- Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative by David Wittenberg
Fordham, 288 pp, £18.99, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 8232 4997 8
It is probably not immediately obvious what interest a new theoretical study of science fiction holds for the mainstream adepts of literary theory; and no doubt it is just as perplexing to SF scholars, for whom this particular subgenre of the subgenre, the time-travel narrative, is as exceptional among and uncharacteristic of their major texts as SF itself is with regard to official Literature. To be sure, so-called alternative or counterfactual histories have gained popularity and a certain respectability; my personal favourite is Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, in which John Brown’s raid succeeds and a black socialist republic emerges in the South, as prosperous and superior in relation to its shrunken rust-belt northern neighbour as West Germany was to the East in the old days. And there remains the lingering mystery of what would have happened had the time traveller not stepped on the butterfly: this is from Ray Bradbury’s immortal ‘Sound of Thunder’, but the idea is adaptable to any number of wistful daydreams – had Lincoln not been assassinated, or Bobby Kennedy – or more sombre fantasies, like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War and divide the US between them. But these historical variants are not genuine time-travel narratives on the order of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine (1895), which inaugurates the standard narrative of the history of science fiction, to the detriment of Jules Verne or that other increasingly popular recent candidate, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
But where did the genre come from? My own hypothesis is a very general one: namely, that the late 19th-century invention of SF correlates to Walter Scott’s invention of the modern historical novel in Waverley (1814), marking the emergence of a second – industrial – stage of historical consciousness after that first dawning sense of the historicity of society so rudely awakened by the French Revolution. David Wittenberg does much better than this, but his remarkable hypothesis is only one of the conceptual breakthroughs in this stimulating contribution to literary theory. I will dwell mainly on the three that interest me the most: the relationship of SF to modernism in the arts; the historical periodisation of the genre; and the dramatic challenge to narratology as a field, with implications for the theory of ideology as well as for the analysis of narrative structure itself (of which the time-travel story, with all its ineradicable paradoxes, suddenly becomes the fundamental paradigm). Nor is philosophy itself untouched by the fallout from these dramatic revisions: after all, the phenomenological ego is a temporal matter, and time itself one of its fundamental paradoxes, which neither Husserl nor Heidegger ever laid to rest.
Science fiction is not the only mass-cultural genre (or subgenre) whose relationship to ‘high literature’ and to modernism in particular presents problems. It is as easy to feel that James and Wells are incompatible as it is to reject the notion that Dostoevsky (let alone Oedipus Rex) has any family relationship with the detective story. When we come to Orlando or Pynchon, the conviction of incompatibility remains firm, but the arguments become more difficult to sustain, or even to articulate. Experimental literature ought to share generic features with its more popular cousins, but it doesn’t; Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem are not of the same genre as Philip K. Dick, however long Margaret Atwood managed to ‘pass’. Indeed, the solution may actually be a rather simple one, namely that modernism is not a genre, while SF emphatically is – and this opens up questions of an appeal to different reading publics, as well as their respective quotients of Bourdieusian ‘distinction’.
Wittenberg’s proposal begins modestly enough, with an emphasis on SF’s bias towards visuality: witness Wells’s first time traveller, who observes the passage of worlds and time as so many streams of flux, ‘melting and flowing under my eyes’ – ‘le film des événements’ indeed. The shorthand of visuality will then mark mass culture as ‘degraded’ (in the language of culture pessimists like Adorno and Horkheimer) by comparison with the anti-visuality, the anti-representational convictions, of the various high modernisms. But it will also open up immense new possibilities such as the emergent medium of film.
Is it then simply visuality which accounts for the appeal of mass culture and its genres over the obscurities of the hermetic arts? One may recall Hegel’s judgment on ‘picture-thinking’ (seemingly the standard translation of Kant’s Vorstellung) and the empirical categories of the thinking of daily life (Verstand or ‘understanding’), whose cultural elaboration he saw in art and religion. His famous (or infamous) pronouncement on the ‘end of art’ was motivated by his conviction that the deficiencies of Verstand needed to be replaced by the Concept (Begriff or ‘notion’), by a philosophy no longer obliged to rely on picture-thinking for its solutions.
Wittenberg reminds us that it was not only mass culture – cartoons, illustrated dime novels, early cinema – that ignored Hegel’s judgment: so did the scientists, and however unthinkable infinity may be, Einstein’s thought experiments are nothing if not triumphs of picture-thinking, redolent with trains and clocks, elevators and measuring rods, the tangible bric-à-brac of daily life pressed into service to make the unthinkable thinkable. This is certainly a visual procedure, but I would characterise it as a kind of literality too, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment.
