Emergent Space

Lee Smolin’s latest book, Time Reborn, is an argument in favor of the open-ended future. We may not have known it was endangered, but apparently one of the consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that time becomes objectified as one of the dimensions of space, something Einstein himself was unhappy with. Relativity spatializes time. Julian Barbour has been discussed on this blog, and he is the strongest advocate of the notion that the apparent passage of time is an illusion, and something of a mentor to Smolin. I’m completely in sympathy with Lee’s work on this topic, but right now the most interesting thing about it is that he holds that space is an emergent property, that space is, in a sense, the illusion. Time is fundamental, space is secondary. This comes at exactly the right time(!) to confirm thoughts that I’m not able to express clearly, though I have been making a stab at it on abstract critical. Pictorial space has to be invented, but sometimes it’s just too familiar, meaning that the faculty of invention is not engaged. Two pieces may have the same character of space but one is dead and the other feels alive. One space is invented, the other is conventional, though they are the same kind of space, maybe even made the same way. Allowing for the vagaries of mood and attention, there is a qualitative difference that can’t be theorized except in this way. Theoretically it’s easy to dismiss this idea, and quickly jump to the logical conclusion that all art is a hamster wheel. But our minds are too quick to measure, compare and understand. Consider that you might have brushed your teeth 10,000 times, that you may have walked down the same street times too numerous to count, that human beings repeat the same nonsense over and over, yet is it not possible that a moment, however much it may be filled with the same old stuff, feels good, alive, necessary, even perfect? Isn’t that what gets us out of bed? We want the unique time and space of a work to be special, but that feeling can only emerge from the familiar background, however you want to draw its outline.

Jackson Pollock, Greyed Rainbow 1953

Jackson Pollock, Greyed Rainbow 1953

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