Family Viewing and the Spatialization of Time

How shifting perceptions and attitudes toward time have effected society and the individual

by Donato Totaro Volume 5, Issue 2 / March 2001 11 minutes (2588 words)

Using the Canadian film Family Viewing (Atom Egoyan, 1986)(read interview with the director here) as both a springboard and touchstone, this paper will present itself as an inquiry into the nature of time and how shifting perceptions and attitudes toward it have effected society and the individual. The focus of the inquiry will be on the “spatialization” of time and how thinkers throughout the years have come to understand this conceptual shift and have integrated it into their own discourse. With Family Viewing as the unifying reference point, I will draw from the French philosopher Henri Bergson, Canadian economist and scholar Harold A. Innis, and Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson.

Family Viewing ties in to these thinkers at various levels, and for this reason remains connected even when spatialization is not at the center its narrative discourse. At deep structural levels, the film concerns itself with the conditions of a modern (or postmodern), acutely spatialized society. Using a foregrounded distantiation aesthetic, Family Viewing constructs a nightmarish scenario where the family, gender relations, technology, and sexuality confusingly overlap. Alienation becomes reified, human communication morbidly mediated, and human emotions stunted.

Family Viewing bears an ambivalent relationship to one of the seminal theorists of the postmodern, Fredric Jameson. While Family Viewing extrapolates a modern problem (death of healthy human interaction, dehumanization, dependence on technology, etc.) and hence can be seen as dealing with a “postmodern” malaise, it makes no use of what Jameson sees as the two dominant styles of the postmodern age: pastiche and nostalgia. Family Viewing is sensitive to these conditions without employing either an aesthetics of pastiche or nostalgia. It arguably bears a stronger aesthetic kinship to the late 50’s and 60’s alienation/anti-modernization films (The Eclipse, The Red Desert, Two or Three Things I know about Her). However, the four general features that Jameson sees in postmodern culture, 1) a new depthlessness 2) a weakening of historicity 3) a culture weaned on the image, and 4) a whole new emotional tone, all inform Family Viewing (1984, p.58).

I will begin with a selected look at the history of thoughts and theories on time, concentrating on how time has become abstracted and spatialized, well beyond the point of any meaningful recognition. A partial list of philosophers who have broached the time-space problem would include Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bergson and Nietzsche. David Gross, in his article “Space, Time, and Modern Culture,” charts the development of this philosophical speculation from the modern period onward. The progression, from Newton’s Absolute categories of time-space to Kant’s revolutionizing subjective, a priori accounts of time-space, concludes with the statement that at the time of Hegel’s death (1831), time stood as the more fundamental category and that there was a “temporalization of space rather than the spatialization of time” (Gross, 62). This may be true at a philosophical level, but, as noted by Lewis Mumford, at a societal level the seed for the spatialization of time was planted many centuries earlier.

Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, written in 1934, stands as a monumental document of the growth of technology and its social, cultural, political, and aesthetic ramifications. Like Jacques Ellul would later, Mumford expands the definition of technology to include “technique” (technic). Any interrelation between humanity and the environment that entails thought and creation to a specific end translates to technology. For Mumford the basket, the pot, reservoirs, aqueducts, and roads all demonstrate the mind at work with “technic.” Importantly, Mumford, unlike the determinist Jacques Ellul, believes that each machine or technical advancement involves choice, and hence is subject to society, culture, and politics. Although Mumford does not reach as far back into history as the Canadian economist and media theorist Harold A. Innis (who begins with the 10th century), their approaches share a kinship spirit.

Mumford, early in his book, emphasizes that the clock is by far the most important and far reaching man-made “machine.” If one considers the structure of a society no machine has imparted as large an impact as the clock: “The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age” (Mumford, 14). Borrowing from Bergson, Mumford goes on to discuss how the clock (in the thousands of monasteries during the Benedictine rule) was the first instrument to separate time from human events, in essence alienating man from the time of nature and opening up time to the realm of science and mathematics (spatialization). Mumford compares it to a clock’s hand being moved about or a moving picture run backwards. Bergson also employs the clock to distinguish between homogeneous time (spatialized) and heterogeneous time (duration) (107-108). Therefore the seed of spatialized time was planted as far back as the 14th century.

