Notes on “Questions of Power” (5), the Ontology of Mechanism, Time, and Rhythm.

Brandon Avery Joyce
16 min readAug 30, 2023

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The crux of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is the relation of being and change. In the first parts, he treats us to some choice cliffnotes on how the problem was handled among his predecessors. In one corner was Parmenides, reasoning against the reality of change, championing an immutable unity in which being “is uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete, immovable and without end.” Time and change were, for him, nothing more than illusory ripples on the surface of being. “Nor was it ever, nor will it be; for now it is, all at once, a continuous One.” In the other corner was Heraclitus, for whom “the Sun is new everyday,” extolling a sort of demiurgic flux, a total change swallowing up everything down to the last pebble. Parmenides stood for pure stasis; Heraclitus, for pure kinesis; and neither of their worldviews were necessarily false or wrong in and of themselves. They were ecstatic or visionary — proudly uncowed by common sense and self-consistently true enough if you unflinchingly followed the premises out to their conclusions, which many of the Eleatics eagerly did. However, they were really better for bedtime than daytime: here was definitely wisdom, but it sure didn’t offer much of a handle on either the natural world or human affairs.

Many of the Hellenics sensed this, it seems, and so sought to broker their own compromise in which, during any change, something new came into being and something else — usually something realer or more eternal — persisted. Whether elements, forms, or first causes, these realer, more persistent parts were thought to explain change while themselves remaining safely beyond any power that might inflict change upon them. This limited the number of moving parts, granted, and initially felt gentler upon the mind. Upon a little more reflection though (or after thousands of years of philosophical elaboration), we see how this compromise created a gaping aporia or quandary in the story of Western metaphysics that eventually filtered into other facets of thought and society. How and why would anything be so untouchably beyond any power to produce, change, or prevent it? And if it was beyond any power to produce, change, or prevent it, why was it there and why was it the way that it was? Western philosophy, that much-touted art of wonder, was thus rudely grounded in total incomprehensibility.

This aporia, this inherent tension between power and eternal being, was for many centuries after Aristotle, a problem somewhat mediated by filling the gap with — what else? — but an omnipotent and eternal supreme being. God didn’t make things much clearer, that’s for sure, but it made the paradoxes more tolerable, or better yet, a transcendent fountainhead everflowing with awe. His incomprehensibility was only greater testament. The secularization of the Enlightenment, then, didn’t just have an ethical and social challenge to mount against the worldview of the religious establishment. Its scientific project was suddenly embarrassed by the metaphysical questions of power that had been long deferred by a divine omnipotent being, questions that now had to be actually answered because of the dare-to-know mandate of the Enlightenment ethos. What to do? Dualists and deists like Descartes and Locke manage to stall a little longer through a number of half-measures, rendering unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s and unto God that which was God’s. Space and bodies worked one way; God and souls another. More rigorous spirits, however, implicitly or explicitly followed through with the static-kinetic premises of the scientific revolution. Rather than liquidating God and dispersing His powers into a messier, dynamic metaphysics, they largely opted for a self-sufficient “ontology of mechanism” in which for all intents and purposes, neither God nor power had any role. If completed, this would make things easier to explain, no longer having to account for questions of power. Problem solved, or so they thought…

The sworn atheists of the Enlightenment, like Laplace, got that causation would have to become an iron-chain perpetual-motion determinism if the universe was to wholly dispense with a creator (or anything remotely like Him). If the world was to be evacuated of power, per our definition, causation would have to be evacuated of possibility. And sure enough, this was exactly how causation was re-understood by both its defenders like Spinoza and its skeptics like Hume, as a relation implying law-like necessity (a definition that always left me unmoved by Hume’s criticism when I was younger). In the natural sciences, the sumptuous casserolle of manifold causes that we found in Aristotle was streamlined and segregated into forces (from efficient causes, which even for Aristotle were largely matters of rest and motion) and matter (from material causes, though as a materiality ultimately bereft of character) operating within the formal frames of physical laws. Final causes were tossed altogether and ridiculed as a holdover of theology (though from what I can tell, all other forces besides momentum, like gravity and magnetism, still permitted coyly teleological interpretations — or if not teleological, then at least didn’t stray so far from notions of Renaissance naturalism such as sympathy and abhorrence).

