Thinking about Kentridge’s “The Refusal of Time”

2012 William Kentridge, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
2012 William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When Einstein’s theory of relativity first became known to the world in the early 1920s, there was an outpouring of attempts in 1921 by the print media, literary writers, artists and others to understand the theory and think about its meaning not only for science, but the everyday world. There were many reasons for the widespread response, but one journalist summed it up pretty well: Einstein has “quickened our imaginations so that we leap upon a ray of light, escaping time.”[2]

Since then, artists–visual ones, as well as writers and musicians–have used image, word, and sound to imagine what spacetime looks and feels like.[1] Artists have not only been inspired to use their chosen art form to understand spacetime, in some cases, it has influenced the shape of their art work. It has also led artists to combine their art with Einstein’s essential concepts about time and space to reflect reality and understand the world itself.

Whether those artistic responses are scientifically correct is beside the point. What’s important is how artists draw from the theory to inspire their art.

Einstein would, of course, caution us to remember that only mathematical concepts adequately describe the theory of relativity. In a letter he wrote in 1946 to Paul Laporte, an aspiring art critic who compared Cubism to the theory of relativity, Einstein explained that although both disciplines strive to create an “order” that results in “distinctness and clarity,” order in scientific principles and theories is “achieved through logical connection,” whereas the “principle of order” in art is “anchored in the unconscious.”[3]

Certainly a work of art gives ideas shape, voice and meaning to emotion and subjectivity anchored in the subconscious, or unconscious, as Einstein put it. But art, like science, helps us make sense of the world. To do that, artists must often draw from the real, wide awake world for their inspiration and raw material.

Consider, for example, William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time (2012) an installation that exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2014. The Refusal of Time is a wonderful of example of an art work that incorporates visual media with words and sound to imagine what spacetime feels like. Spacetime’s concepts also contribute to the installation’s look and feel, and Kentridge uses spacetime to make sense of linear time and history and oppression–particularly as they pertain to Apartheid in South Africa. Such big topics need an entire gallery to accommodate their expression:

You enter the darkened room, which might just recall Plato’s cave, and sit in one of the several old, child-sized, wooden school chairs distributed randomly around. In the center of the room to your left, a seven or eight-foot high machine, called an elephant, mechanically huffs and puffs its metal parts in and out of its rectangular wooden cage. The machine reminds you of a bellows or a mechanical heart.

The darkness breaks when a video of a larger-than-life metronome appears on the west wall. The metronome’s thin metal tongue falls to the right and then left side of the wooden, pyramid-shaped body, making a loud clack each time it reverses direction.

The clack gets louder when four more metronomes appear: two on the north wall, two on the south, all ticking in sync. A couple of the metronomes are difficult to see because the bellows-like machine partially blocks your view of the southwest wall. You can’t move your chair for better view because the chair is bolted to the floor.

Then one metronome falls out of sync, and another. Some move at high speed, some awfully slow, and at least one moves so fast it appears to be motionless in time and space. Another ticks at a regular quarter-note pace. The ticking sounds crazy and random, as though there are many more than five metronomes. But if one metronome could be isolated from the rest, its rhythm would be a simple, clean, clack, clack.

To be sure, my description of the first few minutes of the exhibit does not do justice to the juxtaposition of sound, sculpture, animation, and video that make up The Refusal of Time. But the opening provides crucial keys for understanding Kentridge’s intepretation of spacetime in the physical installation and the video component.

Spacetime fascinates artists in part because at its heart lies the claim that there is no past or future, just the present. As Brian Greene explains in the Elegant Universe, all moments, all events that have occurred or will occur are in fact, occurring now, all at the same time. Linear time, on the other hand, is a construction. It’s a powerful illusion that seems as real and incontrovertible as the materiality of the clocks and calendars humans created to measure it. The great irony, if not disappointment, is that humans cannot consciously experience spacetime. Our physical limitations allow us to only experience time as linear. We must live with the knowledge that our forward-moving lives, this thing we call reality is, in some respects, illusory. Art steps in to feed our imagination so we can see past that illusion.

