We have seen that there is a new kind of narrative structure emerging. This structure uses symbols to create meaning out of the story and therefore deliver a message. One of this is time.
Let’s start looking at two books: The End of Time by Julian Barbour and Brain, Symbol & Experience: Towards a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness by Laughlin.
Since they are complex, beautiful books, I will need synthesize just some main concepts that connects with narrative, and leave many things out. I suggest to read them if you want to go into details of their theories.
In the End of Time, Barbour starts from the theories of time by Newton and Boltzamn:
1. Newton theorizes that time is an abstract line with direction, because space and time “are bound up to each other in accordance with definite laws of motion which govern the speed and direction of the bodies in that space as measured by absolute time. […] Newton believed that God ‘set up’ (created) the universe at some time in the past by placing objects in absolute space with definite motions; after that the laws of motion took over”. Therefore, Newton makes a clear distinction between past, present and future, they are different entities that you can clearly separate and in theory go to if you can crack how to use the laws of motion to help you move back to that specific period of space/time.
2. Bolztman theorizes that time is an abstract line without direction, as Newton he thinks that space and the laws of motions are fundamental but the line of time can go in both directions. It is the conscious being that experiencing time and motion, no matter the direction, become aware of the passing of time, no matter in which direction is going.
Barbour argues that there is no line at all.
He theorize that time it is created by the brain trough experiencing a series of tri-dimensional snapshot, instants of time he defines as Now. Space and his rules are the glue that hold all things together, but it is not directly connected to time, is just what makes this snapshot possible; but is our brain that create a meaning out of these. We are aware of the passing of time because we, as conscious being, create it.
“This proposal is not so very different from Boltzamann’s idea that the sense of motion is created from several qualitatively different patterns arranged along the ‘line of time’. Instead, I am suggesting that it is created by the brain from juxtaposition of several sub-patterns within one pattern.”
To understand how the brain is able to create time we need to look at the Brain, Symbol & Experience: Towards a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness.
In the book the authors describes consciousness as an intentional process made by the nervous system.
“Conscious network, being entrained in a dialectic field arising between frontal intentional process and sensorium, is always organized abut some object (be that a thing, quality, feeling, idea or process”
The nervous system receive a series of “input” and elaborate them automatically. He associate them and then, thanks to the act of contemplation, the cognitive-perceptual organization of what we experience, we are conscious of what we just experienced.
Moreover, consciousness is a symbolic process ”by which a totality of cognitive associations comes together about the object as focus.”
Therefore “assuming control over much of the conditioned learning (semiosis) required to assure the proper associations are entrained to the object” allows to “control the recognized environments and behaviors of group members by manipulate objects as symbol”.
Symbols allows us to give meaning to what we experience, like language that allows us to understand and define what we see and helps us communicate with other.
Knitting together Brain, Symbol & Experience: Towards a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness and The End Of Time, we realize that time Time is one of those symbols.
We created time to understand what we are experiencing everyday. It is through this semiosis of time we created, that we feel and understand the difference between past, present and future, the flow of time, exc. But those are not real, they are just the product of our brain. What it is real are the experiences, the nows that our brain knit together.
Symbols have been heavily used in narrative, especially in spoken, written and visual forms. They serves as narrative devices, hinting the audience to understand what’s happening, guiding them towards catharsis.
Symbols are also used to mislead the audience. In Westworld, for example, in the Pilot we hear Bernard asking to Dolores about the guest and then we see Teddy. Our brain knit together the word guest with the character of Teddy, so we believe he is a guest, a human being. We will found a few minutes later, that he is a host, a robot, and not a guest. This allows the screenwriter to use symbols as narrative devices; entraining “wrong” associations to character and events, and then reveal the “correct” association, creating catharsis.
No, let’s see how and why post nolinear narratives uses time as a symbol.
We have to start looking at how time is used differently between nonlinear and post nonlinear narratives. We will compare the movie Memento to the TV show Westworld.
In Memento, written by Cristopher on a short story written by Jonathan, we have two timeline crossing each other: one in color and one in black-and-white. The color sequences are alternated with black-and-white sequences. The latter are put together in chronological order. The color ones, though shown forward (except for the very first one) are ordered in reverse. Chronologically, the black-and-white sequences come first, the color sequences come next. Even though tricky, this nonlinear structure does not get get rid of time, we know that there is a flashback and a present intertwined with each other. We can understand that there is a progression, even though the screenwriter fools us showing a flash-forward as a flashback. In Memento, time is not a symbol to create meaning, but a technique to impress and challenge the audience.
In Westworld, instead, we are not aware, not until the end of the first season, that we are seeing different timelines. We are led to believe that we are seeing different events happening at the same time, each with its own progression.
Jonathan Nolan says:
“We were layering this idea of a nonlinear experience experienced linearly.”
When at the end of the season we found out that some of the events are flashbacks and other are set in the present, something interesting happens. We realize that we do not need to know the difference between present and past to have a linear experience, to give meaning out of something. Yes, in the end the screenwriter helps us understand what is past and what is present but he does it through the events themselves, using time as a symbol, and not trough an explicit explanation. He also does it for two main reason:
1. He wants to teach us how to overcome narrative collapse revealing that we can create time and a story out of an experience. Doing so, he shows us that we need to stop focusing just on the on the present. We need to stop consuming our experiences, discarding them after they happened, but cherish them, remember them, because is the sum of our moment that makes us who we are.
2. The plot and the character arc needs to move forward and we need catharsis.
Nevertheless, the important thing is what we experience before that revelation. Our brain, during the first season, is able to put all the pieces together, to understand that the different timelines are connected, that one is the progression of the other. This proves us that we do not need to know the difference between present, past or future. Our brain create meaning ( and time progression) out of the timeless event we see on screen.
Understood this difference, let’s see at one other example of how time is used a symbol in post nonlinear narrative structure, this time also interactive.
In The Legend Of Zelda Breath Of The Wild, the user controls Link, a warrior that just woke up after 100 years of hibernation. Very little information are given to the player at the beginning of the game, just little bits of the plot and some suggestions. From there, the progression of the game can be decided by the user, whom can do anything he wants. The interesting thing is that the plot of the game is not told but recollected by the player, that needs to find memories scattered trough the world and knit them together. Those memories are “timeless” event, you don’t know when they happened, you don’t know which one came before and which one after. While you collect them you start to put the pieces together and figure out the timeline. It’s the same procedure that our brain does when he knits together nows and create time.
In the end, we can say that in the post nonlinear narratives, time is a symbol used to create meaning out of “timeless” event that the audience have to knit together. The plot progress only after this process. This is why in forms like TV Shows and movies, that requires catharsis and to have an ending, the author makes sure that the proper associations are entrained to the “timeless” event; instead, in the interactive post nonlinear narratives, where there is no immediate need to end the plot and the gameplay itself give catharsis, it is the player that entrains the proper associations to the “timeless” event.
This process applies also to other symbols used in post nonlinear narratives, and in the next articles we will see at some examples.