Under this rubric, causation became nothing more than an ineluctable procession of steps, a linkage in which causes directly implied their effects, rather than being directed and refracted through a nimbus of possibilities. In most real world scenarios or events, the total calculation of all forces might have been too complex for human prediction, as Laplace admitted; its results were nonetheless predetermined and merely unveiled by the procession of time. Total determinism, I’ll note, isn’t a deal-breaking requirement for static-kinetic worldviews. Not in the least. In the pinball chaos of Empedoclean materialism, for instance, contingency is completely real but hardly any more dynamic because it’s only the result of the random and inexplicable “swerving” of its simplest particles (a real contingency that would also reemerge in physics three centuries on). And natural science might equally express itself in the entirely static terms of pure mathematical equations (as Bertrand Russell noted, cause is eradicable, time merely a variable, and hence causal determinism more or less meaningless), or (as Russell’s buddy Whitehead had it) in the overwhelmingly kinetic terms of processes whose complexity exceed and outfox the marching orders of an absolute determinism. For its own part, the ontology of mechanism was kinetic in the way a carousel is kinetic, its parts welded together deterministically; and all change occurring in accordance with laws which represent a higher order of unchange.

I’m simplifying a lot, of course, in order to follow the curve from vaguely Aristotle-based worldviews to the ontology of mechanism established in early scientific modernity. During the middle ages, Aristotle, like Plato, persisted more as an imprint until his re-introduction into Europe through Islamic scholars like Ibn Rushd, and he still had gangs of detractors among the early moderns. Neoplatonists continued their millenia-long intellectual turf war with Neo-Aristotelians. Prominent humanists, in their challenge of institutional authority, resented Aristotelian dogmas in European education. And ecclesiastics, who obviously didn’t mind institutional authority, remained suspicious of Aristotle as simply the wrong kind — as an impious pagan and a dangerous departure from church doctrine. The so-called scientific revolution inherited plenty from Aristotelian natural philosophy, like its empirical bent and the rough outline of its questions, but in the construction of its ontology of mechanism, broke sharply with Aristotle in its expurgation of final causes and possibility, or more specifically, of the twin notions of actuality (entelechy) and potentiality (dynamos). It could also be argued that there was a subtler mood change from an interrogation of the factum — which was the result of some form of doing or agency — to the interpretation of facts — that is, facts in themselves, cabinets of which had been collected and maniacally catalogued by Renaissance humanists.

This ontology of mechanism arose partly through the working intimacy between natural philosophers and artisans in the use and development of literal machines. The machine — the clock, the air pump, the windmill, the automaton — was selected from the totality of all things to serve as an analogy for the totality of all things. This wasn’t an error. All schemes necessarily do this, pulling metaphors from their own pragmatic interactions with the world and exhausting the implications until their metaphors run aground (and a dynamic scheme, which borrows primarily from the social, is no different). Of course, this privileges certain phenomena over others. Aristotle was enthralled by the celestial sphere, like Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, or Newton, but his natural philosophy drew the greater share of its metaphors from biology, and an Aristotelian scheme — however you might describe it — will thus work best on organic phenomena like horses and budding oaks. The Novatores trained their metaphors on machines instead and therefore were far more successful in describing phenomena that behaved, well, mechanistically. However, this “mechanism” meant something larger than mere machines, especially once it was smuggled into the social sphere during the Enlightenment. Once any scheme is in place, it sublimes its inspirations and becomes a framework through which all things are comprehended — some better than others — including its own concepts in relation to each other. So both Aristotelianism and the ontology of mechanism (both of which I describe as different flavors of static-kinetic), operate according to their own interrelated conceptions of things like time, space, cause, effect, change, stasis, explanation, necessity, and for lack of a better word, determination.