In Kentridge’s vision of spacetime, the ticking metronomes and the huffing elephant-like machine are both material representations of linear time and symbolic of it. Their presence suggests we cannot understand spacetime without referencing our deep awareness of linear of time and the sense that this awareness is nearly impossible to escape—the proverbial elephant in the spacetime room, so to speak. The elephant machine, in fact, is a model of one proposed in the 1870s to “pump regular bursts of air to calibrate” the clocks of Paris, and it is described in Peter Galison’s book Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps.[4] (Galison advised Kentridge on the project and he is listed as its dramaturge.)

To be sure, the metronomes are not clocks. But they do measure meter in music—the time it takes for a note sound—and their constructed nature and ticking are strongly suggestive of a physical clock and the passage of time it measures. At the same time, the metronome’s loud ticking sound occurs in a space absent of any visual clock face. Thus time becomes an abstraction, and specific moments in time are detached from any concrete point on a clock.

The five asynchronously ticking metronomes remind us that what we perceive as being “right now” is only one now of countless others. Here again is where our humanness comes into play, preventing us from seeing through the illusion of linear time. Even though all Nows co-exist, we can only experience our unique, particular, linear feeling of “right now,” a moment trapped between a lost past and an unlived future. We are blocked from the full view because we exist inside of spacetime. The elephant-like machine that blocks our view of some of the metronomes reminds us that we cannot stand outside of spacetime and see it whole or see past the powerful illusion of linear time.

In other words, we cannot stand outside of space and time to see all the co-existing Nows of being born, living, and dying. Where we are in space determines where we are in time. When we look at the stars, we’re seeing an earlier version of them; similarly, people on another planet see an earth much younger than the one we live in today. If they had a telescope that was powerful enough, they might see the emergence of Apartheid in South Africa, though from our perspective today, Apartheid ended several years ago. The moment we see or experience depends on where we are when the light with that information reaches us.

The Refusal of Time refuses linear time in favor of interpreting the world under the terms of spacetime, as seen when figures engaged in repetitive actions replace the metronomes. For example, across the five video channels, we watch five different versions of a man who walks a few steps and then steps onto and off a stool, over and over again. In another scene, we watch five versions of a turbaned woman seeing her husband off to work through one door and then welcoming in her lover through another. Each video channel gives us a different perspective of the scene, yet there is the pervasive sense that all these scenes are happening at the same time, and that each one represents a Now that does not vanish into yesterday but is ongoing.

Yet another set of videos shows a time bomb in various states of construction and post-apocalyptic fall out. The words “Give me back the sun” appear and disappear (a reference, no doubt to Plato’s Analogy of the Sun). At another point, the names of important wars and battles in Africa flicker across the screen. Their names differ, but the sense is that each gunshot and death caused by war and oppression happen over and over again, not unlike the metronomes or the man stepping on and off a stool. Every event that has ever happened or will happen is inevitable, not random, ongoing, and present.

Toward the end of the 30-minute video, silhouetted figures in the movie march by in a parade-like funeral procession. They carry a tuba, a bathtub, and other objects that eventually degrade to burnt-out remnants. The video portion of the exhibit concludes with the turbaned woman dancing with a figure that symbolizes the sun–possibly a representation of goodness and enlightened thought.

In reflecting Einstein’s notion that moments are never past but always now, these scenes suggest that even though tragedies such as war have ended from our limited, linear point of view, from the perspective of spacetime these moments of strife continue. By the same token and the note upon which The Refusal of Time concludes—with the woman and sun dancing together—there is the reminder that oppression and war are not the only Nows to coexist, but that the universe also harbors all our moments of happiness and joy, as well. In terms of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, if we can be free of the shadow of linear time, we will be that much closer to seeing the true form of reality.

In a description of the exhibition posted by Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Kentridge writes that he did not “want to use ‘science as a backdrop’ nor to employ ‘art as illustration of science.’ Rather he wanted ‘something more elusive: an intensification of our encounter with time.’”[5] Surely he has succeeded. The Refusal of Time does deepen our understanding of spacetime, and it also gives a new way to think about the past and the present, about tragedy and joy.

Since the past is never really past, we know that oppression always occurs somewhere and sometime, even though our perspective may at times be too limited to see it. Similarly, when we are faced with personal grief and tragedy, we can take some comfort in the fact that happier moments we consider to be in the “past,” haven’t really passed, either.

