Lived-time, lived-space: Bergson, Bollnow and Booker T. & the MG’s

To the public, the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) is not well known today (the recent revitalization of Bergsonism within philosophy, inaugurated by Deleuze, notwithstanding).  But a century ago he was famous indeed.  When he traveled to New York City to give public lectures, in both French and English (his mother was English), in the year or two before World War I began, he generated so much excitement he was said to have caused that city’s first automobile traffic jam.  The origin of Bergson-mania – which effectively ended once the Great War commenced, never to resume – was the publication, in 1907, of the third of Bergson’s four principal works of philosophy, L’Evolution créatrice (Creative Evolution), an English translation of which appeared in 1911.  This particular work captured the public’s imagination far more than Bergson’s previous two works had (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience in 1889, and Matière et mémoire in 1896), even though it was in large part simply a continuation in a new arena (biology) of the fundamental insight he had developed and elaborated on in his first two works.  Undoubtedly, the wonderful elegance and lucidity of Bergson’s writing in L’Evolution créatrice was attractive to his public audience, and the “literary” quality of it resulted in Bergson being awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927.  None of this sat well with most of Bergson’s peers, for whom the labels “popular” and “literary” were considered professional slurs, and Bergson’s reputation among other philosophers declined precipitously.  The American psychologist and philosopher William James (a friend of Bergson’s who did not live long enough to witness the backlash against him), once wrote about the curious “philosopher’s bias” against lucid writing, citing the thoughts and words of Friedrich Paulsen (who was also thought to have sinned by being “literary”):

Philosophy, he says, has long assumed in Germany the character of being an esoteric and occult science.  There is a genuine fear of popularity.  Simplicity of statement is deemed synonymous with hollowness and shallowness.  He recalls an old professor saying to him once: “Yes, we philosophers, whenever we wish, can go so far that in a couple of sentences we can put ourselves where nobody can follow us.”  The professor said this with conscious pride, but he ought to have been ashamed of it.  (From A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture I)

Bergson’s fundamental insight was that the difference between concrete (or lived) time and abstract (or clock) time is real (i.e. the former is not just some subjective or psychological epiphenomenon, for example).  In effect, he “rescued” time from the physicists – and also from his positivistically-inclined peers who, with their outlooks and methods, so aspired to mimic their scientific brethren.  Bergson’s shorthand for the concept of lived-time is durée, which is usually translated as duration (F. C. T. Moore, however, prefers durance, because it suggests better the experiential aspect of time).  Here are some of Bergson’s remarks about durée from the first chapter of his L’Evolution créatrice:

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Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances.  . . .  All our belief in objects, all our operations on the systems that science isolates, rest in fact on the idea that time does not bite into them.  . . .  [T]he abstract time t attributed by science to a material object or to an isolated system consists only in a certain number of simultaneities or more generally of correspondences, and… this number remains the same, whatever be the nature of the intervals between the correspondences.  . . .  Therefore the flow of time might assume an infinite rapidity, the entire past, present, and future of material objects or of isolated systems might be spread out all at once in space, without there being anything to change either in the formulae of the scientist or even in the language of common sense.  . . .  Though our reasoning on isolated systems may imply that their history, past, present, and future, might be instantaneously unfurled like a fan, this history, in point of fact, unfolds itself gradually, as if it occupied a duration like our own.  If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, willy nilly, wait until the sugar melts.  This little fact is big with meaning.  For here the time I have to wait is not… mathematical time…  It coincides with my impatience, that is to say, with a certain portion of my own duration, which I cannot protract or contract as I like.  It is no longer something thought, it is something lived.  It is no longer a relation, it is an absolute.  . . .  The universe endures.  . . .  [I]n the universe itself two opposite movements are to be distinguished, as we shall see later on, “descent” and “ascent.”  The first only unwinds a roll ready prepared.  In principle, it might be accomplished almost instantaneously, like releasing a spring.  But the ascending movement, which corresponds to an inner work of ripening or creating, endures essentially, and imposes its rhythm on the first, which is inseparable from it.  . . .  Wherever anything lives, there is, open somewhere, a register in which time is being inscribed. . . .  The evolution of the living being, like that of the embryo, implies a continual recording of duration, a persistence of the past in the present, and so an appearance, at least, of organic memory.  . . .  The systems science works with are, in fact, in an instantaneous present that is always being renewed; such systems are never in that real, concrete duration in which the past remains bound up with the present.  . . .  The more duration marks the living being with its imprint, the more obviously the organism differs from a mere mechanism, over which duration glides without penetrating.  . . .  Real duration is that duration which gnaws on things, and leaves on them the mark of its tooth.  . . .  We do not think real time. But we live it, because life transcends intellect.

