Anthropology and Humanism

Violence and Temporal Subjectivity



    1. Department of Anthropology
      University of Wisconsin–Madison
      5420 W. H. Sewell Social Science Building
      1180 Observatory Drive
      Madison, WI 53706
    Search for more papers by this author


Perceptions of temporal malleability and subjectivity are experienced by many perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of violence. Are perceptions of the slowing down, speeding up, or heightened awareness of time, which accompany violent moments, indicative of broader cultural and humanistic phenomena? In this article, I explore accounts of temporal perceptions surrounding violent encounters as a methodologically useful field of intersection between theories concerning the cultural construction of reality, the anthropology of time, simulation, and an emergent holographic physics. If, as a growing number of physicists assert, the universe can be described as a hologram where “time” is illusory and simultaneous, violent events that are perceived as temporally ambiguous offer sites of particular interest for the humanistic examination of these physical models. In other words, the temporal subjectivity often experienced by those who encounter violence can be interpreted as directly perceivable holographic encounters. The perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of such encounters can be viewed not only as interpreters of particular cultural temporal systems but also actively manipulating space–time and socially constructed reality. Interpreting violence through the experience of human agents could lead to greater insight into not only the symbolic meaning generated by acts of violence but also its hyperreal, desensitizing, and dissociative effects. Furthermore, the amplification of these effects by mass media and modern state ideologues becomes more penetrable under such an interpretive model. I draw from ethnographic research with police and “security” personnel in Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States, as well as from media and performance analysis.

It was bartime. . . . What I noticed the most was a small Vietnamese man with a comb-over. He had two black eyes. He was saying something to this woman, and he was clearly saying something offensive to her. . . . And this is when it got slow-motion, I guess. I saw her glance over. She was standing against a hedge, near a planter . . . and I saw her reach over and pull a Tiger beer bottle. It was as if she had everything planned out. So she grabbed it and very gracefully smashed it against the planter and broke it so it was like you see in those movies. It was as if she did it all in one movement. She turned, she grabbed, she broke, and then went at him. In “real-time” it was a matter of a second, but it seemed very slow, and what makes me know that it wasn't slow was that no one else I was with noticed.

—“Li,” a patron at Ho Chi Minh City's “Apocalypse Now” nightclub, September 2007

An increasing number of physicists (Bekenstein 2003; Musser 2002; Pope et al. 2005; Talbot 1981) conceptualize time as an illusory aspect of an eternal present, a sentiment frequently echoed by individuals describing violent encounters. In this eternal moment, Kelly Woody sits at his desk at a dairy-processing supply business on NW 6th Street in Oklahoma City, blocks away from the exploding Federal Building, on April 19, 1995. “It seemed like everything was in slow motion,” Kelly is saying, “I was watching the ceiling tiles fall, and hit the floor and break apart” (Brus 1995). In this same unus mundus (Franz 1974:15; Jung 1969), Dr. “Pongchit” witnesses a hostage incident in Thailand's Ratchaburi Hospital in 1999 on Thailand's Armed Forces Day. Her experience contradicts reports of a brave shoot-out between Thailand's Arintaraj SWAT team and the Karen “God's Army” hostage takers: “I knew (the police) were there before they came down the hall,” she says, “They walked them in that room, the hands tied behind their back like in movies. They put them in a circle. Shot them like this [mimes shooting an imaginary firearm downward]” (September 2003). “Bracey,” a bouncer at a Washington, D.C., disco, sees a woman break a beer bottle and use it to slash another woman's face: “Even before the blood, it was, like, out there,” he says. “Slow motion . . . cosmic, y'know what I'm sayin'?” (December 1996).

All of these witnesses report experiences of tachypsychia, the distortion of perceived time that often accompanies violent or traumatic encounters (Ayoob 1983). Tachypsychia is one of a host of effects often explained exclusively as “fight-or-flight” responses, which reduce the complex and deeply personal human experiences of violence to instinctual reactions and neurochemical responses. I argue that perceived temporal “distortions” reported during violent encounters are not purely the result of biophysical processes, but indicate the subjectivity of our perceptions of time itself. New understandings in physics, specifically models describing a holographic paradigm and its associative temporal subjectivities, offer emerging insight into these perceptions. Furthermore, the intersection between these theoretical models and the temporal subjectivities experienced during violent encounters serves as a site of methodological utility to anthropologists examining a neo-Durkheimian “social time” that is simultaneous, spontaneous, and notoriously elusive in ethnographic inquiry (Cerwonka and Malkki 2007:177; Greenhouse 1996; Hoskins 1993; Munn 1992).

