J.T.Fraser’s Theory of Time as Conflict

Fraser’s theory of time as conflict “comprises a class of principles in the scientific and humanistic study of time.” [1] Fraser postulates the “idea […] that time is not a single, one-way thrust in which the furnishings of the world partake equally, but a hierarchy of temporalities associated with a hierarchy of structurally stable integrative levels.” [2] Time, as we humans perceive it, is an evolutionary result built upon the conflict between “structurally stable integrative temporal levels.” [3] Organized in the order of their appearance and causal complexity [4] in the beginning we have


“The substratum of the world is the (idealized) universe of radiation or, pars pro toto, the world of light. The next level is that of indistinguishable and hence completely interchangeable particles. Above it, as it were, we find the astronomical universe of heavy masses. Upon one of these masses we recognize life. One of the living species is man. Individuals of this species know how to transform their experiences into signs and signals that tie them into societies.” [5]


Therefore, Fraser distinguishes three lower temporal Umwelten: [6] 1. Atemporality, which is the Umwelt where “no meaning can be given to the idea of ‘event’, to conditions of ‘before-after’ or ‘past-present-future’.” [7] 2. Prototemporality, which is the Umwelt where “events may be identified but their temporal positions never precisely determined.” [8] This Umwelt is applicable to the quantum world, in that “connections among prototemporal events may only be specified probabilistically.” [9]  3. Eotemporality, which is the Umwelt that “displays the dyadic relationship of before/after but not a preferred direction of time.” [10]  Looking past these three lower temporalities, we observe the “crucial break in the development of temporalities [which] came with biogenesis; specifically, with the need of organisms to provide for continuous internal synchronization of biochemical processes.” [11] Fraser distinguishes three upper temporal Umwelten: 4. Biotemporality, where “the emergence of the biotemporal present is defined in terms of needs of the organism” and its “demand for immediate satisfaction that characterizes [Freud’s] pleasure-principle [further reminding] one of the creature present [that] displays no long-term expectation or memory.” [12]  5. Nootemporality, which is the Umwelt that “extends the if-then relationship of conditional probability […] into the long-term memory of man.” [13] Common usage describes this Umwelt as “human time,” by clearly distinguishing between past, present, and future. Finally, 6. Sociotemporality, which is the Umwelt for “human groups if they are sufficiently coordinated to act in self-interest.” [14] Table 1, [15] succinctly presents Fraser’s temporalities hierarchically ordered from atemporality to the emergence of organic evolution.

Table 1.

It is useful to think of temporality as evolutionary hierarchical structures circumscribed by a species’ Umwelt because such structures could be metaphorically represented in music, the temporal art par excellence. [16] Humans perceive and experience the world within the boundaries of a nootemporal Umwelt, which is a distinctly human conception of temporality. However, a prototemporal metaphor for example, triggers within our human Umwelt a vague approximation of a prototemporal Umwelt. Iannis Xenakis’ stochastic sound-mass compositions draw from such prototemporal probabilistic Umwelt. Although one would never directly experience a probabilistic Umwelt akin to theorized quantum cosmology, one can still revel in its metaphor. Time perceived as an endless succession without direction is a metaphor upon which both drone and minimalist music draw much of their inspiration. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s moment-form, or Donatoni’s direct adaptation of “composing in panels”, draws its inspiration from a biotemporal Umwelt, although one may not fully experience such a regressive state of listening as intended. Musical quotations likewise give a sense of sociotemporality’s expansive historical direction.

Fraser’s temporal hierarchy rejects Plato’s wide-spread dualistic conception of time. For Plato (as well as the European Christian tradition that derived from it), the source of truth (what is good and moral) resides in a timeless, godly realm. Heaven’s forms are timeless and eternal, whereas we poor folk on earth must come to terms with temporality in the form of shadows cast on the wall. Time itself is a shadow, since its pure, ideal form is unlike our earthly temporality and in unity with itself. Deities are atemporal, hence time in that realm is meaningless. In the history of western music, examples abound when a composer dedicates a major work to a stationary “heavenly father.” From Machaut to Monteverdi to Messiaen and on, one wanted nothing else other than to honor through music a Platonic timelessness. [17] Fraser’s theory, on the contrary, posits that “it is the timeless which comprises what is dark in the mind, what is primitive, determinate, and unfree.” 18His system and vocabulary re-orients the listener’s attention so that one may experience the stratification of time’s passing.