie to Mom and Dad. The same is true of historical events that our regrets are powerless to reverse.

Notice, too, that this powerlessness seems to be a kind of check or rebuke to pandynamism itself. After all, it places both the Actual Order (and the obsidian heft of the past) out of the reach of all powers. However, this is ultimately a bluff, because the indellibility of the Ledger of Time still depends on specific conditions of the world-as-it-is — or rather, on how we experience and negotiate this world given a certain panoply of powers. It doesn’t necessarily hold in weirdball or hypothetical worlds-as-they-could-be (whether unknown, constructed, or imaginary) in which our categories would work together in unrecognizable ways. Through the contemplation of divine omnipotence, controversy arose over the degree to which God himself was constrained in the creation of the world. Infinitely perfect, infinitely just, good, and wise, could He have created the world otherwise, even imperfectly and without redemption, or was He too somehow bound by the laws — by the goodness, justice, and truth — that He himself established? The Franciscan response was to cleave a distinction between the potentia ordinata Dei and the potentia absoluta Dei. Creation as it was — its history, its laws, its most fundamental features and order — were decreed by God’s potentia ordinata. Nonetheless, Divine Will could’ve decided to create Creation otherwise by dint of his limitless potentia absoluta. The categories through which we comprehend the world are themselves merely the flowers of the potentia ordinata; if God chose, William of Ockham claimed, he could have easily created a fever-dream cosmos without us and intelligible only to the seraphim above — realizing quality without substance, form without matter, effect without cause, change without time. Outside of theology, and freed from the concerns and dictatorship of a Divine Creator, the distinction still holds. Our conceptions of time and change are predicated upon a world-as-it-is, a potentia ordinata, not a pandynamic potentia absoluta engendering entirely alien categories. Time could and would relate differently to actuality, given an alien nexus of powers. The good news is, depending on exactly how weird these other worlds are (and it can always get weirder), their dynamics and categories are not hopelessly beyond the comprehension of us feeble mortals; they merely require a weird, new power-account for them to once again make sense.

This is approached sometimes in terms of the “alien phenomenology” of artificial intelligence (which runs according to a “system time”) and other loopy, fantastical forms of sentience (whether sub species aeternitatis or as change-tracking timeworms like the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse Five). But anthropocentric accounts of weird and hypothetical kinds of time and actuality can readily be found in literature and popular culture in pretty straightforwardly narrative forms. A few films: Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Christopher Nolan’s Memento, in which segments of time are presented in reverse chronology. And a few novels: Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow and Philip K Dick’s Counter-Clock World, in which eartly processes flow backwards. Upon first entering these works, the reader or viewer is confused. Disoriented. Events occur counterintutively. Families regurgitate their breakfast. Broken objects are healed by blows. Victims rise from the dead. Tattoos fade and cigarettes are restored by blowing smoke into them. Librarians diligently hunt down and eradicate the written patrimony of humankind. Causation, to the degree that it does make sense, runs backwards. After a while, however, once we’ve invested in the story and the struggles of the characters, the world becomes half-livable. We could, perhaps fumblingly, manipulate the flow of its processes. These worlds may be queasily anti-entropic and different from home; we power-conscious beings will still manage to nest in them and eventually make sense of their processes, just as we did originally when we were born into our own world, wailing and hopelessly unprepared.

In Dick’s Counter-Clock World, the characters have themselves somewhat adjusted to a sudden messianic reversal of time that occurred in 1985, thrusting humanity into what is referred to as the “Hobart Phase.” Cottage industries, such as locating and resuscitating the dead, arise to fill new human needs. But many activities are still in a stage of clumsy stopgaps, such as shaving (which is already awkward enough in our own world): “At the bowl he washed his face, then lathered on foam-glue, opened the packet and with adroit slappings managed to convey the whiskers evenly to his chin, jowls, neck; in a moment he had expertly gotten the whiskers to adhere.” The aging process depends on whether you’ve already died and been reborn or not. The reborn grow younger, eventually “dwindling” into babyhood and climbing into the nearest available womb, as the rest of the world continues the march toward death. This, Dick realizes, makes for strange arithmetic in the dating scene:

“…He’s so goddamn much older than her. And with this anti-time, this Hobart Phase, she’s getting younger and younger; pretty soon she’ll be a teen-ager and then she’ll be in grammar school, and about the time he’s back to his prime of say around my age she’ll be a baby. A baby!” He stared at Officer Tinbane.