The Refusal of Time refuses a past that is lost and a future that is yet to be and embraces the present as one moment among many. Much as linear and nonlinear hang in the balance, so do joy and suffering. In times of great grief, we may take comfort in knowing that nothing is ever truly lost, but exists out there, somewhere in the universe. Like the turbaned woman and her dancing partner, the sun, we are dancing in some now, in some place.


[1] Artists and writers include artists Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso, composer Igor Stravinsky, poets William Carlos Williams and E. E. Cummings. For resources about the relationship of artists to the theory of relativity, see “Perception is Reality: The Theory of Relativity in Art.” Parrish Co. June 12, 2007. Weblog; Alan J. Friedman and Carol C. Donley. Einstein as Myth and Muse. New York: Cambridge UP, 1985; Arthur I. Miller. Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. New York: Basic, 2001. Print; Leonard Shlain. Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light. New York: Perennial, 1991. Print.

[2] Gertrude Besse King. “Aladdin Einstein.” The Freeman 27 April 1921. Print. P.153.

[3] Paul M. Laporte. “Cubism and Relativity with a Letter of Albert Einstein.” Leonardo. 21.3 (1988): 313.

[4] “William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time.” Exhibitions. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2013. Web page.

[5] “William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time.” Exhibitions. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. 2013. Web page.

Report from the Alt-Ac Front: An Interview

Hudson Valley, Early Spring. Robert Goldwitz
Hudson Valley, Early Spring (c) Robert Goldwitz

Lots of friends with PhDs or ABDs are vying for scarce teaching jobs. But a humanities PhD is ample preparation for other jobs — many of them amazing — and job seekers with a PhD don’t hear that message enough. As I explain below, much of my work experience in the past decade was in preparation for a college teaching job. But it was also excellent training for my current alt-ac (alternative academic) position. Below I offer a few insights that might encourage the discouraged to consider the market for alt-ac and post-ac jobs:

What is your current position? IT Communications Specialist, IT Department, Fordham University

Was? Post-doctoral Teaching Fellow, English Department, Fordham University. Prior to that, I’ve been in combination at one time or another a pre-doctoral fellow, teaching associate, adjunct lecturer, PhD candidate, and freelance editor.

Primary qualifications for the job? Strong, versatile writing and editing skills. Qualifications also include the ability to work independently and with a team, knowledge of technology’s use in a higher education setting, and understanding of academic processes in higher education.

What are your job responsibilities? I create newsletters, write concise emails, dream up tweets, revise wordy website content, and work on long articles, among other responsibilities.

Preparation? Deep immersion in the humanities through course work leading to a MA and PhD, teaching literature and composition classes, writing a dissertation, leading workshops on technology for pedagogy and research, directing conferences, networking with key people at my university and at other institutions in New York City and beyond, volunteering to do anything that interested me (usually related to technology, writing, and communications) that I could add to my CV/resume.

Like so many English PhDs, you’re groomed — brainwashed, basically — to think like an academic and aspire to teach. How did you break free of that? It helped that my initial foray into the teaching job market garnered no requests for interviews. It was pretty obvious to me that nothing in my teaching portfolio made me stand out from other applicants. At the time I had no research articles published in a journal (partly I was too busy–see “Preparation?,” above), and I wasn’t from an R1 university. My advisers assumed I would apply again next year. But I knew my teaching portfolio wouldn’t change much, and once again, I’d be among the thousands applying to a few open teaching positions.

My unsuccessful applications also pushed me to embrace the fact that I don’t really like teaching. I do like getting to know students and helping their intellectual growth. But I do not like grading papers, particularly composition papers, which are extremely time consuming to grade if students are to learn anything about improving their writing. Assigning grades, a highly subjective task for me that carries a lot of weight for students, also causes me stress.

Waiting almost a whole year to try again for a giant long shot at a job that I didn’t entirely enjoy did not seem prudent.

Key elements of your makeover from academic to professional? I translated my teaching, writing, and organizing experiences into the verbs of the professional world: Manage, lead, facilitate, oversee, design, collaborate, launch. I transformed my wordy, five-paged CV into a lean, two-paged resume that explained what I did, why I did it, and the outcome. The time and money I would have invested in a teaching portfolio went into my LinkedIn profile and a premium subscription to that website’s job hunting services.

