Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The other and the self through time and space

H.G. Wells’ time traveler expounds quite a bit upon the idea of representing time as the fourth dimension. He notes that a cube, despite occupying space in three dimensions, cannot exist without occupying a particular time as well; he also boldly proclaims that “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” What is implied, of course, is that technology might permit the liberation of such consciousness from its fourth dimensional prison. The Time Machine itself is a vessel that does exactly this by allowing its rider to move along the fourth dimension as if it were merely space.

Nevermind the questionable and vague science behind the physics of time travel in Wells’ universe; the perception of time as a pseudo-spatial dimension is rather groundbreaking in and of itself. In the context of alterity in science fiction, it reconceptualizes the colonial theme of discovering new worlds (and new peoples) with respect to a different frontier: that is, instead of visiting other worlds in outer space, time travel allows us to visit our own world at different points in four-dimensional space. In a sense, it is the ultimate representation of Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement” – what can be more disconcertingly familiar and unfamiliar than a dystopian vision of our own future?

How, then, can we reconcile our notions of alterity with the idea that the “other” may simply be another version of ourselves? Theoretically, cognitive estrangement creates perspective to emphasize discovery of self, but the discoveries we make through time travel are often more overtly representative of the human condition than those made through space travel. In The Time Machine (particularly in the novella), the descendants of mankind are so estranged that they may as well have been an alien species; however, because they occupy the very (three dimensional) space in which the time traveller grew up, he is inclined to apply his knowledge of man to explain their situation. His theories are actually never fully confirmed; the reader can only rely on the time traveller’s speculations, speculations which are heavily rooted in late 19th century intellectual thought.

It should be noted that throughout history, man has not been afraid to frame new discoveries within older schools of thought. For example, the time traveller’s journey to the world of the Eloi and Murlocks can be seen as a classic, colonial tale of conquer and salvation: educated Englishman arrives in new (four-dimensional) place to educate and inspire the simple-minded aboriginals. The film adaptation even offers a sexual parallel to this conquest with its depiction of Weena (though one can argue that the book alluded to the same conquest in less explicit terms). Nevertheless, the time traveller is actually unable to fully decouple himself from his fourth-dimensional space. That is, though he is able to physically traverse the space of time, his consciousness is still embedded in his present. Yet, because his ideas are founded upon thousands of years of human intellect, not to mention influenced by prediction and expectation, one might say that moving through four-dimensional space is not so hard after all. In addition, if human intellect can be reasoned to transcend the fourth dimension, then the Eloi and Murlocks (and any "other" that may exist) can be understood as future manifestations of the self.


Post a Comment