Deleuze’s Timed Logic (IV): Passive to the Past

Though I’ve started these studies of timed logic with ways the present takes itself and other times as dimension, the time we have to turn to first, ‘originary time’ as Deleuze calls it, depends on another time for its ‘founding’, for setting it in motion.

For time to flow, the present as contraction, change and anticipation must pass away. Otherwise, it would stay fixed eternally. This would be contradictory. As eternal, the present would have no past or future for actions and experiences to unfold from and into.

Deleuze therefore asks himself: What is the condition for this passing? The present passes because the past takes it as dimension through processes proper to the past. In Difference and Repetition, following Henri Bergson, he calls these processes ‘Memory’.

When passing into memory as repeated series, each present is passive to Memory. Like a potter shaping new lumps of clay on an old wheel, you can work at contracting series, changing them and anticipating new ones. None of this will stop your efforts being dragged into Memory.

‘Memory’ does not mean active human memory: the act of remembering. It is rather what the present is passive to when it passes. Memory is an unavoidable fall away, rather than any form of recollection.

Deleuze goes from the past as something we aim at, in an effort to recall, to a ‘pure’ past we must always bathe in passively. To pass is a condition for remembering and for any other present act. It is also a condition for forward movement. It is only by falling away that we can head into the future.

The past operating on each present must be pure because it comes before any given present. It is not a collection of all past presents, or a property of any actual present, but rather a universal condition – a process.

The past pulls at every present in two ways: by contracting all of the past in an actual present and by dissipating each present into the past as a whole.

The contraction of all of the past is different from the contraction of past series in the present. When the present takes the past as dimension, it selects series and brings them together in the present; like a poet selecting which words and rhythms to repeat from earlier work.

When the past takes the present as dimension, all of the past inhabits the present against its will. The present is taken over by the past; like the potential right and wrongness of every combination of symbols and sounds, selected or not, when the poet starts a new line.

These are uncommon concepts of time, far removed from standard ideas of the past as collection of bygone presents: a photo album, a book of dates, an inventory, or a bad history book.

If Deleuze is correct in seeing the past as a continual process of change, history is poorly written when it fails to make the present insecure about the past. It is necessarily a mistake to refresh comfortable memories, rather than destabilise certainties about illusory records of glory and ignominy.

We should think of the past as connecting a passing present to anything that might have passed, not to any specific thing or date, but rather to the pressure of all that might have passed away. This turns the pure past into change and turmoil, an impulse and mass making each present pass by drawing it into a shifting and ungraspable expanse.

I’ll suggest four practical ways to grasp Deleuze’s concept of the past as process. First, instead of thinking about isolated things in the past, think of their connections and how they change over time, some things getting closer others more distant.

In order to allow for shifting ideas of the past, the logic of time must be about a capacity for relations to change. The past was once charted as lines joining “Great Men”. It is now given as networks connecting peoples, economies and geographies. In future, it might be about systems, beliefs and peoples generated by different ideas of world decay and renewal.

The pure past is the condition for these constantly changing relations in the past: every known and unthought alteration in how past events fit together and have an impact on present ones.

Second, the pure past can be understood as the condition for all fluctuations of the meaning of history. The sense of the past isn’t settled, nor its direction. They are under review, ready for abrupt reassessments, threatening disturbing effects on the present. Your cultural wealth was always stolen.

Third, the pure past explains how active memory can be deficient. We recall some things badly and forget others. Yet we can always return to forgotten and distorted events, finding novelty in the veiled past. Memory can’t be what we remember and create at a given time. Bygone worlds have been returned to and replaced. The past is essentially elusive, a pure potential ready to be reconfigured.

Fourth, the pure past is experienced through the shock of the past. How we are brought short and overwhelmed, not simply by things from the past (unexpected mementos, documents, artefacts, letters, recordings) but by often unwelcome shifts in relations to the past. It wasn’t like that at all.

The pure past is the condition for the many ways forgotten times surprise and interrupt us, calling for new ideas. As a practice seeking to work with timed logics, where processes of transformation rather than preservation determine the past, history can’t just be about recollection. It must detect and lead transformations in relations of present to past.

Art knows the pressure and attraction from an indistinct and overladen past on a passing present. In traditions following Dante – and in horror films – it does so by setting figures against an obscure ghostly or hellish background, absorbing them and yet pushing them outwards, often in fear and disgust.

If we shift perspective, from the present overtaken by vast and destabilising pressure, to the pure past itself, this unsettling effect is no longer contraction into a particular present, but rather the distension of that present into a fluid past. Deleuze often uses such double processes to explain how a tight focus is accompanied by great dissipation.

Any particular present is the tip of a concentration of all of the pure past. Yet when it passes it tumbles into the past, fragmenting and spreading throughout. The focal point and its organising importance dissipate in this fall. They are replaced by a process necessary for bringing about distension: a repeated churning of the past.

If presents are engulfed by the past, then the past must have the power to dissolve them. It does so by exceeding the orders and priorities ascribed to any given present as it passes.

Perspectives of contraction and distension are explained and completed by a further process defining the pure past. I’ve used metaphors of organic transformation and pulsating to convey this movement, but they are only explanatory staging posts towards a pure process of change.

When the present is made to pass, when it is taken as a dimension of the past, it is contracted and distended. Yet the condition for both these processes is independent: a pure past as continuous transformation undoing any relations taken to hold in the past, engulfing every object said to belong to the past, and absorbing any present by making it pass away.

For a more visual and mathematical image of the pure past, we can turn to an ever-shifting and unstable kaleidoscopic motion. When you return to the past to confirm of how things were, any find is illusory, a surface appearance over kaleidoscopic change.