“That’s a point,” Tinbane conceded.

“She was older, of course, when he married her. More mature. You didn’t know her then; you weren’t on this beat. She was full-grown, fully like a real woman; hell, she was a real woman. But now — ” He shrugged. “You can see what that damn Hobart Phase does.”

Tinbane said, “Are you sure? I thought you had to be already dead and be reborn to get younger.”

“Christ,” R.C. said, “don’t you understand anti-time at all? Listen; I knew her. She was older. I was older; we all were. I think — you know what I think? You’ve got a mental block against facing it, because you’re young now, too young, in fact; you, too, can’t afford to get any younger. You can’t be a cop if you do.”

“You’re full of food.”

Our categories (like time, space, process, cause and effect, and so on) aren’t just empty scaffolding upon which we hang the sensible world. They’re as much “categories” in the non-philosophical sense of the word: clusters or complexes of notions, images, habits, curiosities, under which we file our time-like encounters, our space-like encounters, our cause-like encounters; as an ensemble that differentiates like organs and integrates once again as an organon. There isn’t just this one concept, “time,” or this one thing, “space.” We can talk about “temporal pluralism” or “spatial pluralism” in the same breath as “causal pluralism,” as we did with Aristotle. They become coherent as categories through doing and making, undoing and unmaking, through our pragmatic struggles and fretful negotiations — even vicariously, through our involvement in lives on the page or screen. New encounters force us to adjust and enlarge our categories, but with a little help from our friends, we eventually get the hang. In Memento, Time’s Arrow, and Counter-Clock World, the past is revised or molten, but as they go about their days, cooking, cleaning, working, searching for love or seeking revenge, time then takes on a new sense as coherent as any other.

This restructuration of sense doesn’t require book-length narratives though. It can happen at the scale of the sentence. A native speaker of an undeclined language like English will have habituated to a sentence order of subject-verb-object, an order that in English gives sense to the flow of words. Any other order will feel nonsensical. But then, after learning a second language with another sentence order (or listening to Yoda speak enough, with his object-first grammar), the speaker begins to realize the pliancy of the order itself: sense emerges from the totality of the sentence, in its use, with all the parts of speech working together. It’s not enough to declaratively know the grammatical rules to get it; you have to speak, listen, read, write — somehow use the language. The speaker might even pick up a highly declined language, reading ancient Greek or Latin poetry, and realize that sentence order is not the only way to structure sense. Grammar is unmasked as a habit, an order lending coherence through consistency, that was only codified into rules through the potentia ordinata of schoolmasters or the Ministry of Culture.

The Ledger of Time is overwritten in many of our most popular time-warping narratives — in time-travel fictions like Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Time Bandits, Terminator, La Jetée, in the timeloops of Groundhog’s Day and Edge of Tomorrow, or the simulacral present of Synedoche, New York — and so they successfully fulfill the role of science fiction as speculative sociology, of rendering into experience how we would operate with radically different conditions and powers. But it bears repeating that, in fact, all films and books edit and manipulate the flow of lived time. This is after all the entire function of montage, as Eisenstein can tell you, of how cinematic form gives sense to experience and history. Yet after years of viewing and reading, we hardly notice at all: these manipulated temporalities have been invisibly incorporated into the complex of notions that make up our concept of time, and in return, help us make sense of everyday experiences untouched by the editor’s razor. Films and novels that reverse or alter the flow of time — Memento or Time’s Arrow — are usually grappling with regret, guilt, and revenge, which is to say the slate of feelings that express our powerlessness to efface our blemishes on the Ledger of Time.

