Bergson, the Big Bang, and Slo-Mo

If the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a movement which takes several moments for accomplishment, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image, where time is abruptly suspended. — Rodin

Everything, writes Bergson, is image (see the incredible Matter and Memory). In fact, one can freely interchange the words matter and image — they mean the same thing. Bergson's point, among others, is that the entire philosophical discussion about whether a thing exists in-itself or for-me is not just silly but false. It's a poor question that leads to poor answers. So Bergson begins somewhere else, from everyday life and claims things are just as they appear. Things exist within the perceptual field, as matter to be taken up by perception, at once for-itself and for-me (and for-world). (The perceiving body — you and me — are images too, part of the perceptual field. As Merleau-Ponty would point out, perception is a chiasmus, an intertwining of seer and seen. You can touch and see your own hand. Try it.)

Bergson goes on to say — and this is the intuition that drives his entire philosophical project — that motion, time, change are not something added to the world but are constitutive of it. All of philosophy, he argues, and much of science is premised on the notion that time is exterior to things. Movement, it is imagined, can be tracked by plots on a line — point A to B; B to C; and so on. We reduce movement to space.

But, for Bergson, that is to miss movement all together.  Movement cannot be divided and reduced to a segments of space. Movement doesn't happen in discrete, spatial sections. It is continuous, a dimension of being (or becoming) unto itself. A thing is, among other things, its movement, its speed, its change. My balding and greying, my general withering, is not extrinsic to who I am. On the contrary, it is intrinsic: I am this way of going through the world, of shedding skin, of metabolizing food and ideas and people. I am this living. I am this dying. I am this going.

Sport revels in speed. Throw harder, move faster. But when it comes to knowing the truth — or a truth — of sports, we have this odd tendency to slow everything down. When we look at slow motion, we imagine that we can see what really happened.

From one angle, this seems obvious. The play happened so fast, we can't tell if the runner was safe or not, if the ball was in or not, whether it was a fumble or not. So we slow it down to let our eyes catch up.

But, from another angle, it's really, really strange. First of all, to see what really happened, we go to the video tape. That sentence is incredible; it's as if it's written by Baudrillard. What happens in real life is not what happens in real life; it's what happens on a video tape. That seems like a reversal of Platonism, a privileging of the copy over the original.


And yet the video tape today is the promise of truth. And not just any video tape but the video tape slowed down to a near stop. The dream — the myth — is that if we eliminate motion from life, we will get the reality, as if time and change were a distraction along the surface of life, something to be brushed away to get at the foundation: fixed, still, absolute, unmoving truth. We may have moved the Forms from life to video but only so we can see the Forms more clearly, a double reversal of Platonism so that we end up back where we started (more or less).

What's so strange is that slow motion looks insane. When we distort time so much, things transform so radically it's funny that we still consider it what really happened. Look at a slow motion video of someone's face being distorted by the wind. It doesn't look human. It looks like something else, some other creature, some other species.

Which it is! As Bergson argues, time — which is to say, movement and change — is not something added to the world. It is the world. The world is an event, a process, a becoming and not a being. Everything in the world is a process, something that happens. A rock happens as much as river happens only at a different speed.  Change the time of something and you don't reveal the truth. You literally create something new.

This is not to say that I am for or against using slow motion in sports. Part of me loves it. I see it as this incongruous introduction of video art into the culture and experience of macho athletics. There is something beautiful and hilarious about seeing Michale Jordan's tongue wagging so languorously as he leaps. His suspension, meanwhile, takes on this otherworldly demeanor.

There are of course practical elements, as well. Having slow motion to determine if a player is out or not in baseball would destroy the game for so many reasons I will not consider here. My point is that the promise of slow motion is built on an unstated assumption that life is geometric, 3D, shapes just sitting there.

This is implied in the myth of the Big Bang, as well. The universe was one big ball sitting there doing nothing. That is the imagination of pure being. No knowing, no thinking, no breathing, no shitting, no shedding. And then boom! It exploded. Which explains all this movement — these planets and asteroids and suns and rivers all spinning, careening, colliding, emerging, flowing.

But, for Bergson, matter is moving from the get go and doesn't stop. The Big Bang was not something that happened one time; it's something that has always already happened.  The universe is the Big Bang. Or, rather, the Big Banging — a process, not a thing. 


αλήθεια said...

To explain the concept of this big banging that you talk about in your post, would you agree with Heraclitus's claim regarding the universe as being a constant becoming that consumes itself in fire and then rebirths itself over? Or would you rather argue that the universe has always already been expanding (here I might be talking about the infinite universe theory, which I am not that familiar with.)?

Daniel Coffeen said...

I believe I'd say the latter, if I had to choose. The death/rebirth thing doesn't feel right to me — too cyclical, too reductive. I see more chaos: lines of intensity, events, collisions, tangents, folds everywhere.

My point is that there was no primal event, no singular event of the big bang. Movement is constitutive of the universe, not something that happened to the universe.