Metaphors for the pure past are always unsatisfactory, since they impose form on disordered change. Unlike a kaleidoscope, the pure past doesn’t have mechanical or digital rules governing it. Its purest definition is that the relation of things in the past are always changing in ways beyond mapping and prediction.

There is a similar difficulty for geometrical images and models to those raised by organic or kaleidoscopic metaphors. Mathematical models are restrictions on the pure past when they render it through abstract figures, such as Bergson’s cone, referred to by Deleuze in his study of Memory.

The tip S of the cone corresponds to a particular present duration on the plane P of the present. All of the past is concentrated on this tip. The past (or Memory) is the cone as a whole, with levels of past presents represented as disks A-B, A’-B’, A”-B”.

This geometrical image suffers from the same problems as the kaleidoscope by underplaying the instability of the past, thereby inviting two misunderstandings.

The first misconception is that levels of the past have a fixed order represented as depth in the cone. This can’t be right since the pure past implies changes in relations in the past such there can neither be fixed depth nor levels.

An ordered timeline of events in the past is a false image for the pure past. The idea of the past growing as further levels are added is wrong. If the past is pure, it can’t grow. It doesn’t need to. Change is enough to absorb any present.

The second mistake is to picture the whole of the past as concentrating in a single duration and only projecting forward into it. The errors here are to separate the present from its necessary passing into the whole of time and to reduce the present to a simple duration, such as a process of melting or a particular experience of passing time.

For the pure past, the arrow of time and the idea of a present duration are flawed. It is better, though not sufficient, to think of time as a transforming loop and of the present as tight knot of multiple durations stretching back into a past that is transforming them.

A more accurate alternative to the kaleidoscope and cone can be found in the teachings of the infidels from Borges’ The Library of Babel, though Deleuze can be interpreted as more extreme than even this mysterious sect.

For the present to pass, the past must not merely threaten to transmogrify in all its parts. It must continuously transmogrify, beyond any sense and any definition of nonsense, to the point of allowing no legitimate definition of parts:

Infidels claim that the rule in the Library is not “sense” but “non-sense” and that “rationality” (even humble, pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. They speak, I know, of “the feverish Library, whose random volumes constantly threaten to transmogrify into others, so that they affirm all things, deny all things, and confound and confuse all things, like some mad and hallucinating deity.”

As condition for three abstract but real processes of transformation – concentration, dissipation and pure change – the pure past negates the idea of a library as physical stock of past events waiting for present investigation. The reverse is the case. The past is a claim on a present passive to its movement.

Deleuze summarises the transition from activity to passivity through the past in Difference and Repetition:

In short, what we live empirically as a succession of different presents, from the point of view of active synthesis, is also the ever-growing coexistence of levels of the past, in passive synthesis. Each present contracts a level of the entire whole, but that level is already dissipation or contraction.

Différence et répétition, 113

For this passage, Deleuze is using a standard definition of empirical, as opposed to his transformation of the term in transcendental empiricism, the philosophical practice of speculative experimentation on conditions holding between different and irreducible fields.

In common sense experience, we represent the world as a succession of separate presents: how the world is now, how it was then, how it will be thereafter. These different instants are brought together – actively synthesised – by our acts.

We can read a cartoon or storyboard as a timeline of frames depicting successive presents. Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese brings these together as the action of securing a sailing ship to a rock:

This active present ‘is also’ – meaning depends on – a passive synthesis where the past pulls those presents and that act into the pure past. All of the past is synthesised as a changing series of fluctuation dissipating any given present. However, since each present is contracted and dissipated differently, there are also levels in the past: different process pathways within a pure past remaining independent of them.

As he leaps, throws the rope and knots it, Corto’s face and body, the colours behind him, the sky and sea, connect to his earlier adventures, to his character, his past lives and history, to his friends and ennemies, to the historical and geographical range of Pratt’s creation and its ever growing circles of references and resonances:

There is a deep puzzle in the idea of an ‘ever-growing’ coexistence in the past. If the past is pure, how can it be growing internally without contradiction? How can there be levels in the pure past?

From an external viewpoint, were the past contained in some way, we could index its growth to that external boundary. Internally, measures and values such as growth make no sense for the pure past, because they introduce reference points and directions into purity – as if we said a pure material had become more pure.

Deleuze isn’t describing a growth in elements in the past. It’s not that there are more and more past presents. It is rather that, in the passive synthesis of the pure past, coexistence is always growing, in the sense of a continuous transformation of relations of coexistence. Growth is uncertainty and distance from ordered present succession.

We shouldn’t understand the growth of the past as the addition of levels to a cone representing the past, but rather as a continuing renewal of different relations in the past, where levels aren’t dates but rather contrasting cycles of change. These cannot be ordered or counted, externally or internally.

The second sentence of the passage is a commentary of the effect of this ever-growing renewal of the past. Every present is a focal point concentrating all the levels of the past. Each change in the relations of the past can be taken as leading to that present.

Alongside this concentration of the past, every present is sucked into the past and dismembered through all the levels of the past. Each reshuffle of the past dissipates that present, as the past takes itself as dimension as pure change.

Finally, the past also takes the future as dimension through a combination of freedom and destiny. As pure, the past opens up the future to change. There is no determined and final past that could influence the future once and for all. On the contrary, the future leads on from a past that is always different each time it is considered.

Yet, because the past is also concentrated in each present and engulfs it, the future is given destinies by the past. The levels or pathways induced by passing presents become destinies for the future. When the past takes the future as dimension, the future is doubly passive to the past: determined by the past, yet also freed to replay it differently.