Let’s begin with that old stoner’s delight, the conception of time. Through the zootropic lens of the ontology of mechanism, we look upon time as a dimension consisting of an infinite popcorn string of fixed pointlike coordinates, whose steady and sequential popping nevertheless create a sense of unidirectional flow. Another helpful image might be the bulbs on an old Broadway marquee, that remain in a fixed and regular order but light in a lively sequence that guides the eyes around the edges of the sign. As the coordinate system upon which events happen or processes stretch, time itself stays fixed and even. Change then is supposedly measured as a function of the difference in static qualities over time. But as Aristotle himself mused, this could be reversed without breaking a sweat; time is just as easily derived from change. The Newtonian and mechanical notion of time, that has become our common sense, is more clearly understood as abstract change, in much the way that classical economics understood prices as abstract value in the mechanisms of the market. And, lo and behold, this abstraction is historically and pragmatically how we actually derived this idea of time and its supposed regularity, by normalizing the roaring, cascading rates of all the jumbling processes around us with respect to the most predictable and regular among them, namely the movements of celestial bodies. From there, we subdivided those units first into hours, then minutes, then seconds, before groping around for processes that approximately matched their tempo, such as the swings of a pendulum or the steady flows of water and sand. Remarkably, this also recapitulates to a tee the same story that Aristotle tells in his Metaphysics, where the causes of the world begin first with the eternal unmoved mover (God), then to the outermost heavens to the planets, down into earthly cycles, before disseminating into the empirical effects and changes observable even by the beasts of the Earth. Here then, we can see how our conception of time was derived, produced, and created; it’s no longer some metaphysical given or epistemological a priori. Its supposed regularity is a result of pragmatic coordination and normalization — and conveniently unfalsifiable since we’ve got nothing to clock it against.

The abstraction is not a problem in and of itself though. It’s the reason our timekeepers — our clocks, calendars, and metronomes — are useful for coordination. It’s also not that it’s false, and the usurpation of Newton by new physics still conserved time as a dimension, even if its coordinate system could be warped and affected by cosmic forces (which was surprising only because science ontologized this abstraction in the first place). However, abstraction’s not the only way to make, as Wilfred Sellar put it, “things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” If broken free from common measure, from its normalization, time could decentralize back into the roaring, cascading rates of jumbling processes that unfold primarily in temporal relation to themselves. With this, time may turn inward, as a jumpy synthesis of memory and anticipation, or become private, as with Heidegger’s orientation of time around that most private of all events, our own death. Less psychically or personally, though, time can also fracture into a thousand independent “temporalities,” each in accord with their own local self-organizing processes, that we may observe and respect in the melting of glaciers or the jittering cycles of animalcules and molecules. Once the reign of abstraction is dethroned, it releases into the wild an ungovernable multiplicity of chronologies. However, neither abstract time nor the fragmentation of time into trajectories that we find in Bergson, Heidegger, Deleuze, or for that matter, our overtly psychological accounts of past, present, and future — neither static eternity nor kinetic singularity — accommodate what I would consider a dynamic conception of time.

The revenge of processual time is, after all, already partly there in Aristotle. In his Physics, he declares time to be but the “number or measure of change or movement,” of the kineses or processes that themselves unfold through a movement from potentiality to actuality, by way of the very dynamos and entelechy banished from the clockwork cosmology of mechanism. So it makes sense, doesn’t it? For Aristotle too, this telos towards and through which something is actualized — even if shared by other members of its kind or species — is something buried deep in the heart of its processes (like the telos of death or the weight and shape of a falling body). My two cents is that dynamic time can do much better than the choice between transcendental abstraction and an uncoordinated multiplicity of movements — it has to if it wants to convincingly explain the immanent interrelation of all things, events, and processes. It does so by imagining other forms of coordination and alternative pragmatics upon which to base time. How else can we make sense of time then? Take for instance, the notion of the present moment, of the “now,” which is illusory in terms of static abstraction yet still fleeting and private in terms of singular process. How can this be understood dynamically? Power-accounts are, in some ways, accounts of actualizations, just not of a form of actuality as top-heavy or essential as Aristotle’s (and it’s almost amusing to think about understanding power, especially socially, without explanatory aims or ends, of that which is to be actualized — as merely the contour of abstract principles or the thrust of blind forces). Power-accounts answer the question: “what constellations of causes and possibilities are needed to actualize something, what constellations could thwart this actualization, and how else might it be actualized?” In dynamic time, the present moment is defined as the limit-point after which the answer to this question precipitously drops to zero, and becomes simply “nothing.” In terms of power, it’s defined as the threshold of impotency. And this impotency is a common impotency, shared by all things under the Sun. It’s not some private and inarticulable sense. Furthermore, every instant or duration, not just the present one, is colorfully defined by its relation to a pandynamic and hotly-contested arena of actualizations (including those within the processes of consciousness that consequently swear by the flow of time). If time is explained by change; change is — we have to remember — explained by power. I’ll have more to say about this in later sections, but for now I want to elucidate this with an illustration from music.

