DoT #1: The Asymmetry of Time
Updated: Oct 25
The Asymmetry of Time
I don’t want to get carried away talking about time, but when I do talk about time I tend to get carried away.
We often think of time as moving from the past, through the present, to the future. I can’t help but think of it in this way. I feel time as a form of momentum—moving from the lived experience of my past through to a future that I can’t hope to know: pushed from the known to an unknown, pulled towards the future. As archaeologists, when we study the material traces of our ancestors what we end up trying to do is go back in time and read an unknown past.
In today’s post—the first installation of my Drift of Time series curated for the festivalCHAT—I want to take a look at the uni- and multi-directionality of time. I think we should start off by considering the metaphor of time as an arrow before we look at archaeological excavation as a chiastic structure.
Time, as american science writer Timothy Ferris defined it, is the “dimension that distinguishes past, present, and future”. But where precisely is past delineated from present, and likewise, present from future? Whitelaw observed that while the definition of time itself remains elusive, time—or moreover the measurement of time—is fundamental to understanding the laws and processes at work in our physical universe.
It is a little daunting to think about time as an actor in the story of our lives — perhaps because it reminds us of the certitude of our own mortality. A unidirectional arrow of time means that we not only regret our past, but they fear the future, “not least because the alleged flow of time seems to be sweeping [us] toward [our] deaths, as swimmers are swept toward a waterfall” but because Death—liberated from the chains of Sisyphus—is borne in on us by the “irreversibility and inexorability of the passage of time…”
If we continue on this train of thought that sees time as an arrow we notice that time, or it's arrow, becomes first and foremost asymmetrical.
I like the metaphors that Feynman uses to illustrate the direction of time's arrow: “you drop a cup and it breaks, and you can sit there a long time waiting for the pieces to come together and jump back into your hand” but they won’t. You can watch the breaking waves of the sea, and “you can stand there and wait for the great moment when the foam collects together, rises up out of the sea, and falls back farther out from the shore”, but we know intuitively that time acts in a distinctly asymmetrical manner and that the likelihood of these phenomena playing out in reverse is highly improbable (though, technically, not impossible).
It is so beyond the realms of reality for a smashed cup to ever spontaneously reassemble itself and refill with water after falling from a table just like no jigsaw puzzle is ever likely to arrange itself inside its packaging after I shake the box furiously with all the loose pieces loose still contained unwrapped, inside the box. So, it makes sense to think of time as operating in a unidirectional manner. Doesn't it?
Turtles All The Way Down
With such an abundance of literature on time — a corpus that has been built upon by philosophers, writers, artists, and scientists for centuries — it is of little wonder that descriptions and definitions of time pose such a challenge across the board, archaeology notwithstanding. There are so many alternative ways to look at the concept of time; so many different lenses through which to perceive reality. Perhaps time is part of an infinite stack of turtles stacked upon the backs of other turtles all the way down or Four World Elephants resting on a World Turtle; or perhaps time is a flat circle with infinitely repeating finite events.
Image: The Hindoo Earth 1877, T H Huxley, "How the Earth was Regarded in Old times", The Popular Science Monthly, vol. 10, 1877, p. 544.
The adherents of some Eastern religions and philosophies, like Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, and Sikhism, have inferred that, “despite appearances, time flows cyclically for the individual human being” as well as for our environment. Perhaps, as invoked by modern Western texts, like Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1974) or Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1961) and Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1975), time is cyclic and the individual experience is an eternal recurrence! I find, however, that there is a real conviction in archaeological theory that time possesses a definite and linear inclination.
Image: Mandala Depicting Kalachakra and Vishvamata, Tibet, first half 16th Century, 54.6 x 49.5 cm
Although archaeologist’s are arguably wont to assign, compartmentalise, and categorise the past (see my next post on end-stopping for more on periodisation), there does not seem to be found so far in all the laws of physics a distinction between the past and the future. Yet, we so readily define the past in a quantifiable manner.
Where time does fit with physics, however, it fits with entropy. Time fits in with entropic processes because there is a desire for equilibrium, a discrimination of what is past from what is present, what is before from what is after. I always liked thinking of entropy by visualising a soda bottle after being shaken up, the gas escaping from its opened mouth. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
If we think about time in the context of entropic processes, we can consider the relationship in an archaeological context also. Consider entropy and the archaeological record as American poster-boy for the New Archaeology, Lewis Binford, did:
“The archaeological record must … be viewed as matter transposed and organized during the process of energy use and entropy production. It is the functional linkages between the organization of a system and its energy-capturing tactics, together with its patterned residues (entropy), that yield information about the organization of past systems”
— Lewis Binford 1981, p. 200
There are always influencing factors are always at play in any intellectual discourse—even continental traditions (like North American versus European) or perceptions of the nature of reality (like the difference between “hard” and “soft” sciences). The state of archaeological discourse itself has the capacity to affect perspectives of time, scale, and consequently of its methodological and theoretical applications. As I demonstrated at the top, it’s pretty safe to say that we generally perceive time concepts in archaeology as unilateral or asymmetrical. So, how might we challenge ourselves to conceptualise time in a way that is unlike this unidirectional arrow of time?
