‘Chiasmic time’: Being-in-time in Time Being

In the fourth post of our Waiting Times series, Laura Salisbury and Lisa Baraitser reflect on Ruairí Corr and Deborah Robinson’s short film: Time Being. 

Time Being – a film commissioned by Waiting Times and made by Ruairí Corr and Deborah Robinson – explores the temporalities that emerge when the primacy of sight and sound in film is brought together with touch, breath, vibration, smell, heat, and other somatic sensations that enable us to feel ourselves in and through the world, remaking it as we go.

Film stills from sections of Time Being (Air, Wood, Clay), a film by Deborah Robinson made in collaboration with Ruairí Corr, 2022.

Ruairí is a creative maker living with a set of visual and sensory-processing differences related to the condition adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). Deborah is an artist who uses film and neurodivergent experiences of time and attention in ways that disrupt narrative sequence. As Ruairí and Deborah developed a collaborative relationship over time, they used practice-as-research methods that attended to Ruairí’s everyday experience to develop forms of audio-visual representation that reframed linear, chronological, and objectively measurable accounts of time. They found ways of holding in film the time made when the world is sensed through the hands, lungs, stomach, and skin, and through the temporal displacements of alternative experiences of sight and sound. As the film delays the viewer, inviting them to wait with and dwell in the images and sounds, it works to expand understandings of how the senses work according to multiple tempos, beats, and rhythms. This was not a form of coming to know ‘about’ the world, but of making sense of it otherwise, over and through time. 

Waiting with crip time

Ellen Samuels and Elizabeth Freeman articulate ‘the positive experiences of crip life and crip temporality, such as exultance, solidarity, grace, the simple rhythm of the breath’ (2021, 249), setting them against the relentless ticking clock of capitalist temporality and experiences of frustration, impediment, and often of loss. Alison Kafer (2021) argues that crip time must ‘bend the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds’ (2021, 421), which may mean waiting, delaying, and enduring time. However, she also critiques the idea that what people need is simply more time, by drawing attention to the difficulties of waiting: ‘Only some folks – white folks, well-resourced folks, folks living outside of institutions – wait with a real expectation that the treatment they want is coming and coming soon’ (Kafer, 2021, 421). Is there a way crip time and waiting might be thought alongside one another that pays attention to these realities, while opening up other possibilities, including the potential for care?

Deborah’s artistic practice emphasises a process of ‘waiting with’, without a clear object or outcome. She works through hours of footage using a blackout hood, waiting until something emerges that captures her attention. Importantly, she doesn’t know what she is waiting for. Instead, something appears in the darkness that produces a relationship, attaching to her in a way that enables the new and unexpected to become gradually illuminated.

In Time Being, the elements of air, wood, clay, and metal gradually came into view.  Ruairí’s intimate and tactile knowledge of the world came to be ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ in Deborah’s world, emerging through sight and sound, which are the primary sensory tools of her filmmaking practice. Film is unique in its capacity to capture time passing through moving image and sound and, following Ruairí’s idea of strapping a GoPro camera to his chest, filming became a process of bringing the multiple rhythms and tempos of somatic sensation into the audio-visual time of film, enabling different ways of being-in-time to touch one another.

Haptic Time

What touches a viewer when watching Time Being? Tina Campt (2017) describes the haptic as a multiplicity of forms of contact that go beyond physical touch. For Campt, in the haptic realm, physical contact (touch) runs alongside visual contact (seeing), psychic contact (feeling), and what she calls ‘sonic contact’ that requires listening to, as well as viewing, images. With a particular kind of haptic attention, the visual touches viewers and viewers touch the visual in ways that leave impressions. Campt writes:

‘The haptic […] is the link between touching and feeling, as well as the multiple mediations we construct to allow or prevent our access to those affective relations. These haptic relations transpire in multiple temporalities, and the hands are only one conduit of their touches.’ (Campt, 2017, 99-100)

Chiasmic Time

In his notion of the chiasm, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1968) also reminds us that looking is never simply a process of apprehending the objective world; rather, the person who looks also meets the world and its tactile materiality – they are touched by it. We see the world as a subject; but we are also objects that receive impressions in an intertwining of the visible and the sensible that he calls ‘flesh’. To materialise and explain this, Merleau-Ponty evokes the experience of one hand touching another. That which is touched is also touching, with each sensed/sensing being established as both subject and object. The touching hands, even if they belong to the one person, are separated by a gap that prevents merging.

For Merleau-Ponty, knowledge emerges in this reversible chiasm of the ‘flesh’, as ‘the “touching subject” passes over to the rank of the touched, descends into the things, such that the touch is formed in the midst of the world and as it were in the things’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, 134). This radically emergent chiasm of touch, which takes place over and through time, is ‘the sole means I have to go unto the heart of things, by making myself a world and by making them flesh’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, 135). This knowledge can only emerge if there is both an ontological and temporal deferral, however small, between the touching object and the touching subject that establishes their relationship, while stopping them collapsing into one another. We might call this temporal gap a ‘waiting’ of flesh – a ‘chiasmic time’.