I want to reinsert this problem into a philosophical context of far greater consequence, which is that of representation as such. Increasingly, in the late 19th century, writers became aware that the world of newly emergent capitalism was an unrepresentable totality which it was nonetheless their duty and vocation to represent. The great moderns – Mallarmé, Joyce, Musil et al – achieved this impossible and double-binding imperative by representing their inability to represent. They earned their right to sublimity by using ‘picture-thinking’ against itself, and for them failure was success. The postmoderns seem to have renounced this agonising mission by taking the impossibility of representation for granted and revelling in it (you will say that by now we know what the totality of capitalism is anyhow, representation or no representation).
But science fiction was not crippled by such representational doubts and scruples; or rather, it emerged as a genre at the very moment in which the representational dilemma began to make inroads into literature, and it was able to do so owing to its possession of a representational instrument rather different from those faltering in the hands of traditional realists. Kant distinguished between two kinds of non-conceptual language: the symbol and the schema. Traditional literature cleaved to the symbol and its ‘picture-thinking’ (thereby allowing Hegel to pronounce its supercession by philosophy as such, in his theory of the ‘end of art’). But science fiction had the schema; and it is what we have been calling literality, the use of visual materials not to represent the world but to represent our thoughts about the world. It is no accident that Deleuze celebrated Foucault’s work in terms of its schematism, something which in his own writing he called ‘the image of thought’ – as opposed, clearly, to its referential content. Virtually everything designated as structuralism and poststructuralism is marked, in its so-called spatial turn – indeed, in its synchronic tendencies – by schematism. This is a kind of ‘picture-thinking’ very different from what Hegel understood as Vorstellung; nor does it fall under the anathema of representation since it does not represent.
This is why science fiction, despite appearances, cannot be said simply to carry on the traditional narrative methods of ‘old-fashioned realism’, merely applying it to fantastic or at least non-realistic content. Rather, it enlists the visual literality of Einstein’s thought experiments to convey conceptions often more outlandish than his own (and this is no doubt the moment to disabuse the sceptical reader of the still widespread opinion that science fiction is always about ‘science’). For Einstein’s ‘experiments’ were very far from being the laboratory experiments and falsification devices in terms of which the history of ‘hard science’ is so often written (it took a good deal of ingenuity to invent a ‘real experiment’ – the solar measurements of 1919 – to confirm his ‘scientific’ theories). Rather, Einstein’s demonstrations were pedagogical, texts more closely related to children’s books than to applications for a grant. Yet these ‘examples’ are not to be understood as mere rhetoric: they pioneered a form of schematism which authorised the early writers of science fiction to take their cosmological fantasies literally and to re-enact in a visual (or later on a cinematographic) mode the dynamics of worlds either too large or too small to be conveyed by human language (perhaps, then, as Badiou’s work has been reminding us, mathematics is one of the ultimate – and alternative – forms of such literality or schematisation).
At this point, returning to our narrative of the history and emergence of science fiction, Wittenberg rather brutally shifts gears, from what look like the linguistic dilemmas of the scientific text, to political history. He does so not in the usual fashion of outlining some more general social ‘context’, but rather by way of the generic problems of political, indeed utopian thought.
This generic problem is also a political one, and this identity is what I take Hegel to have meant by his immense sentence, ‘Defectiveness of form results from defectiveness of content.’ (The larger version of this symptomal relationship between literature and the sociopolitical situation will also account for the crisis in cognitive mapping I referred to earlier as the modernist representational dilemma.) The political problem turns on 19th-century conceptions of the future of capitalist development and the possibility of its revolutionary transformation into another, more satisfactory and humane system, which is to say a radically different ‘mode of production’ (a concept initially theorised by Adam Ferguson and then developed by Marx). The ‘representational’ problem does not lie in the revolutionary upheavals themselves, theorised from the Jacobins to Lenin; but rather in how to think and represent the transition from one mode of production into another, radically distinct one. The experience of defeat of the various revolutionary movements in this period has a paradoxical consequence: it does not discourage its followers theoretically, but rather intensifies their attempts to conceptualise that mysterious historical moment which is the passage from one system to another.