To experience violence is to encounter the ambiguous and tenuous probabilities separating life from death. As Janet Hoskins writes, “The cultural value placed on time begins with the shared significance of our own mortality” (1993:ix). Carol Greenhouse counters that Western social order is naturalized by the asserted significance of death's universality (1996:4). From a Western perspective, couched in the Christian cosmology of judgment, the vitality of human experience and its contrast to death is one possible link to perceived temporal subjectivities experienced during violent events. Augusto Pescador writes: “Living derives one instant, dying, and from that instant derives eternity, death. Living is time, dying a moment; life is limited, death eternal” (Pescador 1973:146). This contemplated anticipation of death is a particular cultural construction erected in the Western “logic” of linear time (Greenhouse 1996:34–35; Humphreys 1981). Nevertheless, violent encounters produce confrontations with individual consciousness, as well as with cultural constructions of time. Experientially based accounts of perceived temporal ambiguity stand in direct contrast to mass-mediated depictions of violent human automatons enslaved to the instinctually ingrained mandate of “fight or flight.”

Humanistic Approaches to Perceptions of Temporal Violence: Beyond “Fight or Flight”

In recollections and memorializations of violent events, experiences of directly perceivable temporal subjectivity abound. Kelly Woody's account of slow-motion time perceptions in Oklahoma City is echoed by the design of the memorial that commemorates the bombing (see Figure 1). Under a “remarkable community consensus,” the winning design for the memorial is titled the “Gates of Time.” A visitor's guide describes the design:

Figure 1.

A spatially distorted panorama of the “Gates of Time” memorial, Oklahoma City, OK. Photo by author, August 31, 2006.

Monumental twin gates frame the moment of destruction—9:02—and mark the formal entrances to the Memorial. The East Gate represents 9:01 on April 19. This gate marks the innocence of the city before the attack. The West Gate represents 9:03, the moment we were changed forever, and the hope that came from the horror in the moments and days following the bombing. [2006]

Between these monumental stone edifices, a long, shallow reflecting pool lies over what was once NW 5th Street. Rather than allow visitors to create their own symbolic relationship with the memorial, the pamphlet suggests, “Visitors may see their own reflection, a face of someone changed forever.” As Greenhouse notes, following Goethe's famous example of an Italian court clerk's hourglass (1962:84–85), “when the state ‘speaks,’ time stops” (1996:19). Like Goethe's “little Saturn” hourglass, the Oklahoma City memorial is “a technology of metonymy, each tip of it an assertion of the reality of time in relation to eternity” (Greenhouse 1996:19).

A message literally carved in stone on the gates also discourages personal interpretation. The words are taken from the Memorial Mission Statement preamble, authored by state agents:




(Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation 1996)

This single reified memorialization is illuminated 24 hours a day. On postcards and pamphlets, this statement bears the mark of the copyright, “©.” Not only do memorial planners and state agents want visitors to be “changed forever” and to “KNOW THE IMPACT OF VIOLENCE” but they also claim ownership and profit from this violence, their message carved and copyrighted in stone on the Gates of Time. This institutional commoditization of time is a familiar subject of anthropological inquiry (Comaroff 1991; Foucault 1977; Giddens 1981:98; Lansing 1991; Munn 1992:110; Starkey 1988; Toulmin and Goodfield 1965; Zerubavel 1981). Greenhouse continues, “Time may seem to be about death, but in the West, ‘death’ is also part of the hermeneutics of the state, which claims the monopoly over legitimate violence—death being the West's master metaphor of power and control” (1996:49).

The federal agents in Oklahoma City are trained by a burgeoning criminal justice industrial complex of consultants, trainers, and experts. Law enforcement officials throughout the world are trained by individuals such as Massad Ayoob, director of the Lethal Force Institute in Concord, New Hampshire. Ayoob is a captain in the Grantham Police Department in New Hampshire, and is the creator of a popular police training video entitled Physio-Psychological Aspects of Violent Encounters (1983). On a video sales website, police martial arts trainer Marc “Animal”MacYoung writes of Ayoob: “Mas pioneered the field of adrenal stress response and perceptual alterations that accompany violence. This is information that you will need not only to survive the incident but to defend your actions in court when an attorney attempts to make it sound like you over-reacted” (2008). In this video, as well as in his training seminars, Ayoob describes ten “perceptual alterations,” explained solely as the result of adrenal stress response:

  • Tachypsychia: The distortion of perceived time, either faster or slower than normal.