Ursula Frederick’s photographic project @atlas_everydayx for the festivalCHAT made me think about chiasmus and how that might relate to archaeological narrative. Etymologically, chiasmus comes from the Greek letter chi (Χ). Chiasmus is a rhetorical device where certain words or sounds, concepts or structures are repeated in the reverse. In chiasmus, two parts of a whole mirror each other, as they do for the parts of the letter χ. I started this post off with a chiasmus: I don’t want to get carried away talking about time, but when I do talk about time I get carried away. Chiasmus is a "...repetition of any group of verse elements (including rhyme and grammatical structure) in reverse order, such as the rhyme scheme ABBA". And, isn't that sort of like archaeology?
Chiastic Structure: X Marks the Story
Chiastic structure is a symmetrical literary technique. Chiastic techniques are found in epic poetry, classical prose, and in religious scripture. I think of the way we do archaeology is a sort of chiastic structure. When an archaeological excavation begins, we begin at A and work our way through to B, where B’ comes after A’. By this I mean that we start with the past unknown (A), work our way through the material remains of the past (B) where the true past—a past different to what we see (B’)—trails out to a vanishing point of traceability, or to unknown (A’). When I think about “collapsed” societies (and I have quite a bit this year), I can’t help but think of them as a sort of chiasmus in their own right: there is a rise, and often once a point of fluorescence has been reached, there is a fall, or disintegration.
Image: “Chiasmus represented as an "X" structure. When read left to right, top to bottom, the first topic (A) is reiterated as the last, and the middle concept (B) appears twice in succession.” Chiastic 2006, by Mysid.
Can we think of archaeological excavation as a chiasmus? When we excavate, we travel back in time towards the vanishing point of a site’s existence going from A, to B, which represents the reverse in nature. When we write up the interpretations of our archaeological data, we project story, or archaeological narrative, and we project it forwards as a mirror into the future.
Tomorrow, I’m going to move away from the directionality of time and instead look at how we can think of time conceptions in some archaeological situations as similar to end-stopping, a poetic feature.
How do you think we can conceptualise the direction of time? You can leave any comments you have on the post page but I have a forum running for the festival content here!
Time moves from past, through the present, and into the future... like an arrow (the arrow of time)
Understanding time as a unidirectional dimension is a cultural lens
Time conceptualisations are dynamic in life and should be considered this way in archaeological theory
Chiastic structure is an alternative way of thinking about archaeological excavation
Chiastic structure is parabolic (A B B A): even the way we think of collapsed societies is chiastic
 Ferris, T 1997, p. 367  Whitelaw, I 2007, p. 87  Markowitz, W 1993, p. 662  Toynbee, A J 1993, p. 662  Greene, B 2008, p. 506  Feynman, R P 1992, p. 147  Feynman, R P 1992, p. 147  Hawking, S 2011, p. 163–164  Hawking, S 2011, pp. 165–166  Hawking, S 2011, p. 1  Toynbee, A J 1993, p. 663  Feynman, R P 1992, p. 148  Frank, A 2011, p. 288  Murphin, R & Ray, S M 2003, p. 53  Poetry Foundation entry, Chiasmus
Ferris, T 1997, The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
Feynman, R P 1991, ‘The Distinction of Past and Future’, in T Ferris (ed.), The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, pp. 147–163.
Frank, A 2011, About Time: Cosmology and Culture and the Twighlight of the Big Bang, Free Press, New York.
Greene, B 2008, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Penguin Books, London.
Hawking, S 2011, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, London.
Murfin, R & Ray S M 2003, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 2nd edn., Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston.
Poetry Foundation 2020, Chiasmus, Poetry Foundation, <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/chiasmus>
Toynbee, A J Smart, J J C & Markowitz, W 1993, ‘Time’, in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, R McHenry (ed.), vol. 28, Encylopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago.
Whitelaw, I 2007, A Measure of All Things: The Story of Man and Measurement, St Martin’s Press, New York.