To limit ourselves to the United States – the home of the bulk of pulp fiction dealing with time travel – we witness in the late 19th century the defeat of an immense radical political movement called populism, which is followed by the sublimations of the so-called progressive movement, but also by Edward Bellamy’s remarkable third-party mass movement, one of the most successful in American history, in the form of the Nationalist Clubs and the People’s Party. The causes of the movement’s defeat are less relevant here than its manifesto, which projected a vision of a radically different future in the form of a novel, Looking Backward 2ooo-1887 (1888) – and this is the point at which we rejoin the history of the time-travel narrative. For although Bellamy’s novel was not the first time-travel narrative, its immense success was political as well as literary, and drew attention to a seemingly secondary defect, shared by William Morris’s reply in News from Nowhere (1890), which lay precisely in the way that ‘transition’ was imagined (or not imagined) by both authors: in each case, the narrator falls into a magnetic sleep, only to awaken a century later in Utopia. This failure of imagination is the same, I want to argue, as that of the political revolutions designed to achieve the same transition in real life: the absence of a third term between the two systems, the absence of a mechanism.
Wells’s formal innovation, on the other hand, lay in his shifting of the reader’s attention to a technological substitute for the missing historical transition, namely the time machine. (We might argue that the party was Lenin’s analogous innovation in the realm of political strategy.) With the insertion of this technological third term, the hitherto merely notional fantasy of time travel had become a full-blown genre, capable of standing on its own and developing its history autonomously according to its own now semi-autonomous formal laws and structural problems.
Wittenberg’s is thus a theory of autonomisation (or, as Niklas Luhmann termed it, differentiation), and of its internalisation of what mandarin scholars used to call extrinsic factors (social issues, content of various kinds, the non-literary or extra-poetic). To be sure, the shift can still be interpreted in terms of the public’s waning belief in political change, and its subsequent shift of attention from the perfunctory ‘cause’ of the passage to another kind of society (the blow on the head in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for example) to a newly awakened interest in the technological and the scientific, at least of the Popular Mechanics variety (in that case, the rise of a technological studies discipline would constitute a parallel spin-off and an analogous example of autonomisation). Such interpretations place a literary or formal development in a larger historiographical and even philosophical context, the struggle between identity and difference, the alternation between breaks and continuities. If the new mode of production is grasped as evolving within the framework of the old one, as Marx thought, then the passage of one to the other, however violent its restructuration, can be figured as a kind of continuity. If on the other hand the society to come is radically different from our own, as in utopian thought or even some anthropological traditions, then the question of the break becomes more pressing and often seems to be abandoned to accident and contingency, as in Foucault’s metaphor of the passage between epistemes as a kind of convulsive shift in tectonic plates. Lenin thought he had invented a mechanism to organise and direct this third-term mediation or transition; unable to imagine one, people today sometimes imagine there is some structural permanence to capitalism (its identity threatened only by the ‘extrinsic factor’ of nature itself). At a time when utopias like Bellamy’s no longer preoccupy public opinion, it may nonetheless be claimed that the evolution of the time-travel narrative still harbours a faint trace of that utopian impulse in its feeble counterfactual daydreams.
Still, the emergence of a full-blown new genre or subgenre constitutes an indubitable fact, a symptom of some more general historical displacement. Wittenberg is able to document this emergence by way of a three-stage process: first, the stage I have just examined, the initial impetus of speculation as to the means of accession to some future utopia; second, the new possibilities of uneven simultaneities inspired by Einsteinian relativity and the elasticity of time with which it now endows narrative; third, the translation of the multiple subject positions projected by relativity into a full-blown theory of multiple worlds or universes existing simultaneously, a new cosmological concept which not only inspires a new generation of philosophising but returns us to our starting point in a spatial rather than a temporal way, where the utopian (or non or anti-utopian) other lies, not in the future, but in a present side-by-side with our own even though accessible to it.
That Einstein’s theory of relativity should usher in the second period of time-travel emplotment is scarcely a surprise: it left its mark on a wide variety of popular discourses; and we may take Sigfried Giedion’s enormous manifesto on modern architecture, Space, Time and Architecture (1941), as evidence of the analogies it spawned in other disciplines. That it also inspired two of the true jewels and masterworks of science fiction’s ‘Golden Age’ – Robert A. Heinlein’s stories ‘By His Bootstraps’ (1941) and ‘All You Zombies’ (1959) – may be less well known. In these stories the protagonist, travelling into the past (and having to do so repeatedly in order to try to correct the damage wreaked by previous visits), not only meets his other selves but begins to entertain multiple relations with them: the classic situation. Wittenberg shows that much the same structure is at work in the film Back to the Future (1985), but the Heinlein stories have the advantage of being untarnished by the trappings of cinematographic realism. One can much more clearly recognise in their pulp format the literalisation of characteristic themes of high modernist literature, such as the relativity of phenomenological time and its multiple selves from various periods of individual life. Here, however, memory has vanished as an experience and become an objectified narrative technique, with the consequence that ‘By His Bootstraps’ is literally more narratological than those modern works we figuratively designate as self-conscious or reflexive: ‘Hearing himself refer to himself as Joe slapped him in the face with the realisation that this was not simply a similar scene, but the same scene he had lived through once before – save that he was living through it from a different viewpoint.’ (The main character is a student writing his thesis on the impossibility of time travel.)
