Re: Comrades of Time


I promised to write a reaction to Boris Groys’ Comrades of Time. A promise to myself I can quite easily break, when I don’t find the time or energy.

Yesterday I bought flowers. I’ve often walked past flower shops thinking I might want to buy some, but hardly ever do. Since living with my girlfriend there are more flowers around the house. Last week I considered getting some but thought to myself that she wouldn’t be home any time soon. Yesterday I bought bright magenta dahlias. It took the presence of my friend to convince myself I can also get them for me, stopping myself mid-sentence as I was sharing my earlier reasoning. It’s not like I wasn’t aware before. It’s just that I got caught in the act of self-neglect.

I also promised the person mentoring me in my project to write a reaction to Boris Groys’ Comrades of Time. Today I will try again.

“It seems to me that the present is initially something that hinders us in our realization of everyday (or non-everyday) projects, something that prevents our smooth transition from the past to the future, something that obstructs us, makes our hopes and plans become not opportune, not up-to-date, or simply impossible to realize. Time and again, we are obliged to say: Yes, it is a good project but at the moment we have no money, no time, no energy, and so forth, to realize it. […] The present is a moment in time when we decide to lower our expectations of the future or to abandon some of the dear traditions of the past in order to pass through the narrow gate of the here-and-now.”

When I first read Comrades of Time, which must have been five, or six years ago, this paragraph struck a major chord. It was around the time I had been working on “An Ode To Doubt”, my BA graduation project that looked into metamodernism and embracing doubt as a mode of progress. I was trying to find ways in which to deal with crippling uncertainty by making it part of the process and thus product, seeing doubt as a potentially fruitful approach for a designer and human being. I wanted to tackle that feeling of the present moment being an obstacle, of not being ready yet; of not having obtained enough knowledge on something; of not having the right energy; of being distracted by all the other things I could or should be doing; of doubting whether it will have value or is simply futile – a waste of time.

I still struggle with that.

My girlfriend thinks I feel guilty for taking time for myself to do things for myself. I wonder if I actually truly want to do those things. Should I cover my synthesizers to protect them from the dust or to protect me from the guilt?

Perhaps my synths are a promise to myself (that I hope to keep one day).


I stopped writing yesterday as if the sudden burst of thoughts and connections overwhelmed me to the point that I couldn’t bear directing that flow into this file. I wanted to write something about the part in the beginning where Groys mentions Derrida’s critique of the presence of the present, about how “the present is originally corrupted by past and future” and “that there is always absence at the heart of presence”, and in turn Wittgenstein’s critique regarding the contemplation of the present, it being “a metaphysical sickness” that “ignores the flow of everyday life—the flow that always overflows the present without privileging it in any way”.

My mom told me the other day that she was reading about Taoism and the I Ching. I knew a bit about it from John Cage’s biography. He would use the I Ching to do his chance operations and make indeterminate music. I decided to start listening to the podcast from the same author of the book she was reading, explaining the Tao, the Te and the Ching. Later that day I went to pick up ‘Montaigne and the Art of Free-thinking’ at the book store, and coincidently, or perhaps serendipitously –as my mom would say– found a stack of little yellow books next to the cash register with in red letters: ‘Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu’. “I would like that one too,” I said to the girl behind the counter.

I wonder how to relate to what Derrida and Wittgenstein said from a Taoist perspective. The Tao is generally translated to English as “the Way”, which implies a sort of spiritual way or path. It should be mentioned here that the process of translating this ancient Chinese writing, more or less adds more precise meaning to words that otherwise in Chinese characters mean various things. The English translation is thus coloured by Western linguistics and semantics. Anyway, it’s very unclear what the Tao really is, but it seems to be omnipresent, evasive and “beyond all concepts”:

“The Tao ‘has always existed’ and is even ‘beyond existing and not existing’ from which we can infer that the Tao denotes an ultimate ‘way’, the Way of Absolute Reality (i.e. reality purely and simply ‘as it is’, unadulterated by our concepts and opinions). Yet when the Tao is ‘looked at, there is nothing for [people] to see. When listened for, there is nothing for them to hear’. Moreover, ‘the world cannot understand it’ since the Tao lies beyond the grasp of our normal understanding.”

– Way (pun intended) to avoid any criticism Lao. (Reminds me of my tutors once calling me an escape artist…) –

“Or, as the Tao Te Ching tells us elsewhere, ‘our basic understandings are not from the Tao because they come from the depths of our misunderstanding’. If we wish to increase our capacity for understanding and thereby draw closer to the Tao, we are advised to change our way of thinking because ‘the more knowledge you seek, the less you will understand’. We are encouraged to follow the example of the Master who ‘learns by unlearning, thus she is able to understand all things’.”