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To illustrate lived-time, let’s turn to music (Bergson himself was known to use musical analogies to explain his ideas).  I have chosen an instrumental song called “Time is Tight,” which was written and performed by Booker T. & the MG’s.  The lineup of the group at that time, and during its heyday, was as follows:

Booker T. Jones – organ
Steve Cropper – guitar
Donald “Duck” Dunn – bass
Al Jackson, Jr. – drums

Here is the song on YouTube, as recorded in the Stax Records studio in 1968 (it was released as a single in the spring of 1969, reaching number six on the pop charts).  You must click through and listen to the song before you resume reading this post.  J’insiste!

Now that you’ve listened to it (and if you’d never heard it before, you’re probably a lot younger than I am), how did it make you feel?  Better or worse than before you heard it?  As I write this, YouTube records that this video (don’t ask me what the uploader’s static, plaid fabric “visual” is supposed to mean, although it actually serves my purpose here by focusing our attention strictly on the sound of the song) has 566 “likes” and only 5 “dislikes.”  So I think it’s safe to conclude that this song makes the vast majority of people who hear it feel better and more alive.  But if we’re asked to say exactly why it pleases us, can we?  Whence comes its charm (as Vladimir Jankélévitch, who was influenced by Bergson, would ask)?  The rhythmic figure is catchy, but it’s very basic.  The main melody played on the organ is also fairly simple, as is the melody when the guitar has the lead.  Given its simplicity, one might think that the song would be monotonous and boring (and maybe it was for those 5 “dislikers”), but it is really anything but.  Why?  Although the ineffable, by definition, defies expression, there are some things that can be said in answer to this question.

First, the song is built not on static repetition of the rhythmic figure or of the melodic phrase, but on a slowly progressive series of rises (in the bridges) and falls (at the start of each verse after a bridge) that always propel us forward in time, though never in such a way that we want to get to the end of it any faster.  We savor every note, every beat along the way.  To use a spatial metaphor (Bergson disapproves of injecting any spatiality into discussions about time – we’ll deal with his objection in a minute), listening to this song is like surfing a big beautiful wave into shore.  If we analyze it, the song’s structure is as follows: intro, verse, verse, (shorter) organ bridge, verse, (longer) guitar bridge, (shorter) organ bridge, verse, (longer) organ bridge, (longer) guitar bridge, fadeout.  But as we listen we aren’t, or we shouldn’t be, thinking about the song’s structure.  Not if we want to truly experience the song.  Not if we want to let duration “bite” into us, and leave on us the mark of its tooth, rather than glide over us without penetrating.  Per Jankélévitch, musicology has its place, but always before or after, never during, the performance, and it’s always secondary to the lived experience of music.

Second, while the musicians are consummate professionals, they by no means play with inhumanly mechanical precision.  Now, it’s true that the drummer, Al Jackson, Jr., did have the nickname “The Human Timekeeper,” because of his impeccable ability to stay on the beat, but the masterful subtlety of Jackson’s drumming can never be duplicated by any machine.  Perhaps the best and most detailed article I’ve seen about the genius of Al Jackson, Jr. is by Robert L. Doerschuk and can be found here.  I’ll excerpt this much of it, for those who don’t have time to read the whole thing:

. . . Stax was all about the beat.