What is rhythm in music? In its most common acceptation, rhythm’s understood as a pattern of sound events taking place upon a temporal lattice simply designated as “the tempo.” This notion of rhythm is so common and entrenched we forget that it was as much of an historical invention as the Newtonian notion of transcendental abstract time. It was invented primarily by the so-christened school of Notre Dame, revolving around Pérotin and Léonin, and developed simultaneously with musical notation and polyphony. That is, just as time was normalized into abstract change to coordinate the roaring, cascading rates of all jumbling processes, tempo was invented to coordinate a chorus of voices singing a multiplicity of melodies. Prior to this, in the European Middle Ages, the rhythm of songs was dictated by the native temporalities of language, since in liturgical music, song was considered more as an illumination of the holy meanings of the texts. The Word took precedence as a structuring force. This abstraction of tempo and the coordination of musical values as harmony, fully and faithfully expressible through musical notation, reached its zenith in the Enlightenment with Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels. As it was for Pythagoras and Kepler, musical composition was homologous to the laws of nature, a musica universalis. However, despite the countless new forms for the coordination and production of sound, we stubbornly still understand music in these old terms (and anything lying outside of these terms is marginalized as incidental or extra-musical). Our notion of rhythm therefore is still altogether transcendental and abstract. Not everyone fully agrees, and there have been some efforts to interpret rhythm less or unabstractly. Deleuze, in his Difference and Repetition, in his attempt to outwit identity and the generality of laws, says that:

The study of rhythm allows us immediately to distinguish two kinds of repetition. Cadence-repetition is a regular division of time, an isochronic recurrence of identical elements. However, a period exists only insofar as it is determined by a tonic accent, commanded by intensities. Yet we would be mistaken about the function of accents if we said that they were reproduced at equal intervals. On the contrary, tonic and intensive values act by creating inequalities or incommensurabilities between metrically equivalent periods or spaces. They create distinctive points, privileged instants which always indicate a poly-rhythm. Here again, the unequal is the most positive element. Cadence is only the envelope of a rhythm, and of a relation between rhythms. The reprise of points of inequality, of inflections or of rhythmic events, is more profound than the reproduction of ordinary homogeneous elements. As a result, we should distinguish cadence-repetition and rhythm-repetition in every case, the first being only the outward appearance or the abstract effect of the second.

This is oddly conservative coming from Deleuze though. It basically amounts to saying that the isochrony of musical time derives from the inner inequalities of a sound process (deriving time from movements, but linking them as a duality), while leaving that isochrony more or less in place. Above this passage, though, speaking more generally of rhythm and symmetry, he writes:

A distinction is drawn between arithmetic symmetry, which refers back to a scale of whole or fractional coefficients, and geometric symmetry, based upon proportions or irrational ratios; a static symmetry which is cubic or hexagonal, and a dynamic symmetry which is pentagonal and appears in a spiral line or in a geometrically progressing pulsation — in short, in a living and mortal ‘evolution’. Now, the second of these is at the heart of the first; it is the vital, positive, active procedure. In a network of double squares, we discover radiating lines which have the centre of a pentagon or a pentagram as their asymmetrical pole. The network is like a fabric stretched upon a framework, ‘but the outline, the principal rhythm of that framework, is almost always a theme independent of the network’: such elements of dissymmetry serve as both genetic principle and principle of reflection for symmetrical figures.”