It gradually becomes clear that the spiral which – as it explores the paradoxes of temporality, memory and personal identity, generates ever more selves out of what was presumed to have been the original one – is centripetal rather than centrifugal, turning in on itself narrowly in an ever more claustrophobic way, so that the ultimate and even stereotypical consummation of the narrative logic of the time-travel tale turns out to be the realisation that I am alone in the world and am therefore logically enough my own ancestor: at which point the temporal and historical universe becomes a solipsistic prison devoid not only of other people but of otherness as such. The ideological consequences of such a form – its ideological content as it were – are as obvious as they are toxic and multiple: an endogamy which transforms all of history into the stasis of Parmenidean Being, the past as eternity, the invention of an unassailable identity for ruling conquerors who have come out of nowhere.
But it will not do to omit the ideological implications of Wittenberg’s analysis of the time-travel narrative, which concludes with the discovery that this non or post-subjective form is in and of itself an interpellation. Back to the Future is not only a prime illustration of a new narrative genre, it is also a commercial event and a narrative commodity constructed at a uniquely regressive moment in American history, very much entertaining a nostalgic revival of that earlier conservative period that was the American 1950s. Something in the time-travel narrative seems pre-eminently suitable for its use in ideological interpellation, in ways that the high literary narrative, itself scarcely exempt from ideological investment, is nonetheless formally intent on eschewing. Literature also has its equivalent of the philosophical distinction between episteme and doxa, knowledge and opinion – which does not mean that its versions of ‘knowledge’ are any less ideological at some deeper level. In Back to the Future we find a kind of Freudo-Marxian perspective in which the various social and ultimately political connotations are managed by way of an Oedipal situation (the protagonist returns to the moment of his own parents’ courtship, which he is, in effect, able to arrange). The 1980s family is thereby restored (and even improved) by this excursion to the Eisenhower era, at the same time as the anxious apprenticeship of the neo-conservatism of the Reagan era is assuaged and reassured by the emergent consumer culture of the earlier period.
From this outcome, Wittenberg’s third stage of the time-travel narrative now rescues us just in time, reviving a genre on the point of reaching ultimate sterility for all kinds of new uses. This third period depends on the idea of multiple or parallel worlds, now currently renamed the ‘multiverse’, a word and theory credited to an obscure PhD thesis of 1957 by Hugh Everett III; unlike the thunderclap of Einstein’s little article of 1905, this idea seems to have made its way through mass culture and into high philosophical speculation in a relatively inconspicuous way, which may well entitle us to ask some questions about its origin. Nonetheless, it has the advantage of reopening the claustrophobic second stage of the time-travel narrative by turning its multiple selves into multiple worlds, and re-identifying subjective and narcissistic isolation with a multiplicity of objective situations and alternate spaces.
My own suspicion is that the multiverse is to be grasped schematically, as a distorted (and visual, literal, pictorial) symptom and expression of the rather different anxiety of the explosion of subjects under decolonisation and globalisation, which no longer finds psychological containment in concepts of nation, race, class and the like. The existence of the other, Sartre taught us long ago, is a primordial trauma for the biological individual: how much the more traumatic may not be the unrepresentable, inconceivable multiplicity of others – singular and collective – in the current human world? The multiverse – a new global version of Leibniz’s system of monads? – can serve to organise those anxieties, however imperfectly, at the same time as its possibilities of mutual intervention and contamination open up the sealed world of the earlier generic moment and offer counterfactual release from the tyranny of a fixed past and a collective destiny foretold. Science fiction has become the salvational fantasy of counterfactuality.
