Today is the Magical Cube

Can time run backward in the future? Does time run slower in distant galaxies? The following text depicts a fictional dialogue with Nico, an eight-month-old, about his perception of time. Nico turns his efforts to show us that time should not be conceived as a unidirectional timeline and that the idea of future is a misconception that can only exist in the delusional minds of adults. The fictional conversation examines a few non-Western philosophical traditions in which only what we conceive as the past and, more importantly, as the present, play a role.

Camila de Caux and Eric Macedo — Nov 30, 2022

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Today is the Magical Cube

Nico: Mama, what is time?

Cami: Oh, dear, isn’t it a bit too soon for this question?

Nico: But doesn’t »too soon« already imply a specific notion of time? If something is »too soon,« it means that we shouldn’t be talking about this now, but will be talking about it at some point in the future. It means that things are attached to certain moments in time, as in a fixed order. Like crawling …

Eric: Like crawling? Do you mean that crawling has a specific order between knees and hands?

Nico: No, I’m saying that you are all the time encouraging me to crawl. And you told grandma the other day: Nico is almost crawling. And people are always saying: my baby is already crawling.

Cami: Yes, I guess you are right. Since children develop in more or less similar ways, we can sort of predict the order in which things happen when a child is growing. There are many studies about it. And although much of them are quite questionable, we still rely on them more than we admit.

Nico: Oh, I feel so claustrophobic! Like I am trapped in the future.

Cami: Poor baby! I guess the adult world is always expecting children to be something else, pushing you to do things as adults do.

Nico: Bingo. Watch out, next thing you know you are calling me »cute little man!«

Cami: Oh, come on … Nico: But I understand that this may be quite inevitable for you since we babies are really growing. Now what do you say: if people can tell how I am going to develop, is this a way of remembering the future?

Eric: Well, to make it as simple as possible, we usually say that we remember the past, live in the present, and make plans or guesses for the future. But there are probably some ways of remembering the future, although they escape me right now. Nico: Oh, I’m having a déja vu here … Or is it vújá de?

Cami: Tricky. What if we think of time as a river? Let’s say you are in the middle of it, looking towards the mouth. You have already traveled all the way from the springs. The past is the accumulation of your memories, or actually of all that you are. And as the river gets wider and wider, it accumulates more and more water.

Nico: Am I using water wings?

Cami: Yes, I’m pretty sure you are. And you are constantly floating toward the future, which always starts from where you are and moves forward. But you can only know what you’ve already seen, you don’t know what’s coming.

Nico: And why do I want to go there? Is there a playground or something?

Eric: Now that you are saying it, yes, the future could be some kind of playground, an imaginary realm of possibilities with which we play in our thoughts.

Nico: Ok, so I’m in the middle of a large river, alone, floating endlessly toward an imaginary playground that I’ll never reach.

Eric: Well … this is what we conventionally call the »arrow of time.«

Nico: Oh, curious! I remember holding an arrow at aunt Luisa’s house and you telling me to watch out, that I could hurt myself. Isn’t an arrow a weapon?

Cami: Well, yes, maybe the arrow of time can be some sort of weapon … It has been imposed by the industrial West everywhere, erasing other conceptions of time.

Eric: Although it seems to describe something real, don’t you agree?

Nico: Yay, we are finally having the »what’s real« talk!

Eric: Oh, please, not today! It’s just that the arrow shouldn’t be seen as the only way to describe time. Even among modern conceptions, there are ways of seeing time way differently from the clock time model, this linear and abstract sequencing of past, present, and future.

Cami: And there’s a danger of just denying linear time and ending up exoticizing extra-modern peoples, saying that they live in ahistoric, eternal, or static time, or else that they only rely on cyclical periodizations. But it is not because people do not describe their temporalities by means of the clock that they don’t think of things as coming before or after one another.

Nico: But wait, isn’t clock time itself a cycle?

Eric: Isn’t it? And all our calendars are based on cycles, and a lot of our daily talk is based on cyclical references, like days and nights, or else when we think of seasons. We do not need to deny the arrow of time to use other conceptions of time. But what we call clock time is often denying other temporalities, resonating with racist ideas of progress and civilization.

Nico: No! »Boo to captain clock!«

Cami: Ok, so we’re quoting now. But I have to say again that it’s not so simple.