Time Being

Time Being is a time-piece, in the sense that it holds and marks time, that specifically attends both to chiasmic time and the temporality of the haptic to which Campt alerts us. As Ruairí literally touches the rings of a tree that encode its age, as his stomach touches the vibrations of the gong, as he beats and shapes metal leaves, and he makes and remakes clay forms, Time Being reveals the haptic in its expanded sense, with touch meeting the visual, the psychical, and the sonic. And in this chiasmic time of waiting, chrononormative vision is decentred as the preeminent mode of knowing about the world.

Film stills from sections of Time Being (Air, Wood, Clay), a film by Deborah Robinson made in collaboration with Ruairí Corr, 2022.

In various sections of Time Being, Ruairí’s GoPro camera captures his outstretched hands. As he touches the clay in precise skilful strokes and pinches, coaxing shape out of formlessness, a tingling sensation in the viewer’s fingers might even emerge – an empathic touching of his experience. But just as Deborah’s practice allows the work to emerge ahead of her, Ruairí’s desire to film himself, but also to be filmed filming himself, interrupts the possibility that the viewer might simply merge with his experience, inhabiting his space and time. A viewer may feel into his experience, but any viewer is also a split second behind. In the chiasmic time that Time Being reveals, there is a vital deferral: a beat between a form of touching another’s touching and the experience of being touched. In and through Ruairí’s hands, a viewer gets to touch the world differently, but not identically to the way Ruairí touches it. The film materialises instead the delay within the intertwining, in which one shuttles between becoming subject and object. This is the time it takes for subject and object to form a relation, to attach to one another interdependently – a chiasmic time of delay through which the conditions for care also seem to emerge.

Care is temporal in its practice of attending, or inclining towards a need or call for a relationship that emerges in one moment but that necessarily shifts and changes; it is not for all time. To care is not to attach as a form of clinging, even of dominating or appropriating. To care is to attach and release, staying in and with the delay.

Film stills from sections of Time Being (Air, Wood, Clay), a film by Deborah Robinson made in collaboration with Ruairí Corr, 2022.

All sense-making is reliant on the temporality embedded within relations and attachments to the world; indeed, it is a form of making through sense. One thing we see emerging in Time Being is the reality that Ruairí lives a life of accompaniment, as Sejal Sutaria names it (2022). He is with Deborah, with Stuart Moore (the camera person), with those who care with and for him and for whom he cares, and with the material elements of the world with which all are chiasmically intertwined.

But the film also materialises the reality that no life is ever lived alone. Lives cannot be divorced from the world on which they depend, and somatic life only subsists by being attended to – that is, by being tended to. As Lennard Davis puts it, when claiming an ontological priority for disability as a mode of being-in-the-world: ‘Impairment is the rule, and normalcy is the fantasy. Dependence is the reality, and independence grandiose thinking’ (2002, 31). In its attention to disabled experience, Time Being materialises precisely these webs of dependence that attach, slacken, and reattach themselves over and through time so that all life, all sensation, and all thought might find the conditions to flourish.

References

Campt, Tina M. 2017. Listening to Images. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Davis, Lennard J. 2002. Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York: New York University Press.

Freeman, Elizabeth and Samuels, Ellen. 2021. Introduction. Crip Temporalities. South Atlantic Quarterly 120 (2), pp. 245–254.

Kafer, Alison. 2021. After Crip, Crip Afters. South Atlantic Quarterly 120 (2), pp. 415-434.

Samuels, Ellen. 2017. Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time. Disability Studies Quarterly 37, n.p.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968 [1964]. The Intertwining: The Chiasm. The Visible and the Invisible. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, pp. 130-154.

Sutaria, Sejal. 2022. On Time Being: A Reflection on Accompaniment. Time Being: A Catalogue.

About the authors

Lisa Baraitser is Professor of Psychosocial Theory in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, University of London and Joint Principal Investigator on the Waiting Times Project. Her most recent monograph Enduring Time (Bloomsbury, 2017) responds to the question of the relationship between time and care through experiences of suspended time – waiting, delaying, staying, remaining, enduring, returning and repeating. Twitter: @LisaBaraitser

Laura Salisbury is Professor of Modern Literature and Medical Humanities in the English Department and the Wellcome Trust Centre for the Cultures and Environments of Heath at the University of Exeter, and Joint Principal Investigator on the Waiting Times Project. She has published widely on modern and contemporary literature, including a monograph entitled Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing (Edinburgh University Press, 2012). Twitter: @SalsLaura

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