Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Present Tense 2020: An Iconology of the Epoch


W. J. T. Mitchell



 “What is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know.”

                                                                                                                          Saint Augustine, Confessions[1]


“May you live in interesting times.”

Ancient Chinese Curse[2]


                                                 “Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”  

Friedrich Nietzsche[3]


1. Present Tense

This essay was written in the present tense about a tense present. Located somewhere between the time it takes to read this sentence and the collective insanity Friedrich Nietzsche ascribes to an epoch, it is an impossible or at best an experimental project, constantly overtaken by events that require rethinking and rewriting in real time. It is written in what William James called, quoting E. Robert Kelly, “‘the specious present,’” which “has a vaguely vanishing backward and forward fringe,” a “saddle-back . . . from which we look in two directions into time.”[4] James’s metaphor suggests that time is a horse that one must ride backward, rather like Cacasenno, the peasant clown of Italian folktales, twisting in his saddle to get a glimpse of the scene as it passes, and only the slightest, peripheral intuition of what lies ahead, in the future (fig. 1).

FIGURE 1. Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Cacasenno Riding Backwards, 1705–1715. The legend: “Don’t say that I rarely fish the depths/Just because I ride your horse backwards. I do it to go as the world does.” My thanks to Jennifer Scappetone and Luca del Baldo for help with this translation.

            I write as a rider who is sitting backward in the saddle, with a relatively clear view of the past receding into the distance, a blurred perception of what lies to the left and right, and little knowledge of what lies ahead. On the verge of retirement, cloistered in quarantine, waiting out this time of suspension, of the epoché that is bringing this mad epoch, 2016–2020, to a climax.  Writing about the representation of time in the midst of our time, a state of global emergency, unsure whether the end is at hand, or year one, or maybe both. As my mother always said, infuriatingly, “this too will pass.” But what if it doesn’t?

            Perhaps not as grand an image as Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), which Walter Benjamin sees as the angel of history, whose “face is turned to the past” where “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage . . . in front of his feet” (fig. 2).[5] The angel would like to repair all this damage, but a storm has caught his wings, propelling him into a future that will be even worse. “This storm is what we call progress,” says Benjamin (“T,” p. 258).



            Benjamin wrote these terrifying words at a time (1940) when opponents of fascism lay prostrate, a few months before he would take his life in Portbou, convinced that he could not escape the Nazis. He wrote from what he called a monastic point of view. Profoundly different as my own situation is, I can’t prevent myself from thinking of that monastic point of view, subjected as I am in my book-lined study to the self-isolation imposed by a pandemic, and looking back over a period (2016–2020), as an epoch when a new upsurge of fascism has come to dominate the world, threatening to destroy American democracy, and extend the regime of racist capitalism and imperialism stretching back through modernity. But in this moment of writing (summer of 2020), opponents of fascism seem to be rising up all over the world. Think of my perspective, then, as more like that of the peasant Cacasenno’s, who, as a baby, earned his name by “shitting on the monarch’s face with little consideration for rank and title.”[6]

            Benjamin’s angel can see time and the times, not to mention end times, all too clearly, therefore he is powerless to do anything about it. The storm of “progress” is too powerful, blowing from both sides—fascism and communism––at once, and leading only toward war. In our time we have seen a storm of regression (“make America great again”). Fascist regimes are on the rise throughout the world, and the American tyrant (may he be a bad dream when these words are read) has established a kind of buddy system with tyrants and insulted all our democratic allies.[7] 

            A perfect storm has arisen in our time, however, that is neither about progression or regression, but about a swerve, a turning point, and a moment of stillness, like the eye of a hurricane. It is tempting to call it a revolutionary moment, but if it is, it is of quite a new order, qualitatively different from any of the classic revolutions known to me. It is, so far, missing the key ingredient, namely war.[8] And there is the positive ingredient of a moment when history is being driven, not only by politics, economics, and culture, but by natural forces—one urgent, the other only slightly less so. COVID-19 and climate change are themselves revolutionary forces in the sense that they are dictating radical changes in human behavior and new real world conditions for everyday life and foreseeable futures.[9] The virus is the immediate and extreme event that has created the environment of a new commons and especially the emergence of an undercommons that has been struggling to turn the world upside down for a very long time.[10] At the same time that the world is gripped in a struggle with the pandemic, it has reawakened to the presence of a much more durable and dangerous virus, the plague of racism and its incubator, the system of predatory unregulated capitalism that has ruled the global economy for the last half century. If the former dictates strategies of quarantine and social isolation, the awakening to racism has produce a counter-movement of rushing together in massive demonstrations around the world that have united black, brown, and white peoples to fight a plague that is incarnate in the would-be monarch of the most powerful nation on the planet. The analogy is strong; the coincidence in time is even stronger.[11] Like a virus, racism is contagious and deadly. It does not observe borders, never more obviously than when it makes futile attempts to build apartheid walls. COVID-19 is said to be indiscriminate, at the same time that it discriminates between classes and races on the basis of preexisting conditions of poverty, crowded housing, and poor health.   

            Perhaps the strongest aspect of the analogy between racism and the coronavirus is the phenomenon of the silent spreader, the person who shows no symptoms, and yet is contagious and deadly.[12] This has certainly been the condition of the vast majority of white folks (including myself) for most of American history. The persistence of racism, from the death of Reconstruction after the Civil War, to Jim Crow, to the declining significance of race in the Reagan era, to the election of the first black president, has become increasingly evident as the original sin of the American experiment.[13] Silence is the incubator of the virus. It is the asymptomatic silence that is much more insidious and deadly than the open expression of racist attitudes, which are disavowed or silently communicated through dog whistles.[14] 

            How can we make this moment, the explosive American 2020, intelligible? Indeed, what would it mean to understand the present, either as “specious,” ephemeral and indeterminate (James) or as “real in a way that the past and future are not” (Augustine). The real present, real time, the now, the Jetztzeit, the epoch and the epoché are, like time—the times––themselves, right there in front of us, or on every side. How can we understand this unique, special time in all its complexity and contradictions? And is there a more general lesson about time to be learned in this moment? Are we in a teachable moment, not only about the present historical period, but about the nature of temporality itself? 

