How Long Is Now?

HOW LONG IS NOW – An emblematic mural painting on the former art house Tacheles in East-Berlin provokes the central question of this essay.[1] Denied a question mark, it is not itself a question but an enigmatic artifact, a contemporary ruin – dead but still alive.

HOW LONG IS NOW is “half melancholic sigh of resignation, half utopian gesture. […] On the one hand it laments the quality of lived time as a continual perishing of the instant, the present moment. On the other, it suggests the eternal significance that the present moment might hold for us.”[2] Put in the present context, moreover, the abandoned ruin still exceeds the original artwork on a vast political scale, due to the eviction of Tacheles in 2012, which became a symbol of the on-going gentrification of Berlin and many other cities. Autonomous cultural life seems to have become a fiction of the past which could not cope with the increasing pressure of the market. HOW LONG IS NOW, however, still gives us a blink that it could be otherwise.

How long is now? – is it the dead perpetuation of an empty, “absolute present”[3], an eternal waiting for a change to come? Or is it the lively celebration of the present moment – now – which would be able to outdate the determinism of both past and future? But in what sense would such a lively present be related to the flux of time? And how would it be related to eternity? This essay aims to provide some answers to these questions crossing disciplines and cultures. I will start off with Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of the “slow cancellation of the future” in late capitalism and then confront it with the dialectics of time in the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitarō. A final section will explore the revolutionary potential of chaos theory applied to contemporary art and politics.

 The slow cancellation of the future

According to Mark Fisher, the future is no longer seen as open. While the 1960s have become a symbol for a boundless enthusiasm in all realms of so-called counterculture, the past decades are marked by the “slow cancellation of the future”[4]: the future has become a remnant of the past. While Fisher is mostly concerned with the earlier developments in London, the case of Tacheles in Berlin would be its final outcry.

Denise Padron Benitez, Welcome home-intruders viii – Hackney Wick, London, 2017 

Naturally, there are only two reactions to this finding which are both pessimist in kind: contemporary cynicism only re-affirms the status quo by declaring the old enthusiasm as utterly naïve; nostalgia, on the other hand, affirms the status quo as well by idealising the past as a lost paradise. The cultural pessimism of our time oscillates between these poles which are not actually opposed but they merely feed each other: the lost paradise is this naivety itself which we can no longer attain since we have eaten from the tree of knowledge. We cannot return since paradise is guarded by the cherubim behind us; but perhaps we can go the other way around and see whether the backdoor is open?[5]

Both cynicism and nostalgia bear a certain truth but they are utterly inaccurate. The counterculture starting from the 1960s is, indeed, naïve but not in terms of enthusiasm: it is naïve because it is limited to Western culture. Indeed, these cultural developments were very open to indigenous cultures, not to mention its encounters with Asian spirituality. But these encounters lack a certain depth that would critically engage with other cultures instead of reducing them to current Western needs. Take the Perennial Philosophy of Huxley,[6] for example: it is a book with promising intentions but turns out to depict a mere syncretism that reduces Asian thought to ‘spirituality’ in line with the American New Age. Nowadays we are more content to a critical approach to comparative philosophy, which by no means ceases our enthusiasm. Contemporary cultural pessimism is overall a Western problem which may be countered by a more severe engagement with so-called non-Western thought.

Nostalgia, on the other hand, is perhaps right to claim that the conditions of cultural creation in the Western 1960s were less limited than nowadays. But by idealising the past it leaves no place for the present: neither the present of ‘us’ nor the present of ‘them’. We all like to delve into the cafés of Paris in the 1920s, into the Summer of Love of 1967 or the protests of 1968, but all this is but a historicising fashion so common to our century.[7] Among many other works, The long Summer of Theory,[8] for instance, depicts a revolutionary past from the perspective of a present that already knows about its ending: “History of a Revolt 1960-1990”. It thus transforms the radical contingency of its events into a historical necessity: by betraying the past it freezes the present and slowly cancels our future. Contrarily, The Last Temptation of Christ [9] depicts a well-known narrative, yet in such a way that it allows the radical contingency of every moment to be felt. Although we all know about its ending, it remains a question of contingency, what empowers our own agency in the contemporary present.