Is alt-ac worth it? Absolutely. I’m getting paid to write. Each writing task is a new puzzle to solve, and everyday is different. There are no papers to grade when I go home at night and on the weekends. I’m sent to technology and education conferences. My colleagues are kind and supportive, and I like feeling part of team. (Academic departments are populated by independent operators who all happen to teach the same discipline. Collaboration and team work, beyond required service and committee work, is not the norm.)

Anything you miss from the academic world? Most people expect me to say that I miss the long summer off. I returned to academia in 2002 and never had a summer off. Summer meant any combination of the following: finishing grading from the spring semester, catching up on personal stuff, taking a class, teaching a class, planning classes for the fall, and a little bit of researching.

What about your research? My job is secure whether or not I publish. However, I miss the expectation and encouragement to do my own research. It’s not that I’m discouraged, but it’s not expected. On the other hand, when I was teaching three classes a semester, those interminable papers had to be graded at night, on the weekend, on the subway to work. It left me with little time or energy to research or write. With this job, I feel energized about my project, and I have the time to do it.

What about the students? I’m cultivating relationships with student workers who design advertising for IT, as well as student writers for the school newspaper. I prefer this relationship. Students no longer see me as someone they have to impress so they’ll earn an “A.”

Advice to potential alt-ac and post-ac job seekers? Getting a PhD, teaching, and creating a teaching portfolio all at the same time is probably the most difficult thing you’ll ever do in your professional life. This experience gives you many skills, teaches you to think deeply and critically, and a solid work ethic. Implement a good strategy while you’re a student and when you’re searching for a job, and you’ll be an irresistible candidate for a variety of jobs in the private and public sectors, inside or outside of academia.


THATCamp Digital Writing, May 2-3, 2014

Sponsors for THATCamp Digital Writing
  Sponsors for THATCamp Digital Writing

From tweeting to multimodal research papers to Prezi, writing these days means more than just black text on a white background. Through workshops and discussions, THATCamp Digital Writing aims to deepen and advance our notions of all facets of writing. Participants in THATCamp Digital Writing will explore how to effectively write using different digital tools and platforms. This event will take place in New York City. We begin with a special lecture on Friday afternoon, May 2, 2014, at John Jay College, and continue all day Saturday, May 3, 2014 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus with workshops, discussions, and a Maker Challenge.

At THATCamp Digital Writing, join a dynamic cast of participants to

  • Learn more about innovative ways to digitize your work and publish it online
  • Share pedagogical methods that use digital media for writing and research assignments
  • Explore how to evaluate online writing and give feedback
  • Question how tools, technology, and methods for publishing work shape the way we write
  • Take workshops on Scalar, Juxta, and collaborative writing
  • Make connections with others
  • Establish new collaborations.

TCDW is being organized by Amanda Licastro, a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Elizabeth Cornell, Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in English at Fordham University.

Interview with the Fordham University Newspaper, The Ram

Late Autumn Sun and Two Sun Dogs  (c) 2013 Robert Goldwitz
Late Autumn Sun and Two Sun Dogs
(c) 2013 Robert Goldwitz

The other day, Joseph Vitale, the opinion editor of Fordham University’s undergraduate newspaper, The Fordham Ram, interviewed me about using social media in the classroom. He emailed me the questions, and I responded in writing. Mr. Vitale incorporated some of my responses into his very good opinion piece about using social media in educational settings. Here’s my responses to his questions, in full:

First, I would ask if you could explain a couple of ways in which you find social media useful in the classroom, just to get a sense of how professors are using it at Fordham.

In my classroom, my students have occasionally used a private page on Facebook and a public Pinterest page to collaborate on collecting material for discussion and research on American literature. I find Facebook to be particularly useful because most students are comfortable with that medium. It’s easy for them to write original material and respond to other people’s posts. However, I change things just a bit by having students write rather long posts (for Facebook) about something they’ve researched and include a link to supporting material. Students are often surprised that they can add so much content to a single post. Pinterest is more challenging because not as many students use it. It’s also better for posting images, and since my courses are generally about writing and reading, Pinterest is less useful for my students.