On the long stream of records that issued from Stax during its glory years, roughly 1965 through ’72, musicians who filled out the fabulous Stax rhythm section, the bare-bones but in-the-pocket Memphis Horns, and the vocalists all plugged directly into the beat.  There was no percussion to dress it up, and when strings were brought in for ballads they were written thin, usually in single lines or, if harmonized, with a non-intrusive intimacy (as on Eddie Floyd’s “I’ve Never Found a Girl”).

For this to work, you had to have someone behind the drums who understood the formula.  The current had to flow unimpeded, at every speed; the slowest tunes needed that pulse as much as the ones that rode an up-tempo rush.

You needed a drummer who respected the air in the rhythm, who could resist the temptation to fill every hole with reminders of his virtuosity …

… resist, that is, until the perfect fill, perfectly positioned, could explode the tune – like the strike of a match.

On top of that, you needed a drummer whose tempo was perfect, who locked each take down right where it belonged but could ramp it up on stage, where live energy made it appropriate.

All of this ruled out pretty much every drummer on earth at that time save Al Jackson Jr. – and it’s everyone’s good fortune that this amazing musician, who transformed America’s idea of rhythm before his tragically premature departure, was on that gig.

That’s a great way of putting it: “. . . a drummer who respected the air in the rhythm.”  In “Time is Tight” not only Jackson, but also Jones, Cropper, and Dunn materialize this same degree of respect for absence, for understatement.  And yet . . . how much fun they have with the song!  Time is Tight, but Time is also Joyous (Time may be the great Devourer, but even so we can dance on it, in it, through it – which is our presentiment that one day the tables will be turned and we will leave on it the mark of our teeth).  And that’s probably why this song, in a more extended version, has always been the centerpiece of the group’s live act, and why fans will never tire of hearing it.

Gary Eskow provides the interesting backstory of how “Time is Tight” came to be, in his excellent article in which, in the concluding paragraph, he states:

Certainly, “Time Is Tight” remains a living, breathing part of music history – the product of a four-piece ensemble at its creative peak.  A simple, four-chord tune laid to tape with no overdubs, it is a consummate work of soul minimalism.  Using no unnecessary gestures and the fewest notes possible, Booker T. & The MG’s produced textures that reflect quiet spaces and party places, reeling in audiences toward their unique sonic canvas, and in the process helping define the sound of the ’60s.

But just prior to that, Eskow relates the views of the group’s guitarist, Steve Cropper, on today’s use of computers in music production to produce the beat.  In my view, his words implicate the difference between “lived” time and “clock” time, and the fact that machines can never achieve what he and his bandmates achieved:

Although Cropper now owns a Pro Tools rig and has no problem sliding parts around to improve the track’s feel, he has strong opinions about the state of today’s music production methods.  “You can take an old song, clean it up on a computer and make it sound great,” he says.  “But when the computer itself is the source of the pulse, I think the basic soul, the energy, is gone.  That’s the problem with loops and drum machines.  I still play the same way I did 30 or 40 years ago: bouncing off the music and the singer.  By the time they quantize my part and run it through Pro Tools, it ain’t really exactly the way I played it.  Sometimes people want to throw a fresh coat of paint on when it’s not needed.

“I grew up fishing with my dad, and there’s something to be said about the energy that goes from the guy holding the pole all the way down to the fish.  The way you handle the pole defines who you are as a fisherman.  In the old days, we were making records that had that same pulse between living things.  People heard it and felt it, and couldn’t wait to go out and buy a record.  Same as the fish who, for some reason, can’t wait to hook himself on the pole of the fisherman who has the right energy.”

It’s time now to deal with Bergson’s objection to the spatializing of time.  I think Bergson was right to draw our attention to the profound differences between space and time, and to the way that conceiving of time in spatial terms warps our thinking about time.  But he didn’t seem to acknowledge, for space, an analogous distinction to his for time, i.e. between concrete (or lived) space and abstract (or yardstick) space.  I think this blind spot prevented Bergson from seeing that lived-time and lived-space, although different, do have legitimate points of contact with each other.

