Nonlinear Time and Imbricated Justice

When we think about temporality normatively, we imagine a singular point (the present) that moves along a linear path (time). We inhabit one position, only to be continuously propelled forward along a series of points in space, one after the other in a never ending series that is representative of our shared history and future. This is the same time of Euclidian and Newtonian trajectories, in which we both assume to know our discrete position in space and time, even when both are incessantly in flux.

In this frame we occupy a singular present, and are sandwiched between an always-passed past and a future that remains in the future. When thinking about justice in this temporality, we find that injustice exists in the past, after all we have observed it and recognized it as having already occurred. Injustice of course can continue to persist in the present, which is what necessitates and makes possible a certain present struggle against such past and present injustices. And in the future, of course, once the struggle against injustice has been waged and won, we achieve a justice, the product of our past and no longer necessary struggle.


The neverending march of modernist time.

When we think of justice and temporality in this way, we are guilty of what Bergson calls ‘spatializing time’, in which we plot a Euclidian spatial grid onto an innumerable flow, cutting time into a series of discrete and measurable units. This, of course, is an intuitive way of thinking about time because much of our time is structured in precisely this way, whether it be when we clock in and out at work, or try to catch the right train on the metro, or when playing sports with a timer. Of course, there are also plenty of other ways in which spatializing and enumerating time emerges as absurd, for example, in trying to quantify or numerate the transition between happiness and sadness when a loved one departs, or when recalling a distant memory that resembles a cloud more than a linear series of ordered moments.

This way of thinking about time has informed many political ways of being in the world, in which certain means are enacted with the expectation of producing a calculated ends. It’s a frame of temporality that assumes a kind of causal relation between things in the world, and also figures these relations as being perceptible, measurable, and most importantly, calculable. When thinking about justice in a linear and causal temporality, we are asked to understand the material and social conditions of the present historical moment as a set of data that can then be used to calculate or compute the proper action(s) that will come to generate a desired future. Thinking about time in this way allows us to make calculations between the costs of certain means in relational balance to the benefits of imagined ends, which works well for many of our undertakings such as designing more efficient farming practices, or in choosing which research projects to invest in. However, this frame of thinking through time completely breaks down and fails us when we approach questions of justice, precisely because the current historical moment as filled with all of its nuance as well as the differential possibilities offered by the flows of time are unknowable, and require an unfolding praxis of action and reflection that makes thinking in terms of means and ends, causality, and linearity dysfunctional.

We must refuse to think about justice as some sort of future-position on a teleological linear trajectory, and instead must come to think the entanglements between justice and time differently. Instead of a teleological or linear way of thinking about time, I would urge us to consider what it would mean to think about justice as inhabiting an imbricated temporality, in which past, present, and future are folded over, within and through one another, and in which the questions of justice, struggle and injustice remain incessantly entangled with all three. We could similarly think of time and justice in relation to Walter Benjamin’s writings on history, in which time comes to exist as a constellation of ruptures and intensities, organized as a web of relationality instead of as causal linearites. These frames allow us to consider how the past has the capacity to haunt the present, and how the potentials and virtualities of the future inflect upon our actions and actualities in the present.


How can we come to think of justice as occupying a time of differential constellations?

Our ability to engage with justice in this way is ultimately dependent on our capacity to imagine worlds decidedly different than our own; it is a technique of generating differentials between this historical world, and other possible historical worlds, that allows for differential moment through time that could perhaps allow for, and create the space and time for, justice. The popular protest slogan of the alterglobalization movement “Another World is Possible” in this sense is prerequisitive of justice. Indeed, if another historical world were not possible, the ethical and political imperatives demanded of us by justice would vanish. The popular Zapatista slogan “El mundo que queremos es uno donde quepan muchos mundos” (We want a world in which many words fit) similarly urges us to think about the radically other worlds already nested in our own, asking us not to project our desire for justice into a distant future but rather to find ways of making the virtualities/potentialities of the present come to matter.

Justice is not a thing nested in some future moment, nor a destination on some deterministic path of struggle. Justice, here, actually isn’t a ‘thing’ at all. Justice is rather always-already radically undetermined, an unfinishable project, perpetually without promises. Justice is something we do together, a collective labor that we must incessantly (re)produce in the temporal tides of differential movements. As Derrida so eloquently put it, we are seeking out “a justice yet to come”. Derrida’s justice exists only as process, ungraspable and never locatable and always just out of reach, yet still necessary and worth entangling ourselves with. Gilles Deleuze would later go on to declare the necessity of a “people to come” in relation to Derrida’s justice, a missing people whom have not yet arrived that could perform the labor required of this peculiar justice. These are the people capable of both imagining radically other presents, and also in enacting practices that produce the imbricated differential movements required of us by a justice yet to come.


Sign produced by french artist collective Claire Fontaine.

I cannot offer promises of a more just future, nor of the arrival of a people finally capable of achieving that justice, and certainly not a clear map of routes and trajectories for us to follow in pursuit of that justice, but rather I can only make a simple suggestion: that the radical potential offered to us by justice is already here with us, enfolded and imbricated in the present, and simply requires our willingness to risk imagining and articulating the political and ethical potentials that would act to incessantly push things into differential motion.

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