            As you can see from my choice of Cacasenno as my angel of history, I will be taking a vulgar, improvisational approach to this question. Instead of an ontology of time, an answer to the impossible question, What is time? I want to ask, “How do we picture time (and the times) in this moment?” As we ride backward into the future, I will offer an iconology of time that approaches the subject through glimpses of images, including forms, figures, graphs, and metaphors. They will not all be from the present historical moment. An iconology of time must risk anachronism, looking sideways, and listening carefully to the ominous sounds of futurity amid the echoes of the past.[15]    

I am comforted in my awkward saddle by the counsel of Hans Blumenberg, who provides the most thorough defense of what he calls “metaphorology” against the philosophical tradition that despises images and metaphor as nothing but  “leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos.”[16] From Plato’s dismissal of images as mere illusions of rhetoric, to Francis Bacon’s “idols,” to René Descartes’s insistence on the banishing of figuration, the correlation of cosmos and logos, truth and logic has exerted sovereignty over the production of knowledge. Of course one must push back against seductive analogies and powerful images, just as firmly as one resists the sovereignty of the logos. That is exactly what constitutes my hope for a critical iconology, a method of dialectical struggle between icon and logos, surrendering to neither.[17]

            So, what are the images of the present moment? No doubt there are too many. In fact, I have already proposed what Blumenberg might call the absolute metaphor for the year 2020, the image of the virus and the viral.[18] Beyond the strong analogy with racism, there are the innumerable instances of what George Kubler would call shapes of time in the statistical graphs that appear as every day’s news, depicting exponentially rising curves, plateaus, and (as of late June 2020) second waves that are cresting in places that escaped the first wave. And these images are now regularly accompanied by warnings that they seriously underestimate the actual number of infections. Beneath their appearance of absolute mathematical and chronological certainty (we can literally see time and place charted with precision in them) they are at best only rough estimates. Our instruments of detection and contact tracing are still inadequate, and the promised utopia of a vaccine that will reduce the curve to zero is nowhere in sight. And of course, the tyrant regards them, not as indices of truth, but as fake news, and recommends less testing as a way to flatten the curve. His preference is for low numbers on the charts of the pandemic and high numbers on the parallel graphs of the stock market, a perfect example of the immunity of speculative capitalism to the real conditions of human life.[19] The shapes of abstract market time have a kind of autonomy, like graphs of game statistics; the epidemiological landscape of waves and crests corresponds, quite directly, to another world of bodies, beds, and ventilators.[20]

            What about the analogy between the virus and racism? One can glimpse this immediately in graphs that track the much higher incidence of infection among minorities, the poor, and those designated without a trace of irony as the heroic essential workers who work in grocery stores, meat-packing plants, and hospitals. But is there a corresponding rise in the incidence of white on black violence? Or is it a mere artifact of heightened public attention that there seem to be a lot police killings of black men these days? This is an instructive moment for glimpsing the critical dis-analogy between the virus and racism. COVID-19 is a singular global event that has opened up an epoch in human history, a pandemic that will run its course in the indeterminate future.  Racism, by contrast, is endemic, so long-lasting that it can be compared—imperfectly––to “original sin,” a built-in flaw in human nature itself. It is the very imperfection of the viral analogy that makes it so powerful as a component of our teachable moment. Because it is not solely a matter of analogy, similarity, and iconicity, but the relation of temporal and spatial adjacency—the uncanny coincidence of the virus, its mandate of  social isolation with the unforgettably traumatic image of the police murder of one man, George Floyd, just a few weeks before the writing of these words.[21] Pandemic and endemic converged on  25 May 2020 in an image that, need I say it, went viral around the world in a few days, sparking massive protests whose scale and duration seem unprecedented. The only thing that comes close in my own experience are the mass demonstrations against war, racism, and predatory capitalism in the 1960s. 

            Our iconology of the time, then, has to include a meditation on the image of Floyd, both its origin and circulation. Why did it make such an impression? Why did it go viral? I hope it does not seem cold-blooded to ask this question. His murder was cruel and indifferent, but we also know that it was not exceptional. Black people get murdered by the police in America in disproportionate numbers. There is outrage, and then it disappears. Floyd brought it all back, made everybody say their names. This is not the first video of a police murder: in Chicago we have two recent examples, Laquan McDonald and Harith Augustus. Both their judicial and media impacts were substantial. But they did not receive the kind of global attention and response that Floyd’s death generated. What made the images of Floyd’s murder exceptional?

            The first thing to say is that it is not a still image, not a photograph that captures a single moment, but an eight minute and forty-six second video by a seventeen year old girl, Darnella Frazier, who had the courage not to look away.[22] It is a perfect example of what Gilles Deleuze called a “time-image” in its protracted duration, the camera held steadily on its target capturing only the slightest movements and sound, tracking the unbearably slow strangulation of a black man under the knee of a white cop who shows not the slightest symptom of stress or agitation, but carries out the murder of a human being with utmost calm, his hand resting in his pocket.[23] 

            I know that many people have been unable to look at this video. I have never been able to watch it all the way through. A single frame is really enough. Knowing it exists is enough. But the duration of the shot has been a key feature in the performative reenactments carried out at protest rallies, where the moment of silence, or the recitation of names, or choreographed motions have frequently alluded to the eight minute and forty-six second moment of intensified collective time.  

            The circulation of Floyd’s image would require a global Bilderatlas of its own. His features are now perhaps the most recognizable face on the planet, appearing on murals, banners, and posters throughout the world. The site of his death has become sacred ground. Kadir Nelson produced what is perhaps the most perfect image in his cover for The New Yorker for 22 June 2020: Floyd is portrayed as a leviathan reminiscent of the title page of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), with the masses gathered inside the sovereign’s body. But Nelson’s Say Their Names, does not settle for the anonymous masses of Hobbes. He provides portraits of individuals from the entire history of slavery, lynching, and mass murder of black people in these United States, the only anonymous faces are those based on the masses of slaves in cargo holds during the Middle Passage.[24] 

            There is another uncanny coincidence, which is no mere coincidence in this moment: at the same time Floyd is being monumentalized, even rendered as an image of counter-sovereignty of the undercommons, statues and icons of white supremacy are coming down all over the US. Not just the traitorous racists of the Confederacy, but Native American killers like Andrew Jackson and (just today, at Princeton University), Woodrow Wilson, who purged the federal government of its black civil servants and screened Birth of a Nation (dir. D. W. Griffith, 1915) in the White House. The Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Washington, may be in danger as well. Of course, wise pundits will follow the well-worn path of philosophy and dismiss all this as merely superficial, pseudorevolution, merely metaphoric changes that fail to take up the challenge of real reform. It’s always good to have these reminders at a time like this that images are nothing special. 