Someone who devoted a lot of attention to the subject of lived-space was the German philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow (1903-1991).  Unfortunately, he has never been well known outside of Germany, and his work has rarely been translated into other languages.  Happily, an English translation of his book Mensch und Raum, first published in 1963, titled Human Space is due to be published by Hyphen Press in the U.K. next month (North and South American distributor: Princeton Architectural Press).  For more information on this translation, look here and here.  For more information about Bollnow (in German), look here.  Although there is very little by Bollnow that has been translated into English, an eight-page article of his titled “Lived-Space” can be found here.  Bollnow’s article starts this way:

Philosophy in recent decades has been concerned to such a degree with the problem of the temporal structure of human existence that it may be considered the fundamental problem of present-day philosophy.  The problem of the spatial constitution of human life, or of concretely lived-space has been dealt with surprisingly little.  It appears that since space belongs only to the exterior surroundings of the life of man it might be less fruitful than the problem of time which holds man at its center.  This idea is false and will not stand up on investigation.  Of course the problem of lived-space cannot be developed simply by superficial analogy to that of lived-time, but gives rise to entirely new questions which would never be suspected if one started from the analogy of time.  It seems idle to speculate on the superiority of one question over the other.  It is better to approach the problem of lived-space with the least possible prejudice and see what we find.  In this vein we inquire into the inner structure of space, as it appears concretely to man in his experience.

The article is well worth reading in its entirety, but for our purposes here, the concluding section, titled “Space is felt,” is perhaps the most relevant one:

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To round out the picture I would like to include one more viewpoint.  Distances within lived-space depend strongly on how a man feels at the moment.  Binswanger to my knowledge was the first to introduce the notion of the inclined space (gestimmten Raums), whereby he means by inclination (Stimmung) the total state of feeling which goes through a man and at the same time binds him to the surrounding world, and which underlies and influences in some way all the movements of the soul.  In this sense we may say that lived-space depends on a man’s present disposition.

We all know how the distances of remote objects change with atmospheric conditions.  In
sunshine they recede into the blue mist and in the clarity preceding a rain again approach
within reach.  So also they change with the moods of man.  Binswanger quotes Goethe here: “O God, how the world and heaven shrink together when our heart cowers in its barriers.”  Fear means literally constriction of heart, and the outer world draws in oppressive and heavy on the man in fear.  When fear departs the world spreads out and opens a larger space for action, in which a man can move freely and easily.

Binswanger was concerned principally with pathological conditions.  The words of Schiller
that “things jostle each other hard in space” taken strictly are true only in a depressive state, just as in a euphoric state space opens wide.  “A person does not collide,” he says, “with things as with something hard; rather they recede and ‘make room’ so that one passes through without injury.”  Similarly Nietzsche points out that in ecstatic exaltations “Space and time perceptions change; immense distances are scanned and first become perceptible; the span of sight over great masses and distances.”

In this vein the psychiatrist Straus has analyzed the space experience of the dancing man: It is an undirected space in which the movement of the dance back and forth and around a point of origin on a restricted surface can still be executed without a feeling of being hemmed in.  Straus speaks of a “present” space reposing in the present without a future commitment.  In it movement takes place which rests in itself and is joy-giving through itself.  He contrasts it sharply with the “historical space” of our purposive activity, a distinction which leads beyond the understanding of space deep into the problems of philosophical anthropology.

A final closing remark: What is said here of outside space is true in due measure of the space of activity (Spielraum) of human associations.  Where the spirit of envy and rivalry take hold of man every one stands in the other’s way, and there is painful narrowness and friction.  But when men come together in the true spirit of colleagues friction disappears.  One does not deprive the other of space; he rather increases the acting space of the other by working with him.  “The more angels there are, the more free space” Swedenborg once said, for he considered the essence of the angelic not the use of space, but the creation of space by selfless devotion.  Rilke repeatedly emphasized this as the work of the lover.  “Lovers,” he once said, “continually generate space, breadth and freedom for each other.”  With these meditative and beautiful words I should like to close my discussion.