Historiography, as Heidegger points out, is always a cliché; the only way to give a meaning to our history is to appreciate the radical contingency of its events. Benjamin, accordingly, provides a radical alternative to historical determinism: the now-time – as distinct from the mere present – provides a rupture in the continuous, homogeneous time of linear history. If the present succeeds to recognise the past as a discontinuous history that is forever incomplete, then present, past and future collapse into one: the now-time in which history may be re-written. Only understood as now-time does the present come to the awareness of being not a mere transition but the place of possible change and revolutionary action. Benjamin refers the now-time to the impulse of the messianic: messianic time is not a time-span twinkling from a projected future; it is the now-time in the present understood as radically open. Disrupting the deterministic triad of past, present and future, messianic time “summarizes the entire history of humanity into a monstrous abbreviation”.[10]

All these remarks are able to suggest a wholly different picture contrasted to contemporary cultural pessimism. Before aligning ourselves to the mantra of the “slow cancellation of the future” we should thus firstly have a closer look at the present moment, now: for if we can show that the present is indeterminate, it will be a simple task to show that the future is indeterminate as well.

Dialectics of time in Nishida Kitarō

Let me blow some fresh air into the omnipresent discourse of Western thinkers. No different to Benjamin, the work of Nishida provides alternative approaches to contemporary issues such as climate change, society and history, yet on the level of ontology, yet very different to the present trend of speculative realism.

Starting off with a radical critique of Neo-Kantian dualism, Nishida develops the concept of place (basho) as a non-dual “concrete universal”, applying the terminology of Hegel. Yet while the “concrete universal” in Hegel still consists in the closure of a concept, place in Nishida is itself not a concept: it is a wholly undetermined “absolute nothing” (zettai mu) that escapes the closure of the concept and remains eternally open as a “circle without periphery”, a circle in which every point manifests its centre. This absolute nothing, however, should not be understood as nothingness: in its indeterminacy it even goes beyond the dichotomy of being and nothing and may be felt in “pure experience” which epistemologically precedes the categories of a priori judgments.[11]

From the 1930s on, Nishida expands his ontology of place to the socio-historical world of human beings. Place is now conceived as “absolute contradictory self-identity” (zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu) which determines itself in order to give place to the myriad of entities, each “mirroring” the absolute wherein they are implaced. In terms of social space, every individual is always already implaced in its environment with which it interacts. Human beings are not the only actors on this stage: they act on the environment which simultaneously re-acts to human beings, ad infinitum: nature gives us back what we do to it. In the same sense, each individual is determined by society, but also vice versa. Firstly, individuals interact with each other horizontally: I act on you, you act on me, I act on you, etc. Secondly, society certainly determines the individual but the individual is also able to vertically determine society as a whole – so-called “inverse determination” (gyaku gentei) – which in return determines the individual, etc. This circular and reciprocal inter-determination between the part and the whole Nishida understands as contradictory, since it equates the one with the many, the many with the one. However – different to Hegel – such contradiction is not resolved in a sublation (Aufhebung): since basho or place is itself “absolute contradictory self-identity”, it actually makes these interactions possible.[12]

Nishida’s dialectics of space, however, is unthinkable without the dialectics of time. This dialectics revolves around the triad of past, present and future and gives important insights into our current situation so drastically addressed by Mark Fisher. The past in Nishida is commonly perceived as wholly deterministic, governed by the principle of sufficient reason. Every cause has its effect and every effect has its cause, necessarily so: it could not be otherwise. Even the future is governed by determinism due to the logic of teleology which is by no means limited to philosophy: from the biology of organisms which are supposed to be ‘designed’ for their survival, to the more recent developments in cybernetics which is foremost oriented toward an ‘efficiency’ defined by the technocracy of the ‘decision makers’, the future may no longer be seen as open. Nishida, however, argues for the ontological primacy of the present – a present, indeed, which is not dissimilar to the now-time in Benjamin.[13]

While the past obliges to determinism due the principle of sufficient reason, the future obliges to the same cause due to the principle of teleology. But while the past may be claimed as past only insofar as it negates the future, the future – in return – may be claimed as such only insofar as it negates the past. Past and future are thus understood as contraries that exclude one another, while simultaneously including one another and – therefore – contradict. The present, on the other hand, negates itself which allows the actual flux of time; the present – if truly understood as now – is itself this contradiction between past and future. The now is thus the “absolute contradictory self-identity”, the basho or place of time, which due to its indeterminacy is ontologically prior to the determinacy of future and past – yes to time itself. Accordingly, Nishida understands the present as the “eternal now (eien no ima) which both gives place to the becoming of history itself and simultaneously manifests itself as a discontinuous rupture within time, what I will call the event.[14]