In what way do the functions of social media transcend traditional teaching methods? Traditionally, the classroom has not been a social place. Students arrive to class, sit in a chair and, the teacher hopes, listen to a lecture and take notes. Many educators today see that model as outdated because it causes students to be passive learners. Social media can be a way to encourage students to be more active during class hours and outside of class.

For example, during class, some teachers allow students to tweet important material from the lecture to the rest of the class. While this is happening, students participate in a Twitter back channel, in which they add their own ideas and links related to the lecture. After the class is over, students can refer back to the Twitter stream, using it as a set of notes for the lecture and continue the conversation. This approach allows students to help teach the class because they are contributing their own knowledge and insights about the material.

Using Twitter in a directed way can help prepare students for careers that may involve using Twitter or other social media venues. That kind of job might include broadcasting information to clients or customers, or cultivating a personal learning network among colleagues.

What obstacles have you seen come up when using social media in the classroom? Are there limits to its functionality?

One major obstacle, obviously, is that when a teacher allows electronic devices in a classroom, some students are going to do things with them that have nothing to do with the class. Some students with devices may be tweeting the lecture, but others may be checking email, Facebook, or even doing work for another class. A way around that scenario is, for example, to only allow several students to tweet the class, but then the backchannel might lose some richness.

Teachers can turn this problem into a learning opportunity for students: Learn to use devices responsibly and make the most of your time in the classroom. In my experience, most students at Fordham are responsible and do want to use their time here in the best way possible. Moreover, it’s important to be conscious of how one uses social media. Students should cast a critical eye on their use of social media and how it uses them. A great book about mindful use of social media and technology is Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2012).

Another obstacle is that not all students want to use social media. There are many good reasons for not wanting to join the digital herd, including not wanting to divulge personal information to companies such as Facebook. In my current class, one student does not use Facebook. She sends me her material, which I post for her on our private course page, and then she reviews the posts in my office with me using my account. Fortunately, this student is very accommodating. If that wasn’t the case, a workaround could be to have students collect their material in a shared GoogleDoc or in a wiki created by the teacher. But these solutions, as well as the use of social media, assume that all students have access to the internet. That’s not always the case—and another obstacle and limit to the usefulness of social media.

If you were a student, would this be something that would excite you? Why or why not?

Social media in the classroom would definitely excite me if I were student. However, I’d probably be looking for the next hot thing. I would be less interested in using the same platforms as my teachers or parents. Or, I would search for innovative ways to use the most popular forms of social media. That said, it’s very important that all students who use social media, whether for social or academic purposes, use it responsibly. As we’re constantly reminded by the news, reckless use of social media can haunt users at some point in the future.

According to one study, 41% of college professors use social media in the classroom? How do you think this number can grow within the next few years? 

This number may grow, especially as new (younger) teachers are hired and bring their experience using social media productively for academic purposes. But what will social media look like in the next few years? A recent New York Times article reported that Facebook has seen a decline in new users, particularly with teenagers. They’re already moving on to the next big social media thing. And that’s going to be a challenge for teachers who want to use Facebook or Twitter in their classrooms. Students who use newer forms of social media might resist signing up for the old ones on the grounds that they don’t want to give companies such as Facebook information about themselves. Teachers might not want to learn how to incorporate new social media venues into their course work.

Some teachers avoid social media. I think that’s a mistake. Social media is not going to go away; it will continue to develop and become more complex. It is important that students learn to use social media not just for entertainment, but in creative and productive ways, and that they use learn to use it safely and critically. What better place for that than a college classroom?

Upcoming Events

Grapes on the Shawngunk Wine Trail, Ready for Harvest. (c) Robert Goldwitz 2013
Grapes on the Shawangunk Wine Trail (c) Robert Goldwitz 2013


Spring 2014
>>May 2-3, THATCamp Digital Writing,
Fordham University and John Jay College campuses, Manhattan. Various sponsors.

Fall 2013
>>November 13: Using Prezi for Making Arguments and Presenting Research: Organizer of this 2-hour workshop. Kimon Keramidas, Bard Graduate Center, workshop leader. Sponsored by Fordham GSAS, Fordham Grad Student DH Group, and various university departments.
>>November 19: How to Use Zotero  Will lead 45-minute workshop for faculty. Sponsored by Fordham IT.