One could jump from the clock to the computer to speculate on the next possible “phase” in the spatialization of time (the computer’s “second temporal order” and nanosecond time), yet this incredible historical leap would not encompass the breadth in communications history covered by the Canadian thinker Harold A. Innis. Innis’ interest in the time-space problem came by way of his painstaking and exhaustive accounts of the Canadian economy and the major Canadian staples industries (fur trade, mining, and cod fisheries). In the latter part of his career, however, Innis became extremely concerned with communication and how it effected the shape and structure of social and cultural organization. His communication studies are marked by the same rigor and exhaustiveness as his earlier work. Perhaps not the finest writer, Innis’ daring breadth, ambitiousness, and fanciful flights left behind a wealth of innovative ideas that, if not always refined, have continually resurfaced, consciously or non-consciously, in later writing of such postmodern and media pundits as Marshall McLuhan, Daniel Bell, Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman, and Fredric Jameson.

Innis believed that each mode of communication, and hence society, shared a particular bias toward time or space, leading to an unstable society. Rather than looking at the time-space dialectic in the philosophical terms of “spatialized time,” Innis charted a near complete history of the communication mediums and their respective biases toward either temporal or spatial values. Mediums that were heavy, cumbersome and difficult to transport, such as clay, parchment, and stone led to a temporal bias and knowledge over time, or what James W. Carey calls “short distance communication” (31). The voice, because of its distance limitations, also falls under this category. Light, easy to transport mediums, such as papyrus, paper, print, and electronics led to a spatial bias, knowledge over space, or long distance communication. Most important for Innis were the effects that these biases imposed on society’s structure. For example, the following dialectical list of cultural and organizational values characterized the biases of time biased society vs. space biased society: duration vs. expansion, continuous vs.transitory, the past vs.the future, history vs. geography, religion & the church vs. science & empire, ethics vs. politics, the community vs. the individual, decentralization vs. centralization. Bergson’s philosophy can be seen as clearly informing Innis’ thoughts on the bias of communication. Bergson defined space primarily through extensity, and real time through duration. The connection of “extensity” to space and “duration” to time become key concepts in Innis’ time/space bias. Hence a spatially biased society tends toward “extension” (expansion, imperialism, the future) and a temporally biased society tends toward “duration” (solidity, permanence, the past).

Innis believed that communication and media structures effect every facet of society. As James W. Carey explains it, the bias effects a society’s consciousness by altering its interests (what people think about), symbols (what people think with), and thinking environment (where we think) (35). Fredric Jameson expresses a similar sentiment:”…our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than categories of time…” (1984,64).

What Innis feared most as a result of the bias of communication, especially spatial, was the one-sided domination of power, politics, information, and knowledge, what he ambiguously referred to as “monopolies,” because he saw them as detrimental to human freedom, cultural salvation, and a healthy societal balance. For example, the mechanization of knowledge (print, electronics) led to information being transmitted at speeds too fast for people to properly digest, knowledge that was, quoting Graham Wallas, “growing too fast for successful use in social judgement” (Innis, 191). What we have today is a news and media information system that lives in a transient “one-day world”: new“s” today and gone tomorrow. Again, Jameson reiterates the same fear:….the very function of the news media is to relegate such recent historical experiences as rapidly as possible into the past. The informational function of the media would thus be to help us forget, to serve as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia (1983, 125).

This sense of “historical amnesia” is what most characterizes Innis’ spatially biased society. Did Innis see away out of this dilemma? Although he never gave answers, he did point the way. Being a realist, he did not believe in regression, but in attenuation. He stressed, in the broadest sense, an open mind in all areas and that a stable society can be achieved only through a balance between durational and spatial concepts. To restore balance in this technological society we must, to paraphrase Arthur Kroker, rethink technology with durational concepts.

This is, I believe, one of the strategies in Family Viewing: to restore a semblance of balance into an acutely spatialized and mechanized existence. Stan, the father, leads a life monopolized by technology: it provides his income, fills his leisure time, mediates his interaction with other people, dictates his emotions, and “oversees” his sex life. More importantly, he has lost all sense of continuity and history. Stan craves a life of convenience and comfort, separated from the worries of the past, and the more absorbed he becomes with this worry-free present the farther he drifts from his self. His son Van is also trapped into this “spatialized” present, but once he discovers the video images of his family’s past that his father has kept hidden from him, a whole new dimension opens up: his history, his family, and his identity. Van uses the “reality” of the video images and their sense of lived history to counter the “dead” present that Stan lives in. The images trigger his quest for “balance”. The father Stan remains blind to history, to the point where he forgets what his sick mother-in-law Armen looks like and even forgets his son’s age. He erases the past with recorded sexual sessions with his new wife, replacing the past with a series of presents which he never re-views. The real experienced time of Bergson’s duration is lost to Stan and he lives in a time mode equivalent to a “razor’s edge.”