  • Tunnel vision: A restriction of visual perception to “the deadly threat,” which excludes ordinary peripheral vision.

  • Auditory exclusion: Focusing on one particular set of sounds while excluding other sounds (1983).

  • Precognition: A perception of knowing something will happen before it is seen or heard. This is commonly called a “sixth sense,” which Ayoob notes is “a good phrase to avoid.”

  • Denial response: A refusal to believe a situation or one's reaction to a situation.

  • Amaurosis fugax: Temporary blindness or “visual white out.”

  • Psychological splitting: The perception of watching oneself do something.

  • Excorporation: An out-of-body experience, which Ayoob calls “the highest manifestation of psychological splitting. . . . In this state, the mind can generate 3-D images from sounds and recollected sights.”

  • State of fugue: A “somnambulant, zombie-like state.”

  • Cognitive dissonance: Remembering things out of sequence, a focus on trivial perceptions, and a loss of important short-term memories (1983).

Like the “fight-or-flight” concept, first coined by Harvard's Dr. Walter Cannon in 1915, these numerous effects are rationalized entirely as responses of the sympathetic nervous system (Cannon and Cranefield 1915). Proponents of the biomedical approach to human behavior theorize that these responses are holdovers from our evolutionary past (Dawkins 1976; Pinker 2002; Wilson 1975). This canonical viewpoint posits that the human animal is entirely subject to chemical and biological responses ingrained in our origins as monkeys, fish, and other fearful ancestors of the phylogenetic tree. A closer examination of the accounts of human experiences of the so-called “fight-or-flight” response reveals something far more profound than the instinctual reaction of threatened beasts. For example, a police sniper on the Narasuan Border Patrol Police SWAT team in Thailand related an experience, some aspects of which will be familiar to readers of the massive popular literature of long-range technologically assisted death: “I knew I had to do my duty. I didn't want to pull the trigger. Many people want to kill others. I saw his eyes. I never experienced what the monks describe as astral travel [until this incident]. I saw myself lying there prone with the rifle. I saw myself firing. I was not the person doing the killing” (personal communication, Pol. Sub. Lt. “Jote,” August 2003).

Visual ethnographer David Perlmutter theorizes that mass-mediated representations of policing are marked by the compression of time and the “comprehensive vision” of the audience, which wields “godlike powers of observation” over police activities (2000:50). In the above case, this vision is granted to ethnographer, reader, and state agent alike. The officer's account is contextualized in terms that are both culturally specific to Theravada Buddhism and representations of the all-seeing sniper in mass-mediated space–time (Agha 2007). It is relatively easy to explain some of the phenomena described by Ayoob's “perceptual alterations,” such as tunnel vision and visual whiteout, as entirely the result of chemicals released into the body by the autonomic nervous system. It is more difficult to explain the dissociative out-of-body experience described by Pol. Sub. Lt. “Jote.” These complications point to deeply personal human experiences entirely unexplained by Cannon's “fight-or-flight” reactions. These experiences offer particularly useful sites of culturally particular ethnographic inquiry.

Narratives of Temporally Subjective Violence as Ethno-upaya (method)

Many of the effects described above are familiar to those with experiences of vehicular accidents, military service, or the myriad life-or-death situations encountered in the Hobbsian hellscape of modernity. Each of these encounters shares an unrepresentable and indescribable relationship to temporal human subjectivity. Put simply, violent encounters are intrinsically personal experiences. Narratives of these encounters contribute to the understanding of social time as a site of human agency, resistance, and creativity (Lubkemann 2008; Lukacher 1998). These narratives also challenge the binary-based dominance of linear time. For example, Renato Rosaldo's analysis of Ilongot head-hunting, in which the spaces (locales) of violence serve as temporal “events,” occupies similar spatiotemporal terrain as liberation Hindu scripture (1980). Like Ilongot spatial narratives of the taking of heads, the Bhagavad Gita is set on the field of battle prior to the clash of Arjuna's armies, with armies made up of his own relatives, friends, and teachers (Swarupananda 1956). This violent but deeply personal context serves as the basis for both the Ilongot narratives of time and the Gita's upaya (method) of human transcendence.