But even counterfactuality and alternate worlds play out their solutions by way of a shuffling of a limited number of tokens given in advance: we must know what did happen in order to enjoy the consolation of modifying it; Lincoln remains a known quantity whether he lives or dies. This is therefore the moment to move on to the other great topic of Wittenberg’s book, namely its narratological proposals. On the face of it, they seem familiar enough, and take their point of departure in Shklovskian (and even Aristotelian) orthodoxy: fabula versus syuzhet, myth and its emplotments, the chronological facts as against the order of their telling – an opposition foregrounded in the detective story, but which, among the multiple narratives available to science fiction, is realised almost solely in time travel.
It is my opinion that it is precisely this opposition – between the initial data, or raw materials, of the story and the unique form the storyteller chooses to tell it in – which resurfaces in modern linguistics in the form of the all too familiar opposition between the signified and the signifier, the énoncé and the énonciation etc, not to speak of their reappropriation by narratologists (as histoire versus discours and the like). But the earlier version of this linguistic opposition in fact involved three terms rather than two: alongside the signifier and signified there was thought to be that mysterious thing, the referent – the object in the reality outside the mind, where its merely mental image is registered. Lacan slyly reinserts the referent in the form of that Kantian Ding-an-sich which is the Real (in its Lacanian acceptation, inaccessible to language or conscious thought). But the vast majority of structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers wage an implacable war on the ‘referent’ and its supposedly ideological conception of a ‘real’ reality out there (of which truth is the accurate reflection, etc). Yet in this process, in which the old tripartite linguistic scheme is whittled down to the simple opposition of signifier to signified, some of the opprobrium that hitherto attached to the referent now comes to contaminate the second term, the signified, which seems to have more or less taken its place. Thus the primacy of the signifier begins, and the fundamental dogma of textuality – ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ – induces a profound philosophical reorganisation in which the signifier not only determines the signified, but in its temporal version, the effect determines the cause and the present the past. It is in the light of this omnipresent doxa that Wittenberg’s Shklovskian proposal must be grasped.
In a sense the philosophical revision I am describing was always, after Aristotle, the deeper conviction of the aesthetic. Shklovsky himself always implied a kind of convergence between signified and referent: the fabula – the mythic raw materials – was in that sense both all at once and constituted the facts, so to speak, but had no original and definitive textual origin or version. The various versions were all forms of the syuzhet: the poesis or making, the telling of a tale whose original existed nowhere, but which could always somehow be reconstructed. At this point, it is appropriate to enlist History in the debate, and to introduce Hayden White, whose scandal for orthodox historians consisted in his denial of the historical fact as such and his insistence on the primacy of historical ‘emplotment’ (his term, borrowed later on by Ricoeur).
History is then also a text, and we are its readers. But to introduce the reader at this point will have even more momentous consequences. Wittenberg, now following Shklovsky closely, has done what none of the currently fashionable celebrants of ‘reading’ have dared to do: he has theorised its structure, which consists in the positing (as Hegel might say) of fabula over syuzhet, that is, in the necessity of some prior ‘belief’ in the fabula which can alone enable our reception of the syuzhet. ‘Reading for the referent’, the structuralists contemptuously called this; but it is surely true, and a better way of saying it than ‘suspension of disbelief’ or other ingenious attempts to ensure the difference of fiction from fact, to hold on to the old conventional notion of reality while ensuring a momentary grace period for the consumption of literary narrative. But if everything is narrative, as we seem nowadays to believe, then this division no longer holds; and as for belief or disbelief, Rodney Needham long ago demonstrated the incoherence of this pseudo-concept in Belief, Language and Experience (1973) – though nobody believed him. If, however, you like the word, let’s keep it (if only provisionally): so the new Wittenberg/ Shklovsky doctrine maintains the priority of a ‘belief’ in the fabula over the syuzhet (which nobody believes, it is nothing but literature). Reading then involves what Wittenberg (following Kant’s example) will ingeniously and pertinently call ‘the fabula a priori’. Even when reading those patently false narratives called novels, we still believe in something, namely the fabula; and this holds, as he demonstrates, for the so-called experimental or modernist novel fully as much as for the allegedly traditional kind. But in that case, there is at least one term we can get rid of for good, and that is the word ‘fiction’: fiction is a fiction, if you prefer, and in a world where everything is narrative, we can eliminate it. ‘Fiction’ was the now discarded theory that the fabula could be either true or false; whereas, if you want to put it that way, the fabula is always true.