Whatever sign of hope and plea for “balance” there is in Family Viewing rests entirely in the home-video images and Van’s conscious looking into the past. Although the video images may not be enough to draw an audience completely out of the film’s somnambulist aesthetics, there is a strong contrast between the tone of these images and what they represent and those that take place inside Stan’s apartment. The video images take place outdoors, in the backyard of a home (the classic symbol of the family), are dominated by vivid colors of nature, and display active, lively interaction between the subjects. The interior footage of the ‘present-biased’ family takes place within the claustrophobic confines of a modern high-rise condominium. The apartment’s walls are an ugly, cold pale blue, and the emotions and actions of the characters stunted. The colors in the nursing home and Aline’s apartment are also warmer than those in the apartment. Clearly, the video images exude a warmth and nostalgia that is missing from the “present” of the film.

Importantly, Stan’s physical presence is oddly removed in the footage of the past, as he is either absent or separated from the family by being filmed behind a window frame. The film’s climax, which features Van’s nursing home reunion with his matriarchal heritage (mother, grandmother, current girlfriend), also attains a higher emotional level by way of the music, the shimmering light, the intercutting of the past images, and the room’s warm colors (reddish walls). It is this “content” that ties into the past/time and lends the film its needed sense of historicity and Innisian balance.

I must mention that discussing the content of the past images in Innisian terms raises a paradox because Innis did not concern himself with the content of information but in how it was communicated, the medium. (Mcluhan may have coined the expression the medium is the message but he surely did not invent it!) It is obvious that in Family Viewing there is no reversion to a temporal bias in terms of the medium of communication 1) Van steals the videorecorder, the “power” (or the phallus for Freudians), from his father and 2) it is the content of the tapes that spells emancipation, not the machine.

Family Viewing does not outline a form of Manichaeism where technology is evil and nature is good. (The forces of nature are rarely that clear in Canadian art!) The film does not profess such a naive position. There is no ultimate victory or victor in Egoyan’s world, but a verging of balance. In a society so strongly biased spatially, the only realistic solution is to impose durational values onto technology and try to “de-commercialize” and democratize it. (The democratization of technology is the position taken by Raymond Williams in Television: Technology and Cultural Form.) For this reason I feel confident discussing the film in Innisian terms because Innis did not envision although he may have wished some fantastical regression to the oral tradition. Egoyan, like Innis, is also a realist. He accepts the omnipotence of technology, but, unlike some filmmakers, does not “naturalize” technology by accepting it, making it more familiar and less threatening. Egoyan makes us aware that technology is cultural, and as Mumford said, involves choice. These choices are not universally “objective” but are bound to political, ideological, and societal sensibility. One only has to compare Innis to Jacques Ellul. Ellul describes technique as having its own evolutionary mechanism that can not be altered by human intervention. Hence Ellul’s conclusion is far too deterministic to explain Family Viewing. With its aesthetic distanciation and its thematic strategies (confusion between reality and the image, death imagery, anti-capitalism), Family Viewing maintains a precautionary tone toward a total blind acceptance of technology and modernity.

Works Cited

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. 1910. Trans. F.L. Pogson. (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1959).

Carey, James. “Canadian Communication Theory: Extensions and Interpretations of Harold Innis.” Studies in Canadian Communication. 27-59. eds. Gertrude Joch Robinson and Donald F. Theall. Montreal: McGill Studies in Communication, 1975.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Trans. John Wilkson. Merton. (New York: Vintage Books, 1964).

Gross, David. “Space, Time, and Modern Culture.” Telos 50 1981-82): 59-78.

Innis, Harold A. The Bias of Communication. 1951. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984).

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. 111-25. ed. Hal Foster. (Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983).

Kroker, Arthur. Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1984.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. 1934. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963).

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Fontana, 1974).

Family Viewing and the Spatialization of Time

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 5, Issue 2 / March 2001 Essays atom egoyancanadian cinemafilm theoryhenri bergsontemporality