For the anthropologist, violence offers a similar upaya as a particularly meaningful site of methodological inquiry. However, it should be made explicit that this is not an argument for invoking, advocating, or seeking violent encounters to achieve academic legitimacy based on the suffering and death of others. On the contrary, a nuanced humanistic approach to violence enriches cultural understanding, as demonstrated by many of the anthropologists associated with this publication (Darling 1998; Hinton 2005; Nordstrom 2004; Santos-Granero 2002; Scheper-Hughes 1992; Whitehead 2002). Specifically, the lens of violence is a method of interpreting the subjectivity and relativity of time itself. Thus the ethnographic utility of violent encounters, in particular those experienced directly, is the way in which they lend themselves to ongoing methodological explorations and anthropological improvisations (Cerwonka and Malkki 2007). The sense of temporal malleability expressed so frequently by those who encounter violence is a zone of inquiry from which to explore “the problem of time” in anthropology (Munn 1992:116).

As anthropologists continue to grapple with transdisciplinary concepts of time (Bender and Wellbery 1991), the difficulties of studying concepts so fraught with elusiveness and ambiguity are only more apparent. Alfred Gell laments that temporal subjectivity can be expressed only through contrastive terms, and that subjective estimates of temporal duration are intrinsically illusory. He writes: “One could say that illusions of elongated and contracted durations were not illusions at all, but the truth. In that case, however, there is nothing to see, nothing to say, nothing to be at all surprised at except the multiplication of time dimensions” (Gell 1992:61).

However, this “infinite reproduction” (Munn 1992:116) is the precise theoretical context for “social time.” The Durkheimian footnote that created anthropological constructions of social time (1915) is situated precisely at the intersection of individual experience and cultural constructions of temporality. The fractal traumatic moment penetrates the daily collective construction of time through a usurpation of ordinary temporal reckoning. In other words, the types of ethnographic examples I explore above challenge the “vivid present” (Schutz 1962:220) of ordinary cultural constructions of time while remaining a vital human creation of intersubjectivity (Munn 1992:98–99). Thus, ethnographic examinations of the subjectivity of violent instants and the memories surrounding them offer contextual complexity to the further integration of history, memory, and anthropology (Fabian 1983; Friedman and Friedman 2008; Halbwachs 1980; Hastrup 1992; Nagy 2006; Ohnuki-Tierney 1990; Parmentier 1987; Thomas 1989).

Anthropology and the Paradigms of the Physical Sciences

These ethnographic examinations of culturally constructed time are reflections of long-standing relationships between anthropology and the physical science paradigms. In historical and contemporary ethnographies, there is a direct relationship between physical science paradigms and anthropological trends (Adam 1990). Significantly, major anthropological examinations of time actively avoid or reject comparisons with temporal models from physics and astronomy (Gell 1992:69; Greenhouse 1996:1), with a notable exception (Aveni 2002). However, there is an inherent relationship of ethnographic productivity continuously emerging from “physical science” temporal modeling. Newtonian mechanics informed the Enlightenment-era positivism that in many cases still dominates the social “sciences.” Darwinian evolution pervaded the thoughts of Morgan, Tylor, Frazer, and countless other cultural evolutionists. This evolutionary legacy was continued by Marx, who emphasized the linear progressive transformation of social forms (Greenhouse 1996:2). Various manifestations of structuralism fell out of favor as research in nonstructural quantum mechanics grew in relevance and popular stature, presaged by Durkheim's heterogeneous and simultaneous “collective representations” of social time (Durkheim 1915; Munn 1992:94–95). Similarly, it is difficult to view postmodern trends of anthropology divorced from the context of a “new physics” offering chaos, quantum uncertainty, and holographic reality (Harvey 1989).