Nico: What do you mean? Down with the clocks! Can we rip that one apart and play with the little pieces?

Cami and Eric: Just don’t stick them in your mouth!

Eric: Things can get pretty complicated if we look at them closely. Physicists say that they can be quite sure about the direction of time for three reasons: first, that we remember the past, but don’t remember the future (this is the psychological arrow of time); second, that everything in the universe tends to go from more organized to less organized, like the toys in your room (this is called the thermodynamic arrow of time); and third, because the universe is expanding, with all the galaxies and stars and planets getting further away from each other (this is called the cosmological arrow). Weirdly, some scientists have suggested that in the future time could start running backward, as the universe would begin to contract instead of expand. Then we would really remember the future.

Nico: Time would go backward? Would this mean that my room would get clean by itself?

Eric: Exactly. We wouldn’t need to collect toys from the floor anymore. But now the physicists seem to concur that time will always flow in the same direction.

Nico: This sounds way more boring than the first option.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Today is the Magical Cube

Eric: Yeah, right?

Cami: Not to mention the whole other universe of physicists who argue that time doesn’t exist. But I guess we could leave that part for another talk.

Nico: Ok, because I think for us babies time flows backward.

Cami: What do you mean?

Nico: When I was born, I could not make much difference in what I saw or heard. And little by little things started to become more … bounded. As if the room was tidying itself. So maybe I am facing the other side then? Of the river, I mean. I’m looking at the springs. Does it invert time?

Eric: Now the future would be coming in your direction, right? That’s interesting. And the future would always rise from the springs, not as in a model of progress. The future is coming from the earth itself.

Nico: And the bubbles and the little waves around my body are the present. Now the present is the playground!

Cami: But I have to say I glimpse a problem here. When the past just flows away from me, and I flow away from it, I’m constantly letting go of my memories. This can, of course, be a good thing, but it can also serve as a pretty good excuse for colonialism’s continuing erasure of its past and present violences.

Eric: Yes, and now that I’m thinking about it, the future becomes too highlighted. When you have your eyes so focused on this source, on this spring of eternal future, it can draw the Future, with a capital F, the future of progress. This future, springing from the earth, becomes some kind of resource to be exploited.

Nico: Wasn’t it Ailton Krenak who said that the future doesn’t exist?

Cami: Yes, he was talking about how the idea of the future is convenient for capitalist, colonialist, extractivist powers. And how it is so closely related to the idea of progress. He says that the future is a promise, some kind of hope for a thing that is coming, but never comes.

Eric: And I think he was talking about what changes, if you think of it as the immediate aftereffect of our actions and decisions. Then it doesn’t exist beyond our actual doings, and hence it is also our present responsibility for the world.

Nico: Hum … Even though adults relate babies to the future all the time, maybe we babies don’t really work with the idea of future ourselves.

Eric: Gotcha. See, this morning you were really excited about eating strawberries, but you got distracted three seconds later, before we even headed to the kitchen.

Nico: Time passes differently for you! No offense.

Cami: None taken. But maybe we can say that time passes differently for everything that exists. Some physicists also think that this is a consequence of Einstein’s relativity.

Nico: Are we talking about the guy with the tongue and funny hair?

Eric: Oh, you know who Einstein is.

Nico: It’s just that I thought you didn’t!

Eric: Ok. But it’s mindblowing to think that one instant here would last more than eight years in a galaxy such as Proxima Centauri b, and even more if you invert it: what is our correspondent of one second in Proxima Centauri b? You kind of extend time to such small intervals that it kind of stops making sense.

Nico: Wow, speed it up! For me, it’s like there are so many things happening between what you call now and what comes next … You seem not to have such a hard time waiting for things, but for me it’s just hell. What you call the future is usually so extended that it seems quite a random election of probabilities, colored by a handful of other interesting events.

Eric: If things pass through you less quickly than they do for us, does it mean that the future is closer for you than it is for us? I mean, if we keep the point of view of our speed.

Nico: Gee whiz, I just said I might not have a sense of the future and you take the opportunity to shove it even closer to my nose. I mean, why would you need the future if you already have it, huh?