Nishida thus provides an original argument for the radical contingency of the present moment – now – that ontologically relates it to eternity and to the flux of time. Yet since the flux of time is literally constituted by the self-contradictory unity of past and future in the now, the event in Nishida is not only able to disrupt the apparent determinacy of the present as a mere ‘transition’ between past and future. The now is indeterminate – but how about the future and the past? To get a clue about this question we will need to have a closer look at their mutual contradiction. The past defines itself by negating the future; but put this way, the future becomes part of this very definition of the past. Since the past thus negates its very definition, it is already self-contradictory in itself. Likewise the future is determined by its negation of the past; but since the past thus literally belongs to the determination of the future, also the future contradicts already within itself. This is to say that past and future not only negate one another but each already negates itself:[15] apart from their collision mediated by the now, they are also directly implaced in the “absolute contradictory self-identity”. Not only the present but both the future and the past may thus be claimed as indeterminate. Put more precisely, they may be claimed as utterly determined only under the condition that determinacy itself is contradictory.

But does this ultimately mean that determinacy is mere illusion? Nishida goes as far as to ground reason itself in the indeterminate unreason of basho or place, what finally explains his radical departure from Hegel. While Nishida frequently makes use of Hegelian terminology, his major influence is seen in Mahāyāna Buddhism.[16] Nāgārjuna’s dialectics, for example, develops the concept of void (śūnyatā) which – like Nishida’s place – is neither nothingness nor being. The void itself is not a concept but escapes all categorisation, which is made clear in the expression that even ‘emptiness is empty’.[17] Yet a leading question posed by Nāgārjuna is: if the void escapes conceptual language, how could it ever be expressed? Nāgārjuna’s answer to this question lies in the concept of “two truths”: “conventional” (saṃvṛti) and “ultimate” (paramārtha). Conventional truths are phenomena which at first sight appear as independent or essential beings (svabhava). Since even emptiness is empty, ultimate truths can only be expressed by a negative dialectics that points out the actual emptiness of these phenomena. Note that this negation by no means negates the phenomena as such; to the contrary, it solely negates their asserted independence, what eventually gives place to their “dependent origination”: to their lively interaction and infinite flux.[18]

Let us try to apply these concepts to Nishida and the question of determinacy. The past – if seen as isolated from the present and the future – appears as utterly determined by the principle of sufficient reason; the future – seen as isolated from the present and the past – appears as utterly determined by teleology: these are irreducible conventional truths. Yet examined by Nishida’s dialectics in which past and future are related in the present, they collide in contradiction: this is the ultimate truth of place. But this is not to say that their determinacy would be claimed as an illusion on the level of convention; it only means that the doctrine of determinism can no longer be claimed as absolute. Modern European determinism goes in line with a general reductionism in science which was able to explain a great deal of the world by reducing its complexity to simplifying, isolated models. These models may still hold on the level of convention but are increasingly unable to make sense of a hyperconnected world in which the challenges of climate change collide with the technocracy of global capitalism. Nishida’s place of “absolute contradictory self-identity” gives us a sense of the unfiltered chaos we encounter within pre-reflective, pure experience. His dialectics of “inverse determination”, on the other hand, gives us a direction to explain its actual complexity through an open and dynamic system of circular and reciprocal interactions between individual and society, human and non-human beings.

Becoming Butterflies

If what Nishida says is true, why are we so afraid even to imagine a better future? Why is it “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”?[19] Perhaps Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of the contemporary present is more accurate than the concept of the present in Nishida, which was formulated in the 1930s. But perhaps it is a self-fulfilling prophecy based on a general misconception of the world as a closed system. We will finally engage with a number of approaches in so-called chaos theory, which interestingly bears many similarities with Nishida’s dialectics. This is not to say that chaos theory would be able to replace the dialectical method: dialectics is not dead, precisely due to its affinity to chaos theory. To put it briefly, it is the only qualitative method able to compete with the quantitative method of contemporary science.

In The End of Certainty, Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers name three major developments in the history of physics: 1) classical physics, 2) quantum theory, 3) chaos theory. While the former two describe a world of order and stability, the latter would be able to describe a world of chaos and complexity.[20] Let us have a closer look at each of the three in terms of Nishida’s dialectics.

