For the 2015 PARSE conference on Time, Bruno Latour and Simon Critchley discussed shifting concepts of time and their impact on developments in art, philosophy and the social sciences in a conversation moderated by Mick Wilson.

I decided to solve the question “what is time?” by shifting it slightly to “what is the time in which we stand?”

This is actually a very famous image of les mots historiques that we read when we were kids. “We are dancing on a volcano”, which is one way of—at that time of course—referring to a political upheaval, the one that brought Louis Philippe to the kingdom in France. Now, of course, the volcano is no longer a sort of metaphor, it’s more literal. Another answer to the question of what is the time in which we are, has been given by Nature, the journal, which in March 2015 called, rather strangely, a period the “human age”. Except the human age is not the face of humanity in a traditional way, but as an artist rendition on the page. As you can see, it’s a man’s face made of layers of sediment and fossil as if we were a different human.


Cartoon “Nous dansons sur un volcan”.
Richard Monastersky, “The Human Age”, Nature, No. 519, 12 March 2015.

So, if you look at this image, to define the time in which we are, which is also called the Anthropocene, we have to meet a fairly strange character. A character, a face of a person made of stones, which is offering a different face of a human, and, of course, a completely different time, because the human which is supposed to be a geological force is also a human with a much longer history than the history of what is called history by historians, meaning the beginning of time when we had traces. Deep history, if you want. This is a history that Dipesh Chakrabarty calls geo-history.

Sydney Parkinson, “Maori ta Moko”, 1769. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

What is so interesting in the face shown in the image is that it has some connection with very traditional ways of understanding what it is to be of this earth. Of course, not the earth of minerals, of fossils, of coal, but an earth nonetheless. This is a second aspect of the answer to the question what is the time. It is certainly not a time forwards, moving forwards. It is a time that has a strange and somewhat surprising position of situating us in a new fraternity with cultures of a past, which are no longer “of the past”. Cultures, which seem simultaneously to be very close to us now, because we share their embodiment and earthliness in a way that was not visible before, when in the twentieth century we believed we were in a time moving forwards and we left behind us the other cultures. Compare the image of the earthly man with this Maori face painted in the traditional way. Or look at this image of an architecture now destroyed of a civilisation that produced a collective representation of itself.

Here we can see a beautiful image that has been shown by Don Tuzin in his study of the Arapesh in New Guinea. It depicts a whole society building its house, called a House of Spirits during a very elaborate ritual. The very act of building such an elaborate emblem of who they are was essential for defining themselves. This culture has been totally destroyed as Tuzin tells in his book. The principle of building such a house was actually destroyed in a grand gesture of abandonment of their own cultures by the Arapesh themselves, once they had met their evangelical pastors. So they themselves moved into our time, abandoned their life, destroyed their tradition, while at the same time we, in Europe and in the West, were moving backwards. So the time where we are is very strange.

The Nggwal Bunafunei Spirit House, Elaf Hamlet”, 1972. From The Cassowary’s Revenge (1997) by Donald F. Tuzin. Copyright of Malcolm Kirk, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

It is very difficult to situate oneself in time. Very few people are contemporary of one another. And now we all have to decide in which time we live. This is a problem picked up by many artists. Not necessarily artists using very elaborate media. Philippe Squarzoni, who is a graphic novelist, tried to capture the spirit of the time—the zeitgeist—by looking at what happens when you are a graphic novelist specialising in a political topic and suddenly you hear that something is happening to the earth, but you don’t know how accurate it is. How you can’t make sense of it because it’s too big, it’s too new and there are people who say that it is all disputed. The whole of Squarzoni’s novel is an attempt to make sense of information about the earth. Basically, trying to make sense of information such as that in the article of Nature, which is trying to get at what it means having the earth coming back to you. It is a novel about the difficulty of absorbing the novelty of its time, a novel about how we cope with the disconnect between the news coming from science and the extraordinarily feeble instrument we have in our own sensibility and imagination. What is funny is that most of the book is actually about scientists being interviewed. So you have pages after pages of talking heads in a graphic novel, which is very odd. But this is also a way of absorbing the novelty of a situation in which the author is trying to constantly compare the paraphernalia of feelings and memory we have in order to see how we can measure them up to the new situation in which we find ourselves.

I want to demonstrate a change of position vis-à-vis the time.

Stephany Ganachaud, “The Angel of Geostory”, 2013, video still.

On the two sides of the screen is the same dancer. The camera is in different positions, but it is the same movement. It is the movement of what I call The Angel of Geostory (with allusion to Benjamin of course). She flees, she looks behind her and then she looks forwards, she stops and she looks—what has she done, why is she fleeing? Then she looks up and what she sees seems to be even more terrifying than what she had left when she was fleeing. She even begins to do little gestures of fleeing as if she was going back to the movement. This movement is very simple but it shows the difficulty of approaching the question, what is time? I have translated this to “what is the time in which we are” because the time that we were when we were fleeing what we used to call the future, is completely different from the one that she sees coming towards her.

