I’d like to link Steven’s post about proof and intuition to our discussion on timelines as hermeneutic tools. In Steven’s essay and in other readings assigned for the week we find critical assessments of timelines as “falsely objective” rhetorical devices which establish a deterministic genealogy among artifacts, events, peoples or styles, etc. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for “after this, therefore because of this,” is an old logical fallacy (of the questionable cause variety)…
To assign chronologies and timelines an “explanatory” value is a fallacy, if we take “explanation” in the nomothetic sense, as the expression of a rule or law. In other words, timelines do not prove anything and do not explain the phenomena they represent or order (according to a chosen narrative thread or interpretive principle, or “spatial instantiations of history”). Or do they? Can we say, for example, without falling prey to a “deterministic” prejudice, that chronologies and timelines are intuitive tools that allow us in the humanities to visually grasp the elusive temporal nature of (human) life and culture – what we call “history”? By translating time into a spatial representation, visualizations help us understand, or better intuit, time as a perceivable and measurable entity. As a historiographical tool, Cartographies of Time shows how chronologies and timelines are based on specific cultural assumptions and categories and are often conditioned by the technical means of reproduction and visualization at our disposal.
Space and Time are of course inseparable in modern thought, from Kant to Heidegger and Einstein… There are various ways of representing a new intuition of time:
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.”
Can we say that the difference between an equation and a poem is that the first tries to prove the intuition and the second simply put it in words…or images? And yet we continue to use (mostly linear or sequential) chronologies as “explanatory” tools (if only in a hermeneutically lighter sense, as a “weak” but useful “explanation”). Of course, there are timelines and timelines: a geological periodization of earth’s history is not the same as a paleontological or an anthropological, art historical or literary historical one, etc. The very notion of “time” varies greatly across disciplines… Perhaps multiple overlapping timelines, by showing the differential relationships and gaps between temporal series, can help us put in perspective our periodization tools.
Take a look, for example, at this “big history” project, at Berkeley, based on the application of a tool developed by Microsoft (“deep zoom” – we used a version of it for the Garibaldi on the Surface project, here at Brown):
What I find interesting here is that a new vision technology help us visualize and intuit the multidimensional, multi-scale, “deep” relativistic nature of our scientific representations of “time.” (Although a critic could easily note that certain assumptions about the linearity ot time persist and are embedded also in this tool). Nevertheless, visualizing multiple timelines at once (or zooming in and out from one to the other) can allow us to see how time is conceptualized (as a function or a variable), across the disciplinary spectrum…Thus the timeline can become a sort of self-reflective interdisciplinary tool: it doesn’t necessarily prove anything but definitely helps our intuition(s). Or does it?