Classical physics describes the stable universe of Newton and Laplace. This universe is governed by the principle of sufficient reason in both directions of time: if we were able to have accurate knowledge of the present, we would be able to predict the future with unquestionable certainty. The future – in this sense – is already written; actually a quite religious stance of science named determinism.

Quantum physics, on the other hand, finished with Einstein’s assumption that ‘God does not play dice’. Absolute determinacy gets thus replaced by probability, the principle of sufficient reason by statistics. This procedure is not limited to physics but finds its application in all disciplines of quantified knowledge. At first sight this looks like a good reason for the common skepticism toward any novelty in our time: nothing would be unexpected anymore but only “probable” … But note that this quantifying notion of determinism is no less subject to the problem of induction than the former. Statistics holds only in common cases whereas it is blind to the unique. This is to say that Schrödinger’s cat, indeed, may be 30% alive and 70% dead but in each unique case it is wholly contingent whether it comes out dead or alive. Each now is thus a radical decision: a decision because it excludes all other possibilities and is determinate, indeed; but also radical because this unique decision is not based on statistics or probability but is wholly unpredictable, perhaps not “probable” at all.

Chaos theory is able to make sense of discontinuity and thus radically challenges both classical determinism and the new determinism of probability.[21] Complex or non-linear dynamic systems integrate a feedback loop comparable to “inverse determination” in Nishida’s dialectics. Here the output of a system feeds back into its own input, gets transformed to a new output that feeds back in again: ad infinitum. While so-called negative feedback only leads back to equilibrium and positive feedback leads to the collapse of the system, the most interesting dynamic systems integrate both positive and negative feedback, what leads to a state of meta-stability. The most popular example in terms of mathematics is the Mandelbrot set which is defined as the set of complex numbers c for which the function zn+1 = zn2 + c does not diverge toward infinity if iterated from z0 = 0. While complex numbers with absolute values far from zero lead to positive feedback and thus diverge toward infinity, complex numbers with absolute values very close to zero lead to negative feedback and thus remain bounded within the set. It becomes interesting for numbers in between these two extremes, since it remains indeterminate whether they belong to the set or not unless the function would be infinitely iterated (what is practically impossible). An infinitely small difference in the complex number c thus may be decisive whether it belongs to the set or not, what leads to the infinitively complex beauty of its visualization on the complex plane.

‘Zoom’ into the Mandelbrot set 

Feedback loops in complex systems lead to an increasing sensitivity which cannot be accounted by statistical probability. This sensitivity to initial conditions – to their “environment” – is well-known as the butterfly effect according to which a butterfly in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas.[22] While this example fifty years ago might have been understood more metaphorically, in our time of increasing climate catastrophes it gains an alarming new sense. In the hyperconnected age of late capitalism, at every instance a new catastrophe may emerge out of the blue, of which the economic crisis of 2008 and the worldwide pandemic of 2020 are only the first examples. The work of Quentin Meillassoux may be able to make sense of this increasing sensitivity, although it remains too abstract to account for the complex dialectics of its reasons.[23]

Lorenz Attractor

We now see that this non-linear and radically discontinuous notion of cause and effect has no longer much in common with determinism. To the contrary, it allows for the emergence of randomness or chance on an ontological scale, i.e. no longer reducible to our limited knowledge of the present but inherent in the world itself. This is to say that the future is not only unpredictable to ‘us’ (as human beings) but that the future is open or unwritten in itself. The meta-stability of “inverse determination” or feedback loops inherent in hypercomplex systems such as the world economy, the biosphere, etc., can only be maintained until a minimal difference in their “environment” causes them to “contradict” into a butterfly effect. The butterfly’s effect is the event of chaos. It is the unpredictable chance which radically disrupts the status quo in its dialectical entanglement and thus refers the dialectics back to its place (basho). While the event at first sight appears as utterly destructive, by referring to the place as chaos itself it opens up the gate to the source of all creation: the only gate for true novelty to emerge. The more rigid and “improbable” it gets, the more unexpected is the chance of chaos. Even Mark Fisher admits to an improbable alternative in the closing paragraph of Capitalist Realism:

The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.[24]

How are we to make sense of this radical contingency? If even the flap of a butterfly might cause the end of the world – or the end of capitalism – is there still a reason to politically engage? My first answer is that we should see global catastrophes not as yet another reason to despair but also as a global chance for alternative perspectives to emerge. The global lockdown in 2020, for example, only confirmed the increasing fascist tendencies of nation states around the world; however, what was unpredictable in 2019 was the sudden recovery of the biosphere. What is more important, from a global lockdown new practices of degrowth, shared economies and coexistence may emerge. Our time of isolation makes us once again aware of the eternity of every moment and gives us the opportunity to develop spiritually.