I’ll give another example, concerning space, which is no more immutable than time, either as a transcendental concept (à la Kant) or as a feature of the world (the assumption of common sense and classical science). I’ve been discussing how, though we typically express and understand change as a function of qualities and time, we can equally understand time in terms of change, then change within the larger nexus of powers. The same goes for space. We usually think of space as an empty container, with points and distances marked off and measured through a certain form of movement: by the translation through space within a certain frame of time, from Point A to Point B, passing through all the points in between. This is the most entrenched concept of space because it combines our ancient negotiation of space (walking or riding from place to place, with a fixed and limited radius of perception) with the innovation of maps which allowed us to conceive of space with a widened radius of perception, through the “pyramid of concept rather than the labyrinth of experience,” in the words of Bernard Tschumi. For millennia, these were the two big notions, slightly at odds, making up our concept of space, which has since been modulated even more by many other technics and techniques. The Newtonian science and cartography of European modernity rendered space yet more abstract (its points and distances as fixed and indiscernible as those of time) as opposed to the more “absolute” space of pre-modernity (with discrete and meaning-laden topoi). The invention of the telegraph (and telephone soon thereafter) changed our perception of the locality of consequence, in which causes and effects are both carried and buffered by the distances of space. It provided us a model, if only metaphorical, of spooky action at a distance. Each innovation was usually soon incorporated into the pragmatically-derived complex of concepts that make up our concept of space.

More recently, our manipulation of maps (and all of what Lefebvre calls our “representations of space”) has been innovated by the screen-based technique of the pinch-and-zoom. Unassuming at first, this technique allows for something exceedingly novel in our negotiation of space, which is that scale is suddenly submitted to the discretion of human power. Our phones allow us to pinch-and-zoom, on our maps and images, but usually this is alongside our participation in our translated-based negotiation of space, walking, riding, or driving, which tends to take precedence. However, in other more immersive environments, such as gallivanting around Google Earth with a pair of VR goggles, pinch-and-zoom can overtake translation, and result in a sharp defamiliarization in our concept of space. Trudging along on street view is relatively sluggish in itself, and pointless when we want to travel between distant destinations like Paris and Hong Kong. Here, distance is unconveniently far too linked with time. Our preferred way of traveling is to zoom up to a global scale (or however far we need), take a step over, then zoom down to the body-centric scales of the city or streets.

This seems innocent enough at first, but before long, gives rise to a competing conception of space: no longer just a translatable set of metric points and distances, but equally an infinitely nested set of scales within scales. If we needed alone-time to think or rest, we hypothetically wouldn’t need to go away or close a door but merely zoom down to the scale of mites with a different wavelength of causes and effects. This defamiliarization wouldn’t replace or wholly overturn our sense of translation-based space, but after messing around with scales enough, it would certainly tweak our total, pragmatically-derived complex of space-based notions — and some of us more than others. Imagine, if you will, an Amazon worker, hired to fly delivery drones from house to house for over forty hours a week, with no bathroom breaks, who spends every minute of the workday manipulating space via a pinch-and-zoom, perhaps even through an Argus-eyed army of drones, each with their own center for the radius of local perception (giving us hundreds rather than one center of our senses). Their conceptions would slowly shift and be hard to put down at the end of the day. They’d leave work with Tetris-eye, so to speak. On the weekend, driving to Trader Joe’s or the post office, enraged by the traffic between eastside and west, they’d suddenly feel a frustration with translation-based space, trapped by the fixity of scale and blinded by their feeble radius of perception (just as we might feel the burden of materiality in the digital age, wishing we could send out our Christmas gifts as an email attachment). Just as with time, what we think of as “space” is entirely and accountably reliant upon a panoply of certain powers, historical, social, cognitive, or otherwise.

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