            Coincidence and analogy converge in what is arguably the most powerful synthetic image of the convergence of the two viruses in the spring of 2020. I’m thinking particularly of Black Lives Matter protestors wearing masks inscribed with the exclamation, “I can’t breathe” (fig. 3).[25]

            This is Benjamin’s version of the time image:

It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical:  it is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.[26]

In three words it synthesizes the masked human faces of the viruses with the last words of black victims of police violence.[27] The names of Eric Garner, smothered in a chokehold by a New York City police officer, and Floyd, strangled under the knee on his neck by a Minneapolis cop. The mask, even without the inscription, already forms a constellation with innumerable protest movements, from the grinning Guy Fawkes mask of Occupy to AIDS posters of gagged protestors emblazoned with “silence = death.” “I can’t breathe” is the prelude to “I can’t speak,” or (like Muhammad Ali or Bobby Seale) “I am being gagged” (figs. 4–5).

            The mask is both a defensive and offensive weapon, both armor and spear, both a speech act and the muzzling of speech. As armor it not only defends the wearer from infection but more importantly defends others against the wearer as a possible silent spreader of virus. It preserves anonymity and yet identifies the wearer as part of the undercommons of resistance, immune to police identification while vulnerable in its adherence to nonviolence. The absence of the mask has itself become iconic, most notably in the bare-faced shamelessness of the tyrant and his subjects who refuse to wear masks in the name of free speech.[28] His abundant record now comes into focus: he is a super spreader of the virus of racism, nationalism, predatory capitalism, and white supremacy, circulating lies, disinformation, and infection in unprecedented quantities, all in the name of free speech. Here I would love to insert another New Yorker cover that captures the tyrant with his anticontagion mask covering, not his mouth, but his eyes. The focus of his gaze is not the real or graphic renderings of the plague he has unleashed but the shapes of time registering the health of the economy as measured by Wall Street.


2. An Iconology of the Epoch(é)

I promised at the outset of this essay to ponder the ways in which this very specific moment in history might be a teachable moment that could clarify the perennial philosophical questions about the nature of time. How do our representations of the times help clarify our concepts of time as such? I suggested a shift from ontology, the being or essence of time, to iconology, the images and metaphors of time. Here we move from the dialectical images that have sprung up like Benjamin’s “flash” that reveals a unique constellation in time, to the frameworks within which our perceptions and conceptions of time appear.

Probably the first framework is embedded in the very notion of the times, the treatment of the question of time as a plural phenomenon, never quite reducible to a single concept, but grasped instead as a multiplicity of parallel and entangled lines. Why do we say, “the times they are a-changing,” instead of “the time it is a-changing” even when we know that this time, 2020, is unique, singular, and unrepeatable?[29] Ludwig Wittgenstein’s approach to the whole question of general concepts is useful here. In considering concepts such as number, games, and language for which philosophy has sought to find some unifying common essence he turns to the primary metaphor of “‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes,” and the secondary metaphor of “spinning a thread”: “we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.”[30]

            Wittgenstein’s double metaphor of family and thread seems even more appropriate for the concept of time(s), as a singular plurality. If we apply it to the times we are now passing through, the transitory moment of the year 2020 in which I am writing these words, what do we see? Perhaps most obvious is the sense that the thread has been cut, exposing the loose ends of the numerous fibers that make it up: the time of everyday life and multiple lives; the sense of future possibility; the relation to the past and the counting up of losses; the multiplicity of generations; my time (old, long) and yours (young, short). On every side one hears the remark that the year 2019 now seems to belong to another century, and that we—all of us––are in a new time when everything is now and will be different, when a new abnormal normal of indefinite extension has settled on the world. As for the family, the shock of the moment ranges from the domestic, nuclear family to nations and migrating masses to that old discredited image of the multiracial family of man that was conjured up back in the 1950s. Both the unity and the deep fracturing of that family are exposed to view as we watch multiracial and global protest movements mobilizing against an entrenched system of white supremacy and predatory capitalism. 

            But there is a third element to our present moment of crisis, and that is the thing that is so difficult for Cacasenno to see, what has him squirming in his saddle to glimpse the future. And this is not a distant and indefinite future like the uncertain longevity of the virus, or the durability of the global uprising of racism, but a definite and determinate date in the near future. That is the utterly predictable date of 3 November 2020, when large numbers of American citizens will have their chance to shit on the face of the would-be monarch. This moment, which seems so certain, is of course subject to its own forces of uncertainty. On the day I wrote these words (25 June 2020) the New York Times ran contradictory stories about the possible outcome of the fateful November decision.[31] One was about the polls that show the tyrant trailing his opponent in the opinion polls by a large margin. The other was a catalog of uncertainties involving the ruling party’s track record of voter suppression, dirty tricks, solicitation of foreign interference, mobilization of fear and hatred, and assertions of absolute power, including the possibility of suspending the election on the grounds of a state of emergency. The idea that the results of the election will be known on 3 November is belied by the number of states that are now suing to prevent mail-in ballots, reducing their numbers of polling places (especially in black neighborhoods), and finding themselves incapable of mastering the complex data science of counting votes, much less tracing contacts in a pandemic. Here is a prediction: By the time you read these words at the end of 2020, Donald Trump will still be technically in power, claiming that the election was rigged, and refusing to leave office, encouraging his gun-toting Second Amendment fundamentalists to rise up.[32] Meanwhile, the daily results of poll numbers become a way of tracking the variations of the collective temperature of the nation, while individual citizens have their temperatures taken during visits to reopened beauty salons. 

            No theory of time, whether based in ontology or iconology allows us to predict the future or reduce time to a homogeneous linearity. Human time may be a split second in the longue durée of the cosmos, but cosmic time itself is filled with pulses and pauses. In fact, the whole idea of an unbroken continuum of physical time is probably best seen as just one very long, durable fiber in Wittgenstein’s thread. If every analogy, image, and metaphor is imperfect “by nature,” neither will any logic or mathematics ever correspond perfectly to the world. As Yogi Berra once said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”[33] That is why Cacasenno is my Angel of History, rather than Benjamin’s clear-eyed Angelus Novus.[34] 

            Wittgenstein’s metaphor of thread and woven fibers, which he applies to the concepts of games and language, is an even more apt metaphor for the concept of time for another reason. The image of the fibers in the thread of time provides a powerful way of thinking about the narrative genre known as alternate history. I’m thinking here of novels like Philip Roth’s The Plot against America (2004), Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), alternate histories in which we are reminded of the strong, durable fibers of fascism and racism in American political culture, and which never disappeared during the era from World War II, and resurfaced dramatically in 2016. The first draft of this essay was written in October of 2018, in the period leading up to the congressional elections. Although the polls showed a high probability that the Republican party would lose its majority in the House of Representatives, I can still not shake off the feeling of dread and anxiety I sensed all around me in that period, haunted by the memory of polls showing that Hillary Clinton would have an easy victory over Trump just two years earlier. It was all too easy in that period to imagine an alternate history in which Trump would have retained complete control of all the branches of government. That history would have been a nightmare from which it would have been very difficult to awake. We are in a very similar period right now, in the summer of 2020. By the time you read these words I hope that we will have awakened, not into a utopia (that is too much to hope for), but from complacency and from a bad dream that could have continued for another four years. 