Moreover, we are not waiting for the butterfly to flap its wings. Given the increasing sensitivity of hypercomplex systems, progressive politics and arts should experiment and critically engage with new approaches such as autopoiesis and feedback loops. Perhaps the trick in performing truly unexpected moves lies in the idea that even the performer doesn’t know about them in advance. Our creativity must overcome the control of ourselves, to become the butterfly that shakes the earth.

Having studied all around the world, Hannes Schumacher works at the threshold between philosophy and art focusing on post-apocalyptic aesthetics, chaos theory and mysticism. He is the founder of the Berlin-based publisher Freigeist Verlag, co-founder of the grassroots art space Chaosmos ∞ in Athens and member of the artistic collective Vandaloop.

Post image is Thomas Knoll: How long is now, 2018 (CC). Featured image is wolfgangfoto: how long is now, 2010 (CC). ‘Zoom’ into the Mandelbrot set image by author. Lorenz Attractor image is in the public domain.

[1] This essay was presented at the conference Indeterminate Futures / The Future of Indeterminacy, University of Dundee (UK), 13 – 15 November 2020.

[2] Stefan Skrimshire, “How Long Is Now? Reflections on Berlin, Deep Time and Planetary Futures”,

[3] Marcus Quent (ed.), Absolute Gegenwart. Berlin: Merve, 2016.

[4] Mark Fisher, Ghosts Of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester (UK), Washington (US): Zero Books, 2014.

[5] Cf. Heinrich von Kleist, On the Marionette Theatre, trans. Thomas G. Neumiller, in: The Drama Review: TDR Vol. 16, No. 3. Cambridge (US): MIT Press, 1972.

[6] Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy. London: Chatto & Windus, 1947.

[7] The exhibition Summer of Love curated by Katerina Gregos on Samos in 2017 may be seen as an approach to overcome this nostalgia by placing the idea of 1967 in the present context. However, by its visitors it was mostly conceived as a mere trigger to re-affirm the nostalgic paradigm.

[8] Philipp Felsch, Der Lange Sommer der Theorie: Geschichte einer Revolte 1960-1990. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2015. The homonymous film The long Summer of Theory (2017) directed by Irene von Alberti tries to re-evoke this energy in the contemporary context.

[9] The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) directed by Martin Scorsese. The film is based on Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ, trans. P. A. Bien. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.

[10] Cf. especially Andrea Messner, “Hate as a transformative force: An essay on Walter Benjamin”, in: love & politics, eds. Evgenia Giannopoulou & Hannes Schumacher. Berlin: Freigeist Verlag, 2018.

[11] Nishida Kitarō, “Basho”, in: Place and Dialectic: Two Essays by Nishida Kitarō, trans. John W. M. Krummel &
Shigenori Nagatomo. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[12] Nishida Kitarō, Absolute-contradictory Self-identity, trans. Christopher Southward. Binghamton University, State University of New York, 2018.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] This style of argument is drawn from Hegel’s Science of Logic, namely from the section ‘Contradiction’ in the ‘Doctrine of Essence’. G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George Di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; 374ff.

[16] John W. M. Krummel, Nishida Kitarō’s Chiasmatic Chorology. Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Place. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015.

[17] Nāgārjuna, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, transl. Jay L. Garfield. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[18] Nāgārjuna, Seventy Stanzas: A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness, ed. David Ross Komito. Ithaka, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1987.

[19] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? Winchester (UK), Washington (US): Zero Books, 2009; 1.

[20] Ilya Prigogine & Isabelle Stengers, The End of Certainty. Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature. New York: The Free Press, 1997; esp. 4.

[21] It is another question whether complex systems should be understood as deterministic as well. Our philosophical stance would claim the scientific notion of ‘deterministic chaos’ as yet another reductionism.

[22] Edward Lorenz, “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”, Cambridge (Massachusetts): MIT & American Association for the Advancement of Science, 139th meeting, 1972.

[23]5 Cf. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude : An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier. London, New York: Continuum, 2008.

[24] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?, Winchester (UK), Washington (US): Zero Books, 2009; 80f.

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