Bergson and the Invention of Time

By Sam Berlin

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson (1911, p.342) notes that physics can only describe time using the ‘cinematic method’ – our ability to understand and reference time is limited to representations. These representations form the basis of human relationships with time and constitute the lived experience of it. We are unable to approach time ‘out there’ except obliquely, through biological capacities, the deployment of linguistic tools such as description and metaphor, and technological mediations. Because these are all that is directly available to us, biological rhythms and cues, metaphors of time, and technologies become time to us.

These phenomena – time and its representations and mediations – are the subject of the MSc unit Geographies of Time and Timing. While it may seem counterintuitive that time could be an area of geographical enquiry, not only is the human experience of space intimately interlinked with our experience of time, but the ways we experience time – those mediations and representations – themselves have complicated histories and geographies. As social scientists, it is important for human geographers to understand time as it is experienced in order to understand how sociality occurs in respect to the persistent march of time.

What follows in an excerpt from a paper I wrote for the Time and Timing unit about the relationship between physical time and how time is lived and represented within human societies and human bodies. In this excerpt, I discuss the relationship between ‘objective’ (physical) time and consciousness, and the ways that time is experienced through memory, intuition and sense. It is the need for these processes to apprehend time that underpinned the development of the representations of time that we take for granted today.


Time ‘out there’

Lived, human time is built both on the basis of (and as a tool for approaching) a pre-existing physical time – what is referred to as ‘B-series’ or ‘objective’ time (Bear 2014, p.16; Hodges 2008, p.404). B-series time is invisible and impossible to isolate. It is fundamentally inaccessible and not directly observable, and as a result, it can only be known theoretically, through physics and philosophy (Nuñez and Cooperrider 2013).

Contemporary philosophies of time are highly influenced by the work of Bergson, alongside Deleuze’s later elaboration of his ideas. Time in the Bergsonian/Deleuzian tradition differs from conventional conceptions of time in that it is neither synchronic nor cyclical. Instead, time is based on ‘durations’, or periods of present existence, from which other times emanate. Understood this way, time can be seen to be both singular (fleeting ‘real’ presents) and infinitely multiple (Hodges 2008).

The infinite span of time, its multiplicity, is a result of the ‘virtuality’ of time, or the infinite range of possible futures that emerge from the present. Like the future, the past is also manifested as virtualities in the present, as it persists through the present as memory. The result of understanding both the past and future as virtualities in the present is that the distinction between the past, present, and future becomes difficult to maintain, as all exist at the same point in time (Hodges 2008).

Phenomenological time

Bergsonian time relies on the existence of a world ‘out there’ that is fundamentally real as it is perceived. Whether the outside world is real or not is unknowable, and thus a moot point in day-to-day life. Phenomenological accounts of time thus focus on time of the perceived world as it exists in consciousness.

Husserl’s description of time consciousness is one such account. According to Husserl, time is a medium across which consciousness maintains itself. It does this through a continuity of mental acts of ‘impression’, ‘retention’, and ‘protention’ (Gallagher and Varela 2003, p.114). The objects of this cycle are both that which is perceived and consciousness itself, and from a phenomenological perspective, the cycle constitutes both.

It is this recursion through time that consciousness organises itself along. Consciousness must be able to refer not just to the (fleeting) present, but also the past and the future to complete practically any task (Gallagher and Varela 2003, pp.113-116). For example, catching a ball requires knowing where it is now (in the present) and where it just was (in the past) in order to decide where it will soon be at the point of catching it (in the future). Impressions of the ball’s path, made in the recently-present-but-now-past, are continually retained in ever-elapsing present moments (incessantly becoming past) in order to portend another soon-to-arrive present (the future), so as to prepare for it. This parallels the Bergsonian/Deleuzian model of time described above, in that the past and the future are both located in the present as the virtualities of memory and intention.

The functioning of consciousness is an extension of this process, complicated by its composition as an enormous array of smaller, synchronised phenomenological time cycles that function across a range of scales (such as short-term, long-term, and historical memory). These processes must be coordinated in time in order to maintain the synchronicity required by the mind and body to function. This results from the ‘double intentionality’ that forms a part of this cycle of applied memory (Gallagher and Varela 2003, p.115). In preparing for the future, we do not only retain the object of perception in our passing presents, but also a meta-awareness of our awareness of the object, and thus remain conscious of our presence in our perception of time. The retention of this awareness is the raw material for both our consciousness of time and consciousness itself. Self-consciousness and time-consciousness converge, emphasising two parts of the phenomena of perception and retention against a backdrop of ceaseless change (and ceaseless inputs), while ‘meta’ time-consciousness provides the framework time-consciousness needs to continue.