Which leads me to the metaphor of dream time, especially historical time, as a kind of dreaming, punctuated by moments of awakening. This figure is as ancient as Australian Aboriginal culture. It finds its western counterpart in Stephen Daedalus’s nightmare of history, and even more dramatically in Nietzsche’s postulation of collective madness as the characteristic mentality of what he calls the “epoch.” “Insanity in individuals,” notes Nietzsche, “is somewhat rare. But in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.”[35] But what, exactly, is an epoch? If one thing seems clear, it is that we are in the midst of one. Lay aside the question of whether it is revolutionary or evolutionary—the Green New Deal, the rise of American fascism. It is certainly a global crisis at every level of human experience from the tyrant to the peasant. The angel of history is coming face to face with Cacasenno, the ruins of civilization now revealed as an enormous pile of shit. It is, after all, our emissions that are poisoning the air we breathe, raising the levels of the ocean, and rendering approximately 150 species extinct every day. That means that in the hour it takes you to read this essay about six species have disappeared. Is it any wonder that, coincidentally, we live in an era when bats, monkeys, pigs, and birds have taken over the traditional role of rats as bearers of plague?

            The madness of the epoch that Nietzsche postulates is not an individual affair but a collective virus, highly contagious. Its virulence in this moment, just in the United States, has been threefold: (1) it is a collective psychosis, both a mood and thought disorder, involving a pathological detachment from reality by large masses of the American population, fueled by a systematic disinformation campaign conducted simultaneously on mass and social media, creating a post-truth era in which lies and fantastic untruth are in daily circulation, and the work of professional journalism is dismissed as fake news that is the enemy of the people;  (2) the collective psychosis is focused in the individual pathology of a mad tyrant who channels and exploits the collective insanity to maintain his unabashed fantasy of absolute power;[36] and (3) a world order that seems to be trending inexorably toward the death of democracy and its replacement by authoritarian regimes led by strong men, oligarchs, and warlords—the new tyrants. If it has been clear for some time that Nietzsche was right about the madness of “groups, parties, and nations,” we must now turn our attention to the epoch, the swerve or tipping point in history that is experienced by many with a sense of astonishment, anxiety, exhilaration, and alarm.

            The word has a built-in ambiguity as to whether it denotes an era, age, period, time, or stage or the momentous acts and events that occur at the foundations of a new eras, ages, and periods in human history. But there is another meaning that may have an even deeper application for the tense present of this essay and that is captured by the related notion of the epoché, which denotes a moment of stoppage or suspension. Within the image of time as a complex thread with numerous interwoven fibers, the epoché designates a very specific fiber of time-out, of a pause or slowing of forward movement. Is Cacasseno’s mule running away with his rider or refusing to move at all? Is it time to isolate oneself in monkish meditation or rush together in mass assemblies? Has history in 2020 hit the pause button or fast forward?

            In The Shape of Time George Kubler postulates an “interchronic pause when nothing is happening. . . [,] the void between events.”[37] He illustrates this idea with the metaphor of a “lighthouse” which “is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of the watch: it is a void interval slipping forever through time: the rupture between past and future.”[38] Kubler’s “flash” is directly contrary to Benjamin’s flash of illumination, when the image of “dialectics at a standstill” reveals the truth of history. The epoché is precisely the moment of indecision between light and darkness, confusion and revelation. Notable symptoms of this indecision include the upsurge in therapeutic and meditational practices for dealing with the down time imposed by isolation and quarantine. And the madness of this political epoch is mirrored at the level of individual psychology in reports that the toxic effects of the virus may include brain damage, while the tyrant brags about his remarkable ability to remember the sequence of words, “person, woman, man, camera, tv,” a key question in a test for detecting dementia.[39]

            So the epoché is not the sole property of historical time. Philosophy, especially skepticism and phenomenology are also grounded in the concept of the epoché, Edmund Husserl’s method of “bracketing” or “suspending” judgment in order to ponder our percepts and concepts for just a moment before getting back to the practical business of everyday life.[40] We lucky scholars—especially elders like me––thrive in down times, time-outs, and moments of suspension or bracketing of judgment, when we sit in our studies like Descartes, meditating on both our objective perceptions and the objectless representations of collective hallucinations, dreams, fantasies, and ideologies. The distinct scales of immediate, urgent, and microscopic viral times and the macroscopic planetary scale of climate change coincide in these times out of time.[41]  

            A contrasting form of temporal suspension is the (impossible) psychoanalytic concept of suspended attention, the gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit, which demands that the analyst listen to the analysand without making judgements or imposing preconceptions, a technique that complements the (completely paradoxical) rule of free association to be followed by the analysand. The epoché of phenomenology focusses on the here and now of the isolated subject’s intentional acts; psychoanalysis is intersubjective, allowing the suppressed past to emerge in slips of the tongue and the merely coincidental. The classic one-hour session might be thought of as the epoché within the course of an interminable treatment.[42]  

            Catherine Malabou reflects on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s choice during the plague of Messina in 1743 to take isolated quarantine in an abandoned lazar house, over the alternative of remaining on board a ship with others. She compares his happy choice of isolation to Robinson Crusoe’s and Michel Foucault’s strategy of isolation within isolation, sheltering in place during a state of emergency in order to build a new psychic space, and make possible a new insight into the nature of one’s self.[43] Perhaps also to seek a new reckoning with all the “normal” and endemic times that have preceded this moment of pandemic suspension, when a world, able to breathe, holds its breath. This is seen most dramatically in the way the epidemic has opened an epoché in American’s consciousness of the traumatic fibers in its own history, when the presence of blue eyes in a black face recalls the buried and disavowed reality of rape and slavery.[44]

            Cacasenno’s mule comes to a halt at this point to let us conclude with some durable forms and faces of time that have been tacitly present throughout this essay (fig. 6).

