Dusk Somewhere

Time After Time

Posted at — Aug 30, 2023 by Izzy Meckler

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
– Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto

Communism is the riddle of history solved.
– Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Lying in my bed, I hear the clock tick and think of you
Caught up in circles
Confusion is nothing new…

I’m walking too far ahead
You’re calling to me, I can’t hear
What you’ve said
Then you say, “go slow”
And I fall behind
The second hand unwinds
– Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time"

We usually think of time these days abstractly, in terms of the numbers on a clock. But there is no such thing as absolute time in the sense of a counter incrementing outside the system. There is no perfect clock on God’s wall.

The passage of time is only meaningful insofar as it is physically mediated — i.e., that there is some physical process or system which is accumulating changes in its state.

A ”clock” in the broadest sense is any physical system which accumulates changes in its state according to some logic as time goes on. “History writ large” is the process of passing information from the past to the future. Or in other words, the process of information accumulating in a material form.

Just as we refer to “modes of production” based on the form which the human metabolism takes, it is appropriate to refer to “modes of history” or “modes of information accumulation” based on what are the dominant physical mechanisms for accumulating change over time. The character of existence within a given epoch depends to a large extent on the “mode of history”. Because we are ultimately interested in human affairs, and what happens on Earth, the scope of our “modes of history” will be limited to the Earth system, ignoring for now the rest of the universe.

At first, the only way changes accumulated materially on Earth was via geological processes: changes in temperature and pressure, changes in chemical concentrations over space via diffusion processes, tectonic motions, etc. Probably it is appropriate to break this pre-life era down further, but for our purposes we will just summarize it as being dominated by the “geological mode of history”.

Eventually, a new mechanism for communicating information through time came about: DNA, or self-replicating biological life, with information being passed on via natural selection and replication of organisms. This immediately came into contradiction with the previous dominant modes of information propagation. DNA-based life stepping onto the historical stage caused massive shifts in the Earth’s rock, climate, and water systems.

As an example of one of the clear manifestations of this contradiction we have the Great Oxygenation Event also suggestively called “the Oxygen Catastrophe, the Oxygen Revolution, the Oxygen Crisis, or the Oxygen Holocaust”. This was a period about 2.4 billion years ago in which the oxygen content of the atmosphere rose dramatically in a (relatively) short period of 400 million years, thought to have been caused by the evolution of Cyanobacteria with an oxygen-producing photosynthesis process.

This event was catastrophic for much of early life: “The sudden injection of highly reactive free oxygen, toxic to the then-mostly anaerobic biosphere, may have caused the extinction of many existing organisms on Earth”.

Moreover, it had significant effects at the level of geological systems from the previous mode of history:

  • Oxygen likely oxidized atmospheric methane (a strong greenhouse gas) to carbon dioxide (a weaker one) and water. This weakened the greenhouse effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, causing planetary cooling, which has been proposed to have triggered a series of ice ages known as the Huronian glaciation, bracketing an age range of 2.45–2.22 billion years ago.[80][81][82]
  • The increased oxygen concentrations provided a new opportunity for biological diversification, as well as tremendous changes in the nature of chemical interactions between rockssandclay, and other geological substrates and the Earth’s air, oceans, and other surface waters. Despite the natural recycling of organic matter, life had remained energetically limited until the widespread availability of oxygen. The availability of oxygen greatly increased the free energy available to living organisms, with global environmental impacts. For example, mitochondria evolved after the GOE, giving organisms the energy to exploit new, more complex morphologies interacting in increasingly complex ecosystems, although these did not appear until the late Proterozoic and Cambrian.[83]

The source of this contradiction was

We are at a new point in the evolution of the Earth’s mode of history where a new mechanism for communicating information through time has arisen: namely the possibility of information in human mental processes to reflect itself into the physical environment in such a way that it can be partially recovered by later humans.

The basic mechanism which makes our new mode of history possible is the conjunction of:

  1. The human capacity to hold a very wide range of mental states within their brains, which can evolve according to a very wide of logics.
  2. The human capacity to project their mental states into physical space. I.e., the ability to perform a wide variety of physical manipulations based on our mental state. This is what is ordinarily called labor, and is one of the most significant mechanisms mediating information flow between the human system and the biological and geological systems.
  3. The human capacity to communicate mental constructions to other humans, mediating them through physical processes. This last point bears some further elaboration. The most famous mechanism by which this information transmission is accomplished is speech, the translation of mental states into abstract symbols which are rendered as motions of our vocal apparatus, which produce vibrations in the air that vibrate the ear drums of other people, which they can then interpret. But already there is another much simpler and less abstract mechanism which I would guess is historically prior to speech. This is the human capacity for mimesis/mimicry/imitation, whose biological basis is perhaps our mirror neurons. We can observe the actions of another human being and replicate them, thus reproducing some knowledge which that other human has accumulated. We can do this in real time with another person, or with a time lag by observing artifacts produced by others and then attempting to replicate them ourselves. E.g., if a human came across a chair constructed of sticks bound together by dried grass, they could probably replicate the design. Thus the mere creation of “unnatural” objects serves to propagate past information into the future from one past human to a subsequent one. Language is an abstracted form of this process, representing the abstract accumulation of billions of human experiences which we mimic and tweak.

This new mode of history (what is usually called simply “history”, in distinction to “prehistory” of “natural history”) has deep contradictions with the ones that came previously. This manifests in the human potential to wreak havoc on ecosystems. The source of this contradiction is, as with the origin of life:

  1. The radically shortened timescale on which this new mechanism of accumulation operates. What previously took billions of years of geological processes or millions of years of natural selection can occur in thousands of years.
  2. The abstraction of this new mechanism of accumulation from the previous ones. The human organism is physically quite versatile, and can adapt itself to many ecological niches by the production of “external organs” (tools) which can be transmitted quickly using human mechanisms of communication rather than according to natural selection or geological processes. Therefore its coupling with the geological systems and the biosphere is quite loose, and humans can therefore manifest changes radically out-of-sync with these processes with a correspondingly large time lag for those changes to “feed back” directly into the human system.

Communism is the project of reconciling this new form of the dialectic of history with its physical basis (the biological and geological systems), by internalizing sufficient information about those processes within human processes to avoid continual crisis and conflict with them. It is in this sense (among others) that it is the riddle of history solved, the riddle being the contradiction between the human mode of accumulating information over time and previous modes of history.

A small comment on human history

The appearance of changes within the human mode of history can also have large effects, just as with changes within previous modes of history. These changes are changes in technology or social relations which produce the possibility of transmitting and accumulating information on new scales of time and space. Some examples include

Of course both of these have had significant effects at the levels of the biological and the geological systems on which the human mode of history is constructed.