Movement and time-space

These accounts of time-consciousness are dependent on memory and the ability to carry out comparisons in real time. We are constantly invoking memory (at various levels) in order to judge change and movement. I know I’ve caught the ball because it is in my hand now and it wasn’t before. I heard it hit my hand, though now there is no sound. I feel it in my hand, where before there was emptiness. I saw it in the air; I see it in my palm. Every part of this consciousness involves a comparison of past and present, the past only accessible through memory.

Comparison relies on memory, and memory relies on the senses. We are only able to remember that which has entered our minds, and everything that enters our minds from our environments does so by means of the senses. As a result, perception of time in the external world cannot be separated from sensory input. Perceiving time is, in fact, the same process as sensing movement and change; time itself is elusive.

Because movement and time are perceived (and lived) in the same way, perception of time in the external world cannot be distinguished from perceptions of space, as being ‘in time’ is intuited from movement and stillness in space (May and Thrift 2001).  If the world and everything on it ceased moving, we would be ‘frozen in time’. Whether ‘real’ physical time ‘out there’ had stopped would be unknowable. Subjective time, however, would end, as experience itself would become impossible.

Conclusion: phenomenology and ‘objective’ time

‘Objective’ B-series time is, by definition, independent of human beings to the degree of complete inaccessibility. It would be very anthropocentric to assume that, with the passing of the human race, so would go a fundamental physical building-block of the universe. But from a phenomenological perspective (in which our time-sense is located), this is exactly what might happen, as we have no way of ascertaining whether B-series time or the rest of the world ‘out there’ really exists or not.

This may seem to be an invocation of philosophy where it doesn’t belong, since as far as everyday life is concerned, the world ‘out there’ is real enough, and there are few better alternative explanations for us to fall back on. But upon deeper inspection into the realities of human time-senses and time cultures, phenomenology is revealed not to be a distraction, but rather a central question to what ‘objective’ time is, as from our perspective, there is no other observable existence to B-series time except as it exists to us. Aside from theoretical physics or schemas that simply replace time with movement (Merriman 2011), though indirect, phenomenological experience is our only way of approximately observing time.  In this respect, ‘objective’ time refers to a series of explanations of an unknowable facet of reality – human invention rather than that reality itself.



Bear, L. (2014) Doubt, conflict, mediation: the anthropology of modern time. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 20 (S1), 3-30.

Bergson, H. (1911) Creative Evolution. New York: Camelot Press.

Gallagher, S. and Varela, F. (2013) Redrawing the Map and Resetting the Time: Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 33 (S1), 93-132.

Hodges, M. (2008) Rethinking time’s arrow: Bergson, Deleuze and the anthropology of time. Anthropological Theory, 8 (4), 399-429.

May, J. and Thrift, N. (2001) Introduction. In: J. May and N. Thrift, eds. Timespace: Geographies of Temporality. London: Routledge.

Merriman, P. (2011) Human geography without time-space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37 (1), 13-27.

Nuñez, R. and Cooperrider, K. (2013) The tangle of space and time in human cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17 (5), 220-229.


Further reading

Deleuze, G. (1988) Bergsonism. New York: Zone Books.

Glennie, P. and Thrift, N. (2009) Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackenzie, A. (2001) The Technicity of Time: From 1.00 oscillations/sec to 9,192,631,770 Hz. Time and Society, 10, 235-257.


Is Deleuzian urban planning possible?

By Catherine Midwood

The ‘Theorizing Society and Space’ course we take as part of the MSc in Society & Space centres on reading and discussing prominent theorists who have written on the relationships between society and space. One of these theorists is Gilles Deleuze, an important philosopher for contemporary cultural geography. His work on politics, space and subjectivity, sometimes co-authored with Felix Guattari, is a key part of the course, which has gone on to inform my PhD research. In my research I use a Deleuzian lens to engage with city spaces, temporary urbanism, and subjectivity. This blog essay outlines the potentials and problematics of Deleuze and Guattari’s work as applied to the discipline of urban planning.

In her book on Gilles Deleuze, Claire Colebrook states that ‘Deleuze’s great problem and contribution was his insistence, in opposition to structuralism, on difference and becoming’ (2001: 2). Through the course of his work, Deleuze developed an ontology in opposition to many of the structures and ideas that had been long-held by the continental philosophical tradition. As many different areas engage with his ideas, questions have been asked of how to use his philosophy practically in order to open up new ways of thinking and acting in the world.


A climate change ready park: Tåsinge Plads in Copenhagen, photo credit David Buchmann.