This leaves us with the enraged historians who, having pursued Hayden White for so long, must now once again try to save the facts and the truth in the face of such scepticism and relativism. For is not history, among other things, simply a quarrel of interpretations? And are not interpretations on the order of the syuzhet so many versions and textualisations, so many divergent narratives, which have to be tested against the bedrock of the facts, namely the fabula itself? Surely not all those versions can be accepted (something the concept of fiction allowed us to do for literature); surely there are true and false ones, objective ones, interested ones, prejudiced ones, conspiratorial versions or outright lies? Surely, to take just one obvious example, Holocaust deniers are not to be granted even literary licence, and if nothing else, the word fiction ought to be preserved for them.
So what we thought could be confined to the self-evidently restricted field of literature, and a highly specialised and improbable type of literature at that – the time-travel narrative – now spills over into one of the great quasi-religious debates of our time, the so-called postmodern debate, whose ravages are to be observed even more starkly in the field of science than in the related social sciences. My own modest proposal will be that all these quarrels are not the same, nor do they express or emplot the same fabula. Historiographical decisions about the relative participation of Hitler, Heydrich or Himmler in the construction of the death camps: those divergent emplotments share a common fabula, a common set of ‘facts’, which is to say, narrative raw materials. But quarrels with the Holocaust deniers turn on a quite different fabula, which is the enunciative act of liars, ideologues or obsessives: here the ‘facts’ are not those of the camps, but those of the pseudo-historians who write books to ‘disprove’ their existence, get fired from their universities and invited to radical right-wing, proto-Nazi rallies. It is an altogether different story that is being told here, and as soon as that is admitted, the philosophical problem of historical facts turns out to have been a false problem and vanishes into the history of ideas.
Another significant problem raises its ugly head the moment we mention the reader: the more strictly narratological problem of the observer and of so-called ‘point of view’ in the narrative. This problem too involves philosophical or pseudo-philosophical issues, namely those associated with identity and the self – not Heinlein’s multiple selves, exactly, but rather our own. I have talked a good deal about visuality and literality: but could my self, that phenomenological subject I call myself, my own rather impersonal consciousness, also be treated literally or visually? Let’s mention that Kant filed personal consciousness (and all the other concepts connected to it; he lumped them all together as the ‘soul’) under the category of the Ding-an-sich, the thing-in-itself inaccessible to empirical observation and thereby to rational thought, a transcendental object of some kind that we cannot even conceive. But that’s philosophy: how would ordinary Verstand, garden-variety picture-thinking, imagine it? The eyes are of course its windows; thinking goes on behind them somewhere, presumably; but we can never really see the back of our heads (except in mirror ‘reflection’, which is of course to say, philosophy). The problem, then, involves the observer, the source of the ‘point of view’. In a story the second self observes the first one, and so on ad infinitum: but who observes the final one? The reader, no doubt: but who reads the reader? The paradox is even sharper when we try to find our place in the multiverse: the privileged position of the observer can only be such in virtue of occupying one more alternate universe, which someone has to be observing in turn (if God is not available).
But as we are desperately attempting to think all this while remaining within picture-thinking, then the ultimate observer’s place must be in a space beyond space, a kind of hyperspace, as Wittenberg calls it, citing the narrator of a Fritz Leiber story about a war between time-travellers: ‘The place outside the cosmos where I and my pals do our nursing job I simply call the Place.’ This is how the empirical consciousness tries to imagine (empirically) the non-empirical (or Kant’s transcendental).
What time-travel stories demonstrate is: first, the transcendental necessity of a superspace in any narrative rendering of time; second, the fundamentally visual character of that superspace, underscored by the descriptive normality of its spacetime and the sense in which we merely occupy it like any other narrative scenery; and third, the precedence of popular, rather than experimental, narrative in positing this quasi-transcendental spacetime as a real milieu of the reader, the interworld of his or her perspective. The time-travel story literally depicts the physical conditions of ‘the Place’ where the ‘points’ from which we ‘view’ plots unfolding must be presumed to abide.
But modernity has in fact invented such a hyperspace from which to observe the observer: it is called the camera. And film becomes the logical extension of the time-travel narrative in that paradoxical sense in which, as Stanley Cavell so memorably put it, the world is viewed without myself. This is, then, how the structural/poststructural search for the decentred subject ended up, not with some impossible ‘death of the subject’, but rather in film theory, with the camera apparatus as that ultimate subject without subjectivity, that ultimate literal and visual embodiment of the ultimate observer of the ultimate self and of the literalisation of James’s literary ‘point of view’. The transcendental hyperspace in which such a transcendental observer finds itself is then simply the infinite regress of point of view, the nothingness on which the attempt to think time and temporality, to think the past and the present, to think the difference between my multiple selves, is founded. Temporality is then nothing but a time-travel narrative.