Anthropologists Fran Mascia-Lees and Jeff Himpele reacquainted their colleagues with the possibilities of an “anthropological physics” in a recent article in Anthropology News (2006). For the purposes of this paper, I can make only cursory references to the growing body of literature describing the holographic paradigm, and can allude only briefly to how these ideas relate to anthropologies of violence and temporality. Jorge Luis Borges writes: “Let us admit what all idealists admit—the hallucinatory nature of the world. Let us do what no idealist has done—let us search for unrealities that confirm this nature” (1964:114). Taking this literary cue, Michael Talbot explores an “omnijective” universe in which a division between consciousness and reality, and an objective concept of time, does not exist (1992). In the context of the links between physical paradigms and social theory, what is the Baudrillardian simulacrum (1994) but another facet, another beam of light that is both particle and wave, off the laser surface of holographic physics?

In 1982, a team of University of Paris physicists led by Alain Aspect proved experimentally that, under certain circumstances, subatomic particles correlated wave functions or “communicated” instantaneously across arbitrarily large distances, from several feet to billions of miles (Aspect et al. 1982). This experiment seemingly violated Einstein's tenet that no communication is possible at a speed faster than the speed of light. University of London physicist David Bohm (1957) then took Aspect's work to propose that “objective” reality does not exist, and the universe can be described as an infinitely detailed hologram. A hologram is a three-dimensional photograph made when an object is bathed in laser light, a second beam of laser light is directed toward the reflected light of the first, and the interference pattern created by the two beams is recorded on film. In holographic photography, if an image is cut into parts, the resulting pieces still contain the entire original image. In Bohm's model, just as every part of a holographic image contains the image of the whole, every part of the universe contains the entirety of the past, future, and cosmos as a whole (1957:50). This concept is exemplified in William Blake's famous poem “Auguries of Innocence”:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour. [Gilchrist 1969:107]

In experiments using atomic clocks to measure relative changes in time because of speed or the increased atmospheric pressure, forward time travel can be proven experimentally. If, for example, one travels in a commercial airline at 920 kilometers an hour for eight hours, the cumulative time lag, relative to the inertial reference frame, is measured at ten nanoseconds (Gott 2001). Importantly, one of the central ways in which physicists such as the University of Cambridge's Stephen Hawking, using what is called a “chronology protection conjecture,” attempt to prove that travel back in time is impossible is by referring to paradoxes related to violence, usually involving fratricide or matricide. In the “mother paradox,” for example, a time traveler who travels into the past and murders his mother when she was a young girl makes it impossible for the traveler to be born.

A paradox hidden within the mother paradox might be why killing a child would be the central motive of a person holding the knowledge and ability to travel backward in time. Nevertheless, questions of violence are intimately related to the paradoxes of physics, including the holographic paradigm. Bohm argues in Causality and Chance in Modern Physics (1957) that most effects have an infinite number of causes, rather than one or several. He contextualizes this argument by citing the nearly infinite number of causes involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In addition to the bullet that is singularly responsible in most descriptions of the assassination, Booth's motivations, the entire history of firearms, and the evolutionary development of a human hand capable of carrying a gun could be considered additional causal factors. Bohm argues, using the example of this infamous violent encounter, that there is no single cause–effect relationship separate from the universe as a whole (Talbot 1981:40).

Violence, Human Experience, and the Holographic Paradigm

In the holographic paradigm, then, there exists an interpretive model for tachypsychia and the range of temporally related experiential phenomena surrounding incidents of violence. In one such incident, a police officer experiences a sense of hyperreality familiar to monks, mystics, and psychedelic travelers. He describes the following scene mediated through the lens of a violent encounter:

The suspect appeared to crumple in slow motion and I was running so fast behind him, I had to jump over him as he fell. It seemed as if I was jumping over the moon and was wondering when and if I would ever land. I remember turning around after finally coming back to earth. . . . I could see every drop of blood. Though other officers were about fifty meters away, I felt as though I was by myself for many minutes. [March 2003]

Anthropologist and former police officer John Van Maanen, in Tales of the Field, describes a similar “slow-motion” chase by paraphrasing William James's observation of “time stretching out when events conspire to slow it down” (1988). James himself conducted a number of experiments with ether and nitrous oxide intoxication, using diluted amounts of these chemicals to stimulate his consciousness into “mystical” experience. He writes:

One conclusion was forced upon my mind at the time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it—parted from it by the filmiest of screens—there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness. [James 1902:305]

Perhaps violent encounters serve as portals beyond this flimsy screen, and beyond the illusion of time itself.