I think a Taoist would perhaps agree to some extend with Wittgenstein in that overthinking the present is unnatural and will only get you further away from the present. But actually maybe also with Derrida’s deconstruction of the present. “There is always absence at the heart of presence.”

Anyway, I find it hard to write about these philosophers while not knowing so much about their general stances and philosophical movements. I’m simply reacting to the sentences I have in front of me. I’m thinking that the arts can perhaps make those thoughts more experiential.

You could see John Cage’s 4’33” as a piece that turns one’s attention to the present, almost privileging that present of the moment the piece is “played” by framing it as a work, yet at the same time the piece is aimed at not privileging any sound over another and trying to stay impartial, just letting the present be. (Note to self: I need to ask my friend to get back my copy of Where The Heart Beats.)

Let’s move on through Comrades of Time. In the next part it’s written how Ernst Jünger said that “modernity —the time of projects and plans, par excellence— taught us to travel with light luggage”. A quick sequence of associations, from minimalism and essentialism, to meme culture and shitposting, to Ambient 1: Music for Airports and Richard Long walking a line through a field, flashes by. (The process of re-writing this sentence could be a scene in an essay film where it is looped, but every time the examples change).

(If I would present this piece of writing as a film, I wish I had filmed those moments in the flower shop and the book store, and recorded the conversation with my mom. Then again it’s okay that these moments become part of the process in hindsight. I cannot document everything just in case it might be valuable for later. When I try I tend to lose my mind a little. Things that matter will re-surface anyway.)

Sometimes I think I would like to make work that is abstract and not tied to too many words. As if words would make it heavy or loaded. Light luggage, to take with me into the future where it won’t be shunned for being naive, ignorant, false, poorly researched or generally embarrassing. I am also already imagining how making a film with a voice-over is gonna be annoying and making everything too literal. I like how Tsai Ming-liang uses barely any words in his films and still conveys so much, but in a way that he gives you scenes to project your inner world on and make you wonder about his. A certain emptiness that can be filled and emptied yet again. “We work with the substantial, but the emptiness is what we use.” (from Verse 11 of Tao Te Ching)

Back to Comrades of Time: “The present as such was mostly seen in the context of modernity as something negative, as something that should be overcome in the name of the future, something that slows down the realization of our projects, something that delays the coming of the future.” This desire for development, as Groys says “to fall asleep in the past and to wake up at the endpoint of progress”, relates a bit to the idea of craving knowledge but –in the spirit of instant gratification– not wanting to spend time thinking or learning.

(Development as a process vs. development as progress that has occurred or has yet to occur.)

“But when we begin to question our projects, to doubt or reformulate them, the present, the contemporary, becomes important, even central for us. This is because the contemporary is actually constituted by doubt, hesitation, uncertainty, indecision—by the need for prolonged reflection, for a delay. We want to postpone our decisions and actions in order to have more time for analysis, reflection, and consideration. And that is precisely what the contemporary is—a prolonged, even potentially infinite period of delay.”

“One can say that we now live in a time of indecision, of delay—a boring time. Now, Martin Heidegger has interpreted boredom precisely as a precondition for our ability to experience the presence of the present—to experience the world as a whole by being bored equally by all its aspects, by not being captivated by this specific goal or that one, such as was the case in the context of the modern projects.”

The other day as I was strolling through the Klokgebouw during the Dutch Design Week feeling bored with pretty much everything I saw. Many projects aimed for innovation. Few project caught my attention. Looking through my phone what remained is a piece of banner from the first installation on the route saying: “The Search — So much time, energy and creativity is wasted in the creative process. The search for a great creative work is at times exhaustive and could lead to nothing. Sometimes the search will take years, but does lead to a masterpiece.”

Groys speaks of the work of art as an accumulation of time, “in which the finiteness of the present was seen as being potentially compensated for by the infinite time of the realized project. […] Of course, this realization obliterates time invested in this realization, in the production of a certain product—when the final product is realized, the time that was used for its production disappears. However, the time lost in realizing the product was compensated for in modernity by a historical narrative that somehow restored it—being a narrative that glorified the lives of the artists, scientists, or revolutionaries that worked for the future.”

*Francis Alÿs moving an ice cube through the streets of Mexico City until the last solid bit has fully liquified.* (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing)

I want to stop copy pasting entire paragraphs and paraphrase more and say things in my own words, but I’m too tired – enough writing for today.


Note: Write about Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing, and why it’s maybe fine to copy paste entire paragraphs.