Of course, what is coming to us is this word, the Anthropocene—a very disputed term that defines the time simultaneously as time in history, human history and the time in geology (which the two disciplines invented at the same time in the eighteenth century). Then they split; geology was one and human history was another, but now they are merging. But they have very different definitions of time. Now we have this extraordinary situation in which geologists are trying to find a date for the Anthropocene. This date is, of course, 16 July 1945: simultaneously a date of geology and in human history—the date of atomic markers triggered by the atomic bomb.

You might notice that the first author of that paper is a geologist, a stratigrapher called Jan Zalasiewicz. The last author is Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science. It is amazing to have a paper of geology published with one of the authors a historian of science and the other a stratigrapher.

The Beginning of the Anthropocene.
Simon L. Lewis, and Mark A. Maslin. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature 519.12 March 2015 (2915): 171-80.

What is interesting and directly related to the topic of time is that there is a huge dispute on how to date this Anthropocene. There is a paper by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin in which there are a lot of different times. 1 One of them is 1610, stated as a possible beginning of the Anthropocene.

Why 1610? Because that is the moment when CO2 is known to have a much lower level than now. Why is this decrease of CO2? It turns out that reforestation of a whole American continent, one century of reforestation, massively absorbed the CO2. But why is there reforestation at such massive scale? Of course, it was the elimination of 50 million Indians due to the Colombian exchange of microbes so that whole areas which had been open had been reforested. But 1610 is disputed of course. There are several other candidates.

What is not very much disputed is what Crutzen and others call the Great Acceleration. 2 What is the difference between the footprint of humans taken globally today—human as anthropos, as a race on the earth—and the footprint of humans in 1900 and even in 1950? In 1950, the footprint was very, very small. So this is what we have occupied in terms of footprint in this very, very limited period of time between now and then. In a paper by Steffen and others, researchers try to capture as much as possible about how the great acceleration is composed. 3 What is interesting and typical of the Anthropocene at the time in which we are is that the authors mixed socio-economic variables, very classical ones like energy use and so on, with ones which are coming from past natural science.

Earth system trends: The Great Acceleration 3, Steffen et al. (2015), The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration, The Anthropocene Review.

We ourselves—humans—are becoming connected, hooked up at a scale and on the span of geological forces. That of course has a very important aspect also on space.

In Milan in 2012 Tomás Saraceno tried to capture what it is to be in this new space-time, which is as if you are suspended in the plastic foam, so to speak, and you cannot move on foot, because every time you move you have to actually crawl, in this very strange space which is under pressure. (There are three layers so you are actually separated as if you were flies glued onto this plastic foam.) It’s a very, very powerful rendering of the difficulty of being in this new space-time, which, of course, some people enjoy but I found extremely distressing.

Tomás Saraceno. “On Space Time Foam”, 2012. Installation view, Hangar Bicocca, Milan. Curated by Andrea Lissoni. Courtesy the artist; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen; Pinksummer contemporary art, Genoa; Esther Schipper, Berlin. © Photography by Alessandro Coco and Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2012.

This connection between research coming from science and research coming from art doesn’t have to protect the identity, freedom and integrity of artists at all. On the contrary, it is a great occasion to lose this autonomy, freedom and specificity of artists so that we try now to become more like Squarzoni, like Saraceno, like many others, exposed to the difficulty, which is a common difficulty brought to us by scientists about which time we are in. We need to find new ways of teaching and representing these issues. In May 2015, at SPEAP  4, we tried to find what I called the Parliament of Things many years ago, by making representative not only the nation state—not only the United States, or Canada, or England or Sweden—but the former elements of nature. 5

Here you see women representing endangered species and others representing the soil. Of course, this is just a simulation, but I think we have to multiply the simulations to get the third meaning of aesthetics, which is representation in the political sense. There are three—the one of science, getting sensitive to what happened to the volcanoes, the climate; the one of art, which is making, building our own sensitivity to the event; and of course, the aesthetics of politics.

So I think we can answer the question, what is the time. The time in which we are is very, very close to the time of the sixteenth century. We are actually in the sixteenth century. Not because we discovered a new land, emptied of Indians by contingencies, by assassinations and conquest, but we still discovered a new land. The new land is not an extension, it is not a new land in space exactly; it is the same old land, that is, the land which is beneath our feet. It has the name of earth (like in the film Erth we just saw by John Latham) and this earth strangely enough, is not very well known. So the people who actually always claim the earth to be mundane, material, matter of fact, suddenly discover that the new earth that is coming at us is completely different from traditions of materials. Materialities, territories—all of that is going to change. So it is, in a way, back to the sixteenth century.


  1. Lewis, Simon L. and Maslin, Mark A. “Defining the Anthropocene”. Nature. No. 519. March 2015.
  2. Steffen, W., Crutzen, J. and McNeill, J.R. “The Anthropocene: are humans now overcoming the great forces of Nature?”. Ambio. Vol. 36. No. 8. December 2007.
  3. Ibid.
  4. See http://blogs.sciences-po.fr/speap/ (Accessed 2016-07-14.)
  5. Make It Work, le théâtre des négociations, see http://www.cop21makeitwork.com/ (Accessed 2016-07-14.)