One realm where such questions have been raised is urban planning. For example, Professor Jean Hillier from the School of Global, Urban & Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, works with Deleuzian ideas and concepts to demonstrate what Deleuzian urban planning could be like and how it could benefit the discipline. Mainly, she emphasises that Deleuzian planning should move away from strictly defined, prearranged uses of urban spaces and towards the idea of ‘planning and planners as experiments or speculations entangled in a series of contingent, networked relationships’ (2008: 26). Her argument is that urban planning needs to move away from an ontology of being and towards an ontology of becoming. The Deleuzian idea of becoming is not one of movement between two fixed points: becoming does not have a defined end point. Instead, as Cliff Stagoll defines it, it can ‘be conceived of as the eternal, productive return of difference’ (in Parr, 2005: 22). Hillier’s work emphasises that planners must be open to the ways in which various bodies, both human and non-human, relate to the urban environment and interact with it in potentially unexpected ways. This is Deleuzian in that it attempts to liberate planning from defining and structuring urban space by remaining open to what could happen; open to the productive return of difference.

However, for me Hillier’s work does not go far enough to engage with Deleuze’s ideas. Where Hillier points out that ‘Deleuze’s philosophy appears to fit neatly with interpretations of the world as complex systems’ (2010: 873), she rather simplifies his thinking, forcing it into the hierarchy and structure that he was arguing against. Although she emphasises the importance of becoming, non-human actors, and so on, it could be said that in her attempt to use Deleuze practically, she is dulling his radical side. Following this particular criticism of Hillier along with other urban planners, Mark Purcell (2013) calls for urban planning to engage first-hand with the primary texts of Deleuze, and of Deleuze and Guattari, rather than diluting the revolutionary aspects of the work in order to ‘make them more palatable to existing norms and structures’ (Purcell, 2013: 22). I tend to agree with Purcell that interpreting Deleuze and Guattari in the way that Hillier does results in an appearance of picking and choosing what is most palatable from their work, thus misusing them entirely. However, I also acknowledge that their anti-planning stance makes them a puzzling choice for invigorating urban planning. The two just don’t seem to fit together. How can urban planning, which by its existence requires some sort of hierarchical structure in order to get anything done, engage with Deleuzoguattarian ideas? Could this ever work in practice?


Stormwater drains: Tåsinge Plads in Copenhagen, photo credit Orbicon.

Therefore, perhaps Jean Hillier’s interpretation and application of Deleuze in urban planning is a practical step forward. Certainly, following an ontology of becoming by accepting the world as ever-changing and processual seems like a positive step when thinking about the future of our built environment. In a Copenhagen neighbourhood there is a park, Tåsinge Plads, which is ‘prepared’, in a sense, for climate change: ‘the flowerbeds fill with water and wait to drain until the storm runoff subsides. The upside-down umbrellas collect water to be used later to nourish the plantings. And clever landscaping directs stormwater down into large underground water storage tanks’ (Cathcart-Keays for Citiscope, 2016). This demonstrates an openness to becoming and difference in the world as it has been built with the material capacity to relate to heavy rainfall in more beneficial ways than other urban spaces that do. I would argue that the design of the park can be interpreted as urban planning from an ontology of becoming because it also anticipates the unknown future we will face as a result of climate change. It is open to the potential that could happen.

However, I do think there are ways for urban development to follow Deleuze and Guattari more closely and fully. Their anarchic spirit does not shine through in Hillier’s work or examples such as Tåsinge Plads. My PhD research explores temporary urbanism as a potential way that Deleuzoguattarian ideas can be experimented with in urban spaces. These temporary interventions – whether that be in the form of guerrilla gardening, yarn bombing, picnic benches appearing in unexpected places, writing or drawing on buildings and pavements –show us that ‘such practices so contest the power of authorities to dictate the uses of urban space’ (Iveson, 2013: 954). Poet Hakim Bey termed these spaces ‘temporary autonomous zones’ (1991). They force a rupture in the state-planned city and demonstrate that nothing can ever be fully controlled or planned out by urban planning. Bey emphasised that the ephemerality of these zones as key to their radical potential because they’re not intended to go anywhere in particular or do anything in particular. Instead, they provide ‘moments of intensity [that] give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life… a difference is made’ (Bey, 1991: 100).


A temporary intervention in urban space: Union Street Urban Orchard in London, photo credit Peter Bishop.