If we’re feeling charitable towards Deleuze (and I won’t be in future sections), we can read this as a recognition that those “inner inequalities” may not ultimately conform to any common denominator of a tempo and its “arithmetic symmetry.” Through the irrational ratios or inevitable remainders of any “vital, positive, active procedure,” emerges a sort of “transgression” against the cagebars of musical isochrony. Nevertheless, this doesn’t offer us anything like a new working conception of rhythm. It merely acknowledges the productive tension between isochrony and arrhythmia that’s always been at work in traditional rhythm, just as there’s always been a productive tension between consonance and dissonance in all melody and harmony (which is why my blood cools when composers try to mobilize dissonance against consonance while leaving tonality itself more or less untouched).

In any event, rhythm can easily be re-imagined in far more concretely processual terms. There are countless things that we loosely speak about as having a rhythm. War has a rhythm. Tennis has a rhythm. Videogames have a rhythm. Conversations have a rhythm. We think we’re speaking figuratively, but we’re not. Each of these processes is produced in accordance with its own temporal logic, a logic that speaks to a more general meaning of rhythm, as an actionable intuition of how movements relate to the production of sound. If in their coordination and synthesis into a musical form, we habitually subjugate their temporal logics to the lattice of tempo, that’s completely on us — a failure of the imagination. However, fret not; music has plenty of other ways to accomplish this. To begin with, even without any other techniques or devices, these processes take place in a common world, in which we already share a certain intuition about their temporal logics. Screenwriters talk about “beats.” Comedians talk in terms of “timing.” What tells the comedian on stage how to pace his language and manner, to drop a punchline at a precise moment, or how long to draw out a pregnant pause? They’re not counting in their heads. They’re acting upon a “vital, positive, active procedure” without any reference to the ticks of a clock. They’re modulating the tensions in the room, in their guts, and between their words, responding to the interrelation of their body and language with the presence and pressures of the audience, through a shared understanding of the temporality of an action or anecdote. Music, too, can self-organize through timing rather than tempo. And it does on occasion, during flights into the “freeform,” but — and this isn’t a rhetorical question — has it ever been codified into a systematic form of rhythm based on cues and triggers?

Whatever your answer, experimental music and modern life furnish plenty of techniques and devices, besides notation and tempo, to coordinate our vital procedures: sound can be polyphonously coordinated through haptic or visual cues, such as a film, tickertape, or spectacle, (similar to live music created to accompany silent films); sound can be modulated through direct response to live actions (like contact mics hooked up to mini-ramps), or produced kinesthetically through the movements of bodies, dancers, or objects; and since the invention of recorded sound, the temporal coordination no longer has to happen simultaneously, on stage or in the studio, as it did in the pre-Edisonian era. Once one process is set to tape; all others may then follow suit. A highschooler can record themselves rapping their worst, with all the native temporalities of language, like the liturgical texts of medieval music, and only afterwards hound a producer into embellishing the track with sounds and effects in their bedroom studios… The list of methods goes on, and many are even easy to execute, but rarely attempted outside of experimental circles, let alone used to collectively derive, produce, or create a new conception of rhythm. Musically, we’re still ensconced in unquestioned forms of abstract time. This is as much a social or political as aesthetic predicament in that, as we read in Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis or E.P. Thompson’s Time, Work-Discpline and Industrial Capitalism, our conceptions of time and rhythm are not just intellectual curiosities; they structure our society and lifeworld, usually in wearying contradiction with our deeper needs and desires. But it doesn’t work to banish the clock, to hit the snooze button, or flee into an asocial state of nature or chaos. Something will structure us no matter what, so we might as well derive new social, cultural, political coordinating systems for immanently interrelating all things, events, and processes — just ones based on better forms of life.

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