            At its most abstract, depictions of time almost invariably invoke three elementary geometrical figures: (1) the line or thread which represents the idea of time as an indefinite continuum that goes forward into a future, carrying us with it; (2) the circle which registers our sense that temporality has a dimension of repetition and return, often modelled on the cycle of the seasons; and (3) the point, the moment or instant which is the smallest unit of time, and which may be portrayed as trivial and ephemeral, on the one hand, or momentous, a time of crisis and dateable events like the onset of wars, revolutions, or the decisive moments of regime change—times like the present. A synthetic image that combines these three geometrical forms might be seen in the figure of the spiral or vortex, which combines the properties of line and circle, and converges on a point, the eye of the hurricane where Benjamin’s and Kubler’s flashes illuminate the world or plunge it into darkness (fig. 7).

            The ancient figure of Aion, a symbol of the eternal ambitions of the Roman empire provides a human-animal form of this synthesis in a lion-headed emperor wrapped in the coils of a serpent, as if suggesting that only the sovereign is capable of mastering the vortex of time (fig. 8).[45]

This image of control, however, could be deceiving. Perhaps the sovereign is himself in the grip of temporal forces that constrict and threaten his power. Cacasseno may be mobilizing a peasants’ revolt. William Blake, who understood the vortex better than any other artist known to me, portrays the moment of revolution as a vertiginous fall of monarchs (including the holy trinity of Christianity) into an abyss of fire (figs. 9­–10).

            But these shapes of time require a complementary form that addresses the question of scales and vectors. I propose a temporal vortex, a maelstrom of time generated by four vectors: on one side, the forces of individual and collective human actions, on the other, the impersonal cycles of physical and biological events. At the center we see their convergence in the epoch(é), the period or pause, the still point of suspension and decision (fig. 11).

            The four vectors of time are, of course, of radically different scales, from the milliseconds of computer processors to geological eons and the carbon dating of fossils. Individual human time ranges from the still-born infant to the centegenarian, while the collective extends from dynasties to civilizations to the two hundred thousand years the human species has been around and capable of thinking about or measuring time.    

            Of course, a moment’s reflection suggests that these quantitative, measurable vectors of time are instantly inverted by a focus on the qualitative experience of time as the now, the tension-filled present. Blake called this “the pulsation of an artery” in which “the poet’s work is done,” and which is “equal in its period and value to six thousand years.”[46] Criminal law in the US hypostasizes a similar interval, the split second of police decision-making that often means life or death for black men in this country. These micromoments of life and death, even smaller than James’s specious present, are made iconically visible in the collaborative work of Forensic Architecture and the Invisible Institute on the South Side of Chicago to reconstruct the police killing of Harith Augustus.[47] The split second is not only a moment of death but a legal doctrine of justification for police killings. The theory is that there is no time for rational deliberation, so the officer has no choice but to become judge and executioner. The eight minute and forty-six second time image of Floyd’s killing seems like an eternity in this scale. 

            The split second is the moment of drowning in the vortex of time, when we cry out for our mothers, take our last breath, and (as the legend of drowning goes) watch our entire life pass before our eyes. If we combine the two images, at their central intersection we find the epoch, the turning point to a new period in history and the epoché, when time is suspended. We are living in precisely such a time, a moment when history seems to bear down on us, becoming a part of everyday life, making us feel that we live in the curse of interesting times, or as Nietzsche puts it, a time of collective insanity in “groups, parties, and nations.”

            I want to now make a final anachronistic move to give human bodies to these abstract images of time. Time was portrayed, like every other abstract concept, by allegorical human figures in Greek mythology, the gods of time known as Kronos, Aion, and Kairos. Kronos, as his name suggests, personifies the implacable linear time that leads inexorably toward the death of every living thing. He is Father Time, associated in his positive form with the harvest and the autumn festival of the Roman Saturnalia, but his scythe is also the instrument that cuts the time-line and the lifelines of every living thing, and in his guise as Saturn, he is Rubens’s and Goya’s devourer of his own children (figs. 12–13).

            Aion is the god of circular time, of the seasons and the cycle of the zodiac, and the ourobouros, the serpent with the tail in its mouth and the eternal return. Kairos, the personification of the opportune moment or occasion, is represented by a youth with a very strange hairdo (to which I will return), carrying the scales of decision on a razor blade (figs. 14–15).

            An assembly of these personifications of time occurs in Nicolas’s Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time (1634–1636), in which Kronos lays aside his menacing scythe in favor of a lute or harp to accompany the dance of the four seasons. Aion as Apollo appears in his chariot up in the clouds, holding the wheel of the zodiac. Aion’s chariot is led by Spring, showering flower petals, twin sister to the goddess Fortuna often shown showering gold coins, but his chariot is supported by storm clouds that suggest the time of prosperity may be facing a change in the weather. For every appearance of Fortuna there is the possibility that her twin sister of bad fortune, Nemesis, may appear, raining disaster and misery. Kairos does not appear, but the cupids at the bottom left of the painting represent the passing moments in the figures of the hourglass and the ephemeral bubbles, the present represented, not as tense or intense, but as the ephemeral pastimes of pleasure and play. The obelisk on the left shows the proper prudential human attitude toward time, with the older face looking to the right, into the past, and offstage to the left into the future that lies beyond the painting. Poussin’s composition might be said to portray something like  “normal” times, a utopian pastoral in which the world is at peace, old Kronos has been defanged by music, and the only sign of an ominous, kairotic moment awaiting for us in a future that has been left offstage, to be monitored by the figure of Prudence (fig. 16).

            Who or what is Kairos? Like all the figures of time, he has a double aspect of threat and promise, success and failure. In Christian theology, Kairos is sacred time, the opportune moment of fateful decision, or the moment when newness comes into the world, as in the birth of Christ. Kairos is portrayed with wings on his heels because he is quick time, speeded up, a moment that will go by rapidly unless it is seized by the forelock. Hence the strange comb-over of his bald head, alluding to the common expression, if you do not seize the moment by the forelock, it will pass you by, and there will be nothing left to grasp. It has not escaped my notice (or yours, I hope) that Kairos’s hairdo has an uncanny resemblance to the mad tyrant of our moment (fig. 17).

            And there is a sense in which Trump is a truly kairotic figure, personifying the opportunist incarnate, who seized a moment of reaction in the predictably bipolar cycle of American politics. After a period of relative normalcy and lack of scandal in the era of “no drama Obama,” Trump and his sponsors sensed that the time was ripe for a period of reactionary disruption. After the first black president, why not elect a white supremacist xenophobe oligarch who would see very fine people among the Nazis and Klansmen shouting antisemitic slogans in Charlottesville? A razor thin margin of some seventy-five thousand votes in three states turned an election he lost by three million votes. And his election inaugurated a kairotic epoch of continual crisis and tension—a reality TV show in real time—in which we are still immersed. 