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If we recall Eskow’s summing up of “Time is Tight” – “Using no unnecessary gestures and the fewest notes possible, Booker T. & The MG’s produced textures that reflect quiet spaces and party places, reeling in audiences toward their unique sonic canvas . . .” – we saw that spatial images predominated.  Never forget that Booker T. & the MG’s were, above all, trying to make dance records that would be hits.  And dance incorporates both time and space, by way of the physical expressivity of the human body.  On the other hand, an audio recording of music, in the pure act of listening to it, is disembodied sound.  Of course, we consciously understand that there is a physical process to producing a record that involves musicians and specialized spaces and equipment, and so on.  But at a preconscious (visceral) level we don’t understand this and, if we allow it to, this fact can subtly color our thinking.  In this sense the YouTube “video” of the studio recording of “Time is Tight,” which you experienced earlier, isolates lived-time at the expense of lived-space.  It speaks to Bergson’s point, but it says nothing to Bollnow’s point, and we need to do justice to both.

To help balance the picture, then, let’s make use of an actual video (both sight and sound) on YouTube of a live performance of “Time is Tight” by Booker T. & the MG’s (from about 1970, I would guess).  The audio quality on this clip isn’t nearly as good as it is on the studio version, of course, but we can now experience how important space is, how it is used by the musicians, and how the musicians spatially interact with each other in order to perform the song.  This is crucial.  Note especially the spatial interactions between guitarist Steve Cropper and organist Booker T. Jones.  The sound on the studio recording was not the result of studio sleight-of-hand – remember, there was no overdubbing on this song.  It was created by the four musicians who could move freely, see (and not only hear) each other, and respond to each others’ movements.  Lived-time ultimately cannot be separated from lived-space.  Once again, I’ll ask you to click through and listen to the live version of the song before you resume reading this post.

Now, it is manifestly the case that bands usually perform songs differently in live sets than they do in the studio.  Studio performances, for recording purposes, are usually more restrained.  There is another video on YouTube of a televised live performance by Booker T. & the MG’s from 1967, of a different song (“Green Onions”), that is highly instructive for the purpose of illustrating lived-space in a musical performance.  Watch it now, please.

I submit that this performance, in Norway, while still a live performance in front of an audience, actually falls somewhere in between a studio performance and a traditional live performance.  And the reason for this is the (perhaps typically Scandinavian) restraint shown by the audience.  They’re clearly “into” the group’s performance, but this is a much different audience reaction than one would typically see elsewhere.  And, pros that they are, the musicians (I think) adjust their performance accordingly – it’s less amped up, and more like a studio performance, though not completely so.  Make no mistake.  There’s still a lot of movement, a lot of head bobbing, and such.  But the band members are more restrained here than they are in the video of the live performance of “Time is Tight” that we watched.

What also makes this video compelling is the intelligent decision of the television director to have a camera recording from the side, so that we can see all four musicians in a line – in effect, we see what the musicians see when they look at each other.  The shot, without a single cut, between the the 1:02 mark and the 1:34 mark is a fantastic illustration of lived-space.  In this shot, note the fact that Jackson is mostly looking away from his bandmates, i.e. not receiving spatial cues from them.  He is only sending spatial signals to the others, and this makes sense, because he is the genesis for the beat (and Jackson’s drumming here, it must be said, is sublime).  The others take their first cues from him, and the pulse of energy, after it leaves Jackson, then keeps moving laterally, back and forth, between Dunn, Cropper and Jones.  It’s like kids playing with a beach ball, bouncing it from one to the other.  In perfect time.  And in perfect space.

This entry was posted in Bergson, Bollnow, Booker T. & the MG's, Henri, James, Jankélévitch, Otto Friedrich, Philosophy (uncategorized), Vladimir, William. Bookmark the permalink.

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