Michael North on What is the Present

The problem of the present—what it is and what it means—is one that has vexed generations of thinkers and artists. Because modernity places so much value on the present, many critics argue that people today spend far too much time in the here and now—but how can we tell without first knowing what the here and now actually is? What Is the Present? takes a provocative new look at this moment in time that remains a mystery even though it is always with us. Presenting an entirely new conception of the temporal mystery Georg Lukács called the “unexplained instant,” this book explores how the arts have traditionally represented the present—and also how artists have offered radical alternatives to that tradition.

What inspired you to write a book about the present?

I’m interested in the fact that some of the most obvious and ordinary aspects of life are also the most mysterious. The present is one of these. You might say, in fact, that the present is the most obvious aspect of life, one that we can never get away from. And yet, whenever you come to think about it at all seriously, it becomes very confusing.

How so?

Well, we tend to think of the present as something like a dash on a timeline or a tick mark on a clock, as if it were nothing more than an ultra-thin divisor between past and future. But we also think of ourselves as living in the present, and this implies that it takes up some amount of time. If so, then how much time does it take up? Is its length always the same or does it change from time to time or even from person to person? And then if the present is separate from past and future, how does time get connected back up again? If I watch as I move my arm, I seem to see the whole movement as one indivisible process, not as a series of snapshots. In other words, I seem to see the whole process as if it were happening now, not separated out into past, present, and future. And yet logically the very beginning of that movement must be in the past by the time the whole movement is concluded. How do we come to see it as one apparently simultaneous arc?

Couldn’t some of these puzzles be cleared up by scientific investigation?

Unfortunately, science just makes it worse. For a long time, physiological psychologists hoped to isolate the present by measuring human reaction times, on the assumption that the shortest possible reaction time could be taken as the length of the present. But they could never really come up with a consistent value. Now it seems that the human nervous system may be governed by a number of different clocks, running at different rates. There isn’t any central agent to which all the various parts of the nervous system report, so in a sense there isn’t a single physiological present at all.

But surely there must be an objective present, even if the subjective present turns out to be a fiction?

I guess not. Go outside some night and look up at the stars. The starlight you see in the “present” is actually billions of years old, some of it more and some of it less. What sense does the concept of the present make in that context? As our knowledge of the universe has expanded, it has become less and less possible to believe in the Enlightenment concept of a universal simultaneity, a now that would synchronize all the matter in existence.

Does any of this make a difference on a more practical level?

It could. We hear a lot of complaints nowadays about the present, how it has become too important, crowding out the past and the future. These complaints rely on the assumption of a normative present, one that is neither too long nor too short, but just right. If this present is a fiction, then we are flogging ourselves for no reason. And it turns out that if you examine the evidence offered for this normative present, the little that exists is primarily figurative in nature.

Figurative in what sense?

The present is almost always explained in metaphorical terms. A time-line, for instance, is a spatial metaphor, with a point or a short dash representing the present. People sometimes think of the present as something like a single frame in a movie, static by itself but fluid when shown with the entire film. Versions of this particular metaphor go all the way back to the magic lantern, which Locke used as a metaphor for the experience of time. It turns out, though, on close inspection, that these are not metaphors for something else. Where the present is concerned, these metaphors are all there is. In fact, it is because of the force and vividness of these metaphors that we continue to believe in the present, though it has always been so hard to establish its actual status.

So does that mean we should abandon a category that has always seemed essential to our understanding of time? Is there no future for the present?

An important part of this book is an account of how the arts have represented and used the present. Painters, writers, and film-makers have had to contend with the problem of the present in various ways, and the solutions they have come up with are more flexible and expansive than the standard notion of it as a thin slice of time sandwiched between past and future. I’m particularly fond of George Kubler’s version of this when he calls the present “a plane upon which the signals of all being are projected.” It sounds a lot like our present right now, with its apparently infinite access to all of recorded history, but it suggests a present that is bigger and more comprehensive, not smaller and more isolated. In this sense, the present contains the past, and I guess in a sense it contains the future as well.

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His many books include Novelty: A History of the New, Machine-Age Comedy, and Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word.