Cami: All this reminds me of how the Aymara people locate time in space. The past is what stands ahead of you, the »front time.« It is what stands before their eyes – and quite literally since the word used for »eyes« and »earlier« is the same. So the Aymara point to the front when talking about the »old times,« or the earlier generations, or even the »gentil timpu,« the times before the Spanish invasion. And accordingly »a future day« is what stands on the back. The curious thing is that, while they use many different gestures to sign the past (in front) and the present (on the floor), their gestures are far less elaborate when they want to refer to the future.

Nico: So it’s like I am looking instead at the mouth of the river? But the springs are the future?

Eric: So the future stands behind you and you cannot see it. Or maybe you just get some glimpses of it when you turn your head. But you are mostly looking at the past and playing with bubbles in the present.

Nico: So the past is yet to come – yes, I’m quoting that talk of Karen Barad now.

Cami: Anytime! But also, if you think about it, now the past is changing. You are constantly looking at the past, but the past is never the same. It’s as if the past events continue to exist with their own futures, that can be different than the one you are living now.

Nico: So it’s not possible to step in the same past twice, huh? Adiós, my good Heraclitus!

Eric: And now the future is coming toward your back. So all the random projections and possibilities of the future are slipping away, except for the particular ones that are actually touching your body, becoming bubbles and splashes. Right now. Around you.

Nico: Yes, especially if it rains!

Eric: Oh, yeah, the rain! The flux of the river changes with the conditions, more water, less water, evaporation, mist …

Cami: Would it be too much of a cosmological cake if I mentioned that for the Quechua the future is above and the past below?

Nico: More of a pan-cake, I would say.

Cami: Okay, but the mix becomes particularly interesting if you think about what Vine Deloria said about a spatially situated notion of history. History for the West occurs primarily on a temporal frame, even if that frame is metaphorized on a spatial surface like an arrow. Deloria contrasted it with his and other peoples’ strongly spatial mode of thinking. Locations in native peoples’ homelands have countless and multiple stories. And temporal knowlegdes are intrinsic to the landscapes, deeply specific, dealing with precise geographical formations, conditions, features, and rhythms.

Eric: So we don’t have to stay only in the river anymore. Time is all around. Everywhere you look there is history.

Nico: But with different times at every location.

Eric: And different pasts are still happening. So a new act in the present can change the past. Cami: Yes, the landscapes change, and I move through them, and make them while living through them. So if the past is not changing, I can turn to a different place. If what’s inhabiting my view is a bad memory, if it makes my body heavy and sad, I can change my horizon. Walk to forget, say the Katxuyana.

Nico: Then you have it, huh?

Eric: What?

Nico: Your ending.

Cami: I don’t get it.

Nico: Because if it’s too soon for me to crawl, it’s even sooner to walk. And, well, if I don’t walk, I can’t forget. I see it all.

Camila de Caux is a writer, ethnologist, and parent, working around notions of corporeality and multiple ontologies, and their reverberations in political practices. Since 2010, she works with the Araweté ethnic group in the Brazilian Amazon.

Eric Macedo is a former Akademie Schloss Solitude fellow, anthropologist, and parent. His work deals with questions of difference and ethnocentrism, human-environment relations, colonialism and, more recently, with intersections between anthropology and science fiction.

Nico is their child.

Inspirations and further readings

Karen Barad, »Troubling Time/s, Undoing the Future,« Conference at the Faculty of Arts of Aarhus Universitet, Denmark, 2016. Available at: watch?v=dBnOJioYNHU
Vine Deloria Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003.
Martina Faller and Mario Cuéllar, »Metáforas del tiempo en el quechua,« Conference at the IV Congreso Nacional de Investigaciones Lingüístico-Filológicas. Universidad Ricardo Palma, Lima, 2003. martina.t.faller/documents/Faller-Cuéllar.pdf
Jay Griffith, »Boo to captain clock,« in: New Internationalist, 343 (March), 2002, pp. 14–17. Available at:
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. London: Bantam Books, 1989.
Ailton Krenak, »Earth’s Fever,« Interview by Eric Macedo and Camila de Caux in: a perfect storm, 2022. Available at:
R.E. Núñez and E. Sweetser, »With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time,« in: Cognitive Science, 30, 2006, pp. 401-450. s15516709cog0000_62
Rasheedah Phillips (ed.), Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice, Vol. I. The Afrofuturist Affair/House of Future Sciences Books, 2012.
Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time. New York: Riverhead Books, 2018.
Roy Wagner, Coyote Anthropology. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

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