Present Tense 2020: An Iconology of the EpochAll these figures of time require a fourth dimension, the affective temporality or mood of a time, what Raymond Williams called the structure of feeling that characterizes a period, or the particular emotions and attitudes that arise in a specific moment or epoch.[48] As individuals, we are all subject to “mood swings” dependent on everything from external circumstances to the fluctuation of hormones. But the idea of affective temporality suggests as well that categories of individual human feeling such as anxiety, hope, fear, dread, shock, depression, happiness, and joy are also experienced collectively, as shared, common, and contagious feelings of the time. There are numerous small scale stagings of affective temporality, as in moments of panic and terror, or enthusiasm and hatred. 

            Trump rallies, with their ritual performances of hateful mockery of innumerable enemies (“lock them up” and “send them back” are the chanted slogans), are the most vivid examples of these moments of collective affect in our time. The widespread euphoria and renewed optimism that followed the US election of 2018, with the arrival of record numbers of women and people of color on the political scene, provides a sharply contrasting mood. Taken together as a snapshot

of what might be called the moods of a nation, they suggest that the endemic form of Nietzsche’s collective insanity that grips a nation founded in freedom (for white Europeans) and slavery (for black people), and preserved by a Civil War and a two-party system is uncannily similar to a bipolar disorder.

            But this moment, leading up to the election of 2020, can also be described as a kairotic moment, when the opportunity is at hand to render judgment on the tyrannical criminal who occupies the most powerful office on the planet. Juridical-legislative remedies (the dismal melodrama of impeachment by Congress) having failed, the decision is now in the hands of the people. In the summer of 2020, we were in secular form of what Christian theology calls parousia, the feeling that a decisive day of judgment is approaching. Versions of this survive in the celebration of the season known as Advent in the Catholic calendar, the time leading up to the birth of Christ. In Evangelical terms, parousia is more commonly described in the language of end times and the approach of a last judgment, with a final separation of the saved and the damned and the end of time.  

            A surreal image of the singularity of our time is provided by Bastian Oldhouse, in his recycling of the classic images of time in relation to the history of the planet (fig. 18). Old Kronos is portrayed devouring the earth while surfing a tsunami on a clock face in which the numbers cycle backwards. But Oldhouse does not allow this bleak spectacle to be the whole picture. The sky in the background discloses a bright cleavage of yellow light through which white doves are arriving to harass Kronos.[49] Of course it is a hopelessly optimistic image, telling us that hope springs eternal, and there is a future to be glimpsed where peace might break out, sanity might be restored to the human species, and Old Kronos might pick up his lyre to accompany a new dance to the music of time.  

            If I could improve on Oldhouse’s image, it would be to replace the white doves with “Blackbirds Singing in the Dead of Night.” The fateful year of 2020 has seen the coincidence of the global pandemic with fresh revelations of the endemic racism of white supremacy. As the American monuments to white patriarchy come down, what should rise in their place? My candidate is a distinctly antimonumental assemblage, a miniature memory place created by black feminist artist Betye Saar (fig. 19).[50]

            Approaching this work, like Cacasenno, from the backside, we encounter a small well-travelled doll trunk standing open with two heads (a globe and a clock) facing away from us, and two “mojo eyes” looking back at us, into a future we cannot see.[51] The trunk may have its back to the future, but it is not going there blindly.[52] On the other side, open to the past, Saar seems to have found an answer to Benjamin’s helpless angel of history. Benjamin’s angel “would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” but the storm from paradise has “caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them” (“T,” pp. 257–58) (figs. 20–21).

            Saar’s trunk gathers between its two wings the bodies of the ancestors, which, given their heads and the gendered shapes of their bodies, I cannot resist seeing as Father Time and Mother Earth. The bodies are scarred, mutilated, and assembled from part objects but still standing. Father Time is a leather doll whose chest has been etched with the diagram of the human cargo of a slave ship. Black Kronos has not been devouring the planet or his children like the white patriarch of the Oldhouse allegory. Instead he has been decapitated and cut off at the knees quite literally, and it looks as if his feet have been hobbled or replaced by something like bird’s talons—as if he is becoming the broken winged Black Bird himself, an impression reinforced by two large pheasant feathers in the trunk behind him. He is a Father Time whose wings have been clipped, but he still has bird’s feet. In place of a head, the large clock atop the trunk faces into the past.[53] 

            Mother Earth, by contrast, is a svelte assemblage of vases and bottles, cleverly stacked to suggest a faceless, but not headless, body. Her emblematic attributes are not feathers but antlers. The one on the left is like a crutch—on the right more like a weapon. And her feet are firmly on the ground, looking up with mojo eyes. If Father Time bears the scars of slavery on his body,[54]  Mother Earth looks more like a warrior, her tools close at hand.

            Saar’s work exemplifies, in my view, both the portable and prophetic character of the black contribution to American and global culture. Her angel of history carries the past in its body, rendering history and the earth, time and the planet, as something that must be carried, brought along, even (if we think of trunk as pregnant) to be carried to term.[55] It is an allegory of labor, slavery, and escape, incorporated in the body of a portmanteau that is looking clear eyed toward the future, with eyes on the back of its head, and on the feet of Mother Earth, Searching for a Vision of Truth.    


W. J . T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelly Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. A scholar and theorist of media, visual art, and literature, Mitchell is associated with the emergent fields of visual culture and iconology (the study of images across the media). He is known especially for his work on the relations of visual and verbal representations in the context of social and political issues. He served as editor of Critical Inquiry from 1978–2020.



[1] Saint Augustine, “Time and Eternity,” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. John K. Ryan (New York, 1960), p. 253.

[2] Actually, as Haun Saussy reminds me, there is nothing Chinese or ancient about this curse; see

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Apophthegms and Interludes,” Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Helen Zimmern (New York, 1907), p. 98.

[4] William James, “The Perception of Time,” Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (New York, 1890), 1:609, 613, 609: "The . . . prototype of all conceived times . . . the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible" (p. 631). The specious present could be as little as five seconds, or the time required to register the constant flow of breaking news on cable TV.

[5] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, 1968), p. 257; hereafter abbreviated “T.”

[6] Bertoldo, Bertoldino e Cacasenno, dir. Mario Monicelli (1984).