Temporary urbanism may show glimmers of Deleuze and Guattari’s anarchic spirit, which could be built upon by urban planners. Purcell argues for a new kind of planning that is based on an ontology of becoming, as Hillier’s is, but goes further in engaging with this radical spirit. So this does not mean an urban planning that attempts to control acts of temporary urbanism or support them through state-led hierarchies, as ‘Deleuze and Guattari stand against state-led planning of all kinds’ (Purcell, 2013: 330). But it means not crushing these uses with punishments or further urban control either. I return again to Mark Purcell’s conclusion as he imagines a Deleuzoguattarian planning:

‘Planning would need to operate in a way that might seem strange… Planning would need to be an activity that works tirelessly to ward off new forms of organizations, institution, and hierarchy. It would have to be planning that does not stand outside the activity of people and try to coordinate it… Planning would have to be conceived of as a power that is immanent to society’. (2013: 35)

Deleuze may seem like an impractical philosopher to engage with when considering urban planning, but as we consider the future of our built environment it might become necessary to turn to more radical ideas such as his that could reinvigorate planning as a powerfully democratic force.


Bey, H. 1991. T. A. Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Autonomedia.
Cathcart-Keays, A. for, January 21st 2016. ‘Why Copenhagen is building parks that can turn into ponds’. Available at: Accessed 25th January 2016.
Clairebrook, C. 2001. Gilles Deleuze: Essential Guides for Literary Studies. Routledge.
Hillier, J. 2008. ‘Plan(e) Speaking: A Multiplanar Theory of Spatial Planning’ in Planning Theory 7 (1).
Hillier, J. and Scott-Cato, M. 2010. ‘How could we study climate-related social innovation? Applying Deleuzean philosophy to Transition Towns’ in Environmental Politics 19 (6)
Iveson, K. 2013. ‘Cities within the City: Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City’ in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37 (3)
Parr, A. 2005. The Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh University Press.
Purcell, M. 2013. ‘A New Land: Deleuze and Guattari and Planning’ in Planning Theory & Practice 14 (1).

Events – February 2016

Here’s our selection of a few events coming up in February that relate to some of the themes explored on the blog as well as link to conversations that are happening contemporary human geography.



John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea. Arnolfini. Open all of February.

A powerful video installation currently running at the Arnolfini gallery. Covering themes of violence, our relationship to the sea, slavery, ecological concerns, as well as the pressing contemporary debates around migration. Arguably, it also demonstrates the power of film to move us and affect us in a way that words cannot. Read more about the exhibition in this Guardian piece by Adrian Searle.

Find out more here.



Imagined Landscapes. Opens Saturday 6th February. Admission prices may apply (students go free!).

Sharing the RWA gallery space with two other exhibitions exploring ideas of place, Inquistive Eyes and Simon Quadrat’s solo exhbition, Imagined Landscapes showcases work about our relationship to landscapes and new imaginings of what place means. Many of the pieces featured experiment with various materials too, exploring the materiality of our world (earth, stones, feathers) alongside our ideas of what landscape is. Imagined Landscapes also features the some:when project by Society and Space alumni and artist Jethro Brice.

Find out more here.



‘The Cube Project: Pro-environmental behaviour change by design’ – Cabot Institute talk. Biomedical Building, E29. Wednesday 10th February, 3pm.

This talk by Dr Mike Page from the University of Hertfordshire covers ‘the Cube Project’ – an initiative that builds low carbon micro-homes. It will also discuss issues around our relation to the environment and our living habits, possibly raising some interesting questions about what we consider to be ‘home’ space. (Note: nothing to do with the Cube Microplex. That’s a different Cube Project).

Find out more here.



BBC 6 Music Festival 2016 & Fringe. Various venues around Bristol. Friday 12th February – Sunday 14th February.

Whether you managed to get tickets in those few minutes or not, there is still plenty going on all over Bristol as part of the Fringe. Lots of music and varied events to choose from – lots of free ones too!

Find out more about the Fringe here.



James Wheale: Musical Tastes. Watershed. Saturday 13th February, 2pm. Tickets are £4.

As part of the BBC 6 Music Fringe, the Watershed is hosting an afternoon combining food and music which asks how what you listen to could alter the way you taste certain foods. This event raises some really interesting questions about sensations, embodiment, and affect which are all hot topics in contemporary human geography. Also, you get to eat, listen to music, and you can go to the cinema afterwards. What a great Saturday. Booking is required! Act fast!

Find out more here.



Starling Murmurations. Various sites around Somerset. Various days in February.

A little further afield all around sites in Somerset, these spectacular displays of huge flocks of starlings moving as one are occurring this month. If you manage to catch a sight of them, maybe consider how this demonstrates an ideal politics, destabilizes the idea of the unified whole, and displays Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘rhizome’ in all its wonderful more-than-human glory. Or just watch them. The best places to find them are the Avalon Marshes and surrounding nature reserves such as Shapwick Heath. Call the Avalon Marshes Starling Hotline on 07866 554142 and listen to the answer message to find out where you might find them.

Find out more here.


Enjoy February!