[7] The list of tyrants for whom Trump has expressed personal admiration or liking would make an interesting study in itself: Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Mohammad bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro. I will occasionally refer to Trump as a (would-be) “monarch” with all due respect to modern constitutional monarchies, as I am reminded by my Canadian compañero Jonathan Bordo. Our American exceptionalism favors tyrants, armed if possible, by the second amendment fundamentalists. 

[8] I would start my list with the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, born in civil war; the American and French Revolutions, the one a colonial rebellion (1776), the other birthed by class antagonism (1789), transformed into imperial conquest, and replayed in 1848; the Russian Revolution (1917), and the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany in the 1930s, the long Communist revolution in China (1928–1949). The Velvet Revolution in the former Yugoslavia was a relatively peaceful breakup of the Soviet empire that degenerated into ethnic warfare in the Balkans. Of course, one could argue that war has simply become a normal background to contemporary reality, especially for large populations living under siege in Yemen, Palestine, Bangladesh. Trump’s attempt to militarize the suppression of peaceful protests in the US with anonymous federal stormtroopers makes it hard to think of this as a period of “peace.”

[9] I recommend here Critical Inquiry’s “Posts from the Pandemic” series, edited by Hank Scotch, which compiles an important chorus of critical voices reflecting on the implications of the pandemic; see In the Moment,

[10] See Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York, 2013), esp. p. 44. Included in the concept of undercommons are the rapidly increasing populations of marginalized communities including immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ­+ people, and other persecuted minorities. In contrast to the concept of class, the central idea of Marxist thought, the undercommons suggests an emergent community characterized by wildness, disorder, the cacophony of jazz, and a solidarity with Franz Fanon’s insistence on the craziness of the anticolonial stance.

[11] Analogy and similarity are the key relationships in what Charles Peirce’s semiotics calls iconicity; co-incidence, which I hyphenate in order to stress the temporal intersection of unlike events, falls under his notion of indexicality; see Charles Peirce, “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York, 1955), pp. 98–115.   

[12] One of the keys to the virulence of COVID-19 was the failure to recognize the phenomenon of the silent spreader. The earliest medical revelations of the syndrome were buried in an avalanche of counterclaims within and without the medical community, partly driven by uncertainty and by the political desire to bury bad news and minimize the threat. For the whole sad story, see Matt Apuzzo, Selam Gebrekidan, and David D. Kirkpatrick, “How the World Missed Covid-19’s Silent Spread,” New York Times, 27 June 2020, [url= ] [/url];

[13] John Patrick Leary, “‘Original Sin,’ Slavery, and American Innocence,”

Social Text Online, 3 Apr. 2017, See Leary’s critique of the analogy, and the way this Roman Catholic doctrine is perversely transformed into a metaphysical condition and cliché that exonerates the sinner from any real responsibility.

[14] Except in the present moment, 28 June 2020, when the President of the United States retweets a video of one of his supporters shouting “white power” at protestors.

[15] For a good introduction to multidisciplinary approaches to the question of time, see Chrontoypes: The Construction of Time, ed. John Bender and David Wellbery (Stanford, Calif., 1991). A rigorous approach to the question of time would involve an endless detour through the history of philosophy, and the quest for the “truth” about time, its relation to Being with a capital B, to duration and subjective experience, to the objective realities of physics and biology, and the nanoseconds of computational time. It would have to take up time’s ineffability, invisibility, indefinability, its susceptibility to false and misleading metaphors (rivers, arrows, oceans, buildings, cycles, spirals, journeys, clocks). Long detours into Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Henri Bergson, and Martin Heidegger, not to mention ancient philosophy, would be required. And when we were finished with the history of philosophy, we would have to enter an even more tangled, contentious labyrinth known as the philosophy of history, where we would learn that time itself is a recent invention, a “discovery” of Western modernity. And we would still not have broached the fundamental questions of culture and religion, where the timeless, the eternal, and the infinite haunt every thought of time, from the secular invention of centuries as meaningful units, to William Blake’s prophetic “pulsation of the artery” in which “the poet’s work is done,” a moment “equal in its period and value to six thousand years,” the Christian fable of the age of the world from creation to Last Judgment (William Blake, “The Symbolic System,” in The Works of William Blake: Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical, ed. Edwin John Ellis and William Butler Yeats, 2 vols. [London, 1893], 1:278). At the end of this long detour we would find ourselves suspended in Zeno’s paradox of the arrow that never reaches its target because it always has to go halfway before hitting the bullseye. Or we would just be reminded of St. Augustine’s insistence that the question “what is time?” is unanswerable. Like Cacasseno, we do not have time for these detours. We are riding backwards on a horse that may be running away with us, heading for a cliff. What are we seeing? More important, what are the frameworks for our apprehension of the times in which we live?

[16] Hans Blumenberg, “Introduction,” Paradigms for a Metaphorology, trans. Robert Savage (Ithaca, N.Y., 2010), p. 4.

[17] This is where I depart from George Kubler’s otherwise inspiring insights in The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven, Conn., 1962). Kubler believed that “in iconology the word takes precedence over the image. . . . iconology today resembles an index of literary themes arranged by titles of pictures” (p. 127). For further elaboration, see W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago, 1986).

[18] On the limits and potential of this analogy, see Norman Macleod, “Covid-19 Metaphors,” In the Moment, 6 Apr. 2020,

[19] See Mike Davis, “The Coronavirus Crisis Is a Monster Fueled by Capitalism,” In These Times, 20 Mar. 2020,

[20] I owe this thought to Bill Brown.

[21] For a focus on the coincidence of the event of 11 September 2001 with the ongoing biopolitical controversy about cloning, see Mitchell, Image Science: Iconology, Visual Culture, and Media Aesthetics (Chicago, 2015) and Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9-11 to the Present (Chicago, 2011).  

[22] See Joshua Nevett, “George Floyd: The Personal Cost of Filming Police Brutality,” BBC News, 11 June 2020, [url=][/url]

[23] See Gilles Deleuze, The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galtea, vol. 2 of Cinema (Minneapolis, 1989). The temporality of the image has been reinforced by the Italian painter, Luca del Baldo, who has carried out a slow, weeks-long reenactment in a triptych that captures its essential elements—the overall scene, the face of the victim, and the casual expression and gesture of the cop.  

[24] A key to identify the faces in Nelson’s cover is provided in “Kadir Nelson’s ‘Say Their Names,’” The New Yorker, 14 June 2020, [url=][/url]

[25] See Achille Mbembe, “The Universal Right to Breathe,” trans. Carolyn Shread, In the Moment, 13 Apr. 2020, Mbembe wrote about the question of breath before the murder of Floyd.

[26] Benjamin, “N [On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress],” The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), p. 462. For a very useful commentary, see Max Pensky, “Method and Time: Benjamin’s Dialectical Images,” in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, ed. David S. Ferris (New York, 2004), pp. 177–98.

[27] “I can’t breathe” turns out to be the last words of at least seventy black victims of police violence; see Mike Baker, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Manny Fernandez, et al., “Three Words. 70 Cases. The Tragic History of ‘I Can’t Breathe,’” New York Times, 29 June 2020, [url=][/url]

[28] On shame and shamelessness as keys to the affective temporality of the Trump era, see Mitchell, “American Psychosis: Trump and the Nightmare of History,” Seeing through Madness (forthcoming).  

[29] “The times that tried men’s souls” (Thomas Paine, “The Last Crisis. No. XIV,” The American Crisis [London, 1819], p. 187).

[30] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (London, 1958), p. 32. Wittgenstein anticipates the objection that “there is something common to all these constructions—namely the disjunction of all their common properties.” He replies, “Now you are only playing with words” (p. 32).

[31] The lead story was titled “Biden Takes Dominant Lead,” while a sidebar cautioned “A Winner on Election Day in November? Don’t Count on It” (Alexander Burns, Jonathan Martin, and Matt Stevens, “Biden Takes Dominant Lead as Voters Reject Trump on Virus and Race,” New York Times, 24 June 2020, [url=][/url]).

[32] This prediction if, of course, based on nothing but innumerable past experiences and history.  My hope is that it will be mistaken.

[33] Quoted in Kenneth Kicia, “The Perils of Prediction, June 2nd,” The Economist, 15 July 2007, [url='It's%20tough%20to%20make%20predictions,the%20future%E2%80%9D%20by%20Samuel%20Goldwyn]'It's%20tough%20to%20make%20predictions,the%20future%E2%80%9D%20by%20Samuel%20Goldwyn[/url]

[34] This is not in any way to question the importance of clear-eyed predictive sciences, especially the public health programs of prevention and epidemiology that have been so marginalized by Trump’s hostility to science. The history of epochs might be rewritten around the history of epidemics.  

[35] Nietzsche, “Apophthegms and Interludes,” p. 98.

[36] See Mitchell, “American Psychosis,” lecture on the Trump election, University of Geneva, 18 Jan. 2017.

[37] Kubler, “One. The History of Things,” The Shape of Time, p. 15.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Peter Baker, “'Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.’ Didn’t Mean What Trump Hoped It Did,” New York Times, 23 June 2020, [url=][/url]

[40] For Husserl on the epoché, I recommend the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, See also Mitchell, “Groundhog Day and the Epoché,” In the Moment,

[41] See Mbembe, “The Universal Right to Breathe.”

[42] See Scott C. Schwartz, “Interminable Treatment: An Autobiographical Study,” American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 39 (Spring 2011): 209–16.

[43] See Catherine Malabou, “To Quarantine from Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe, and ‘I,’” In the Moment, 23 Mar. 2020,

[44] This insight is generated (as so many others) by yesterday’s news, see Carolyn Randall Williams, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument,” New York Times, 26 June 2020, [url=][/url]

[45] Wikipedia assembles the lore around Aion. The imagery of the twining serpent is connected to the hoop or wheel through the ouroboros, a ring formed by a snake holding the tip of its tail in its mouth. The fourth-century AD Latin commentator Servius notes that the image of a snake biting its tail represents the cyclical nature of the year. In his fifth-century work on hieroglyphics, Horapollo makes a further distinction between a serpent that hides its tail under the rest of its body, which represents Aion, and the ouroboros that represents the kosmos, which is the serpent devouring its tail. This syncretic Aion became a symbol and guarantor of the perpetuity of Roman rule, and emperors such as Antoninus Pius issued coins with the legend Aion, whose female Roman counterpart was Aeternitas.  Roman coins associate both Aion and Aeternitas with the phoenix as a symbol of rebirth and cyclical renewal. Aion was among the virtues and divine personifications that were part of late Hellenic discourse, in which they figure as "creative agents in grand cosmological schemes." The significance of Aion lies in his malleability: he is a "fluid conception" through which various ideas about time and divinity converge in the Hellenistic era, in the context of monotheistic tendencies (Wikipedia, s.v. “Aion [deity],”

[46] Blake, “The Symbolic System,” p. 278.

[47] See “Six Durations of a Split Second: The Killing of Harith Augustus,” an exhibition presented at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, See also Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (New York, 2017).

[48] See Raymond Williams and Michael Orrom, Preface to Film (London, 1954). Williams coined this phrase originally in his Preface to Film (1954) as an alternative to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. See also James K. Chandler’s critical application of Claude Levi-Strauss’s notion of “hot chronologies” (James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism [Chicago, 1999], p. 78). 

[49] One of the “doves” on the upper right appears to be a bird of prey, attacking old Kronos.

[50] My thanks to Bill Brown for bringing this piece to my attention.

[51] Mojo or magic eyes are a regular motif in Betye Saar’s assemblages, which often give the impression of looking back at the viewer. See, for instance, Betye Saar, Mojo Eyes (Spirit Door) (1992), in Betye Saar and Sara Cochran, Betye Saar: Still Tickin’ (exhibition catalog, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, Ariz., 1 May–30 June 2017), pp. 174–75. Doll trunks of about this scale have been around since Victorian times, most recently employed by the American Girl franchise.  

[52] A trunk is of course both a carrying case––a piece of luggage––and also the abdomen of a human body. Saar’s daughter, Alison, has played on this motif with a seated figure (Si j’étais blanc) whose chest has opened cupboard doors that reveal a white heart as an assemblage of broken glass. See plate 3 in Jessica Dallow and Barbara C. Matilsky, Family Legacies: The Art of Betye, Lezley and Alison Saar (Seattle, 2005).

[53] Clocks are a major motif in Saar’s assemblages, sometimes accompanied by scales, with their similar faces and hands indicating weight, as if to comment on the weight of time.  Numerous examples may be found in Saar and Cochran, Betye Saar.  

[54] Hobbling and other forms of crippling were frequent tactics for preventing slaves from running away.

[55] Here it would be useful to compare Kadir Nelson’s magnificent New Yorker cover (22 June 2020) portraying scores of black victims nestled in the chest of Floyd.