copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

Time after time: cinema, trauma, and (a)temporality

review by Allan Cameron

Todd McGowan, Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). 296 pages.

The emergence, since the mid-1990s, of popular films featuring achronological narrative structures, labyrinthine multilinear plots, and the juxtaposition of parallel ontological worlds has attracted a growing amount of scholarly attention in recent years. Within the body of work exploring these films, time has been a central and ongoing concern.[1] [open endnotes in new window] This critical work has occurred, furthermore, within the context of a broader resurgence of interest in cinematic time, from the contingent temporality of early cinema’s actualités to the increasingly malleable temporality of digital production and reception.[2] Although these analyses vary widely in their conclusions regarding the status of temporality within the contemporary mediascape, they are united, in the main, by a shared investment in time as a bearer of cultural, political and social value.

The startling conceit at the heart of Todd McGowan’s book Out of Time, however, is that the real significance of recent complex film narratives lies outside of time altogether. In the shuffled narratives of films including Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 1999), 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003), Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2003), The Butterfly Effect (Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, 2004), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), McGowan finds an insistent emphasis not on temporal flow but on the repetition associated with trauma. Trauma shapes the lives of the characters (through violent episodes, the deaths of loved ones, or even the dissolution of relationships), but also the films’ characteristic narrative loops, overlaps, and switchbacks.

Beginning with Freud’s assertion that the unconscious sees past, present, and future on the same plane (xi), McGowan sees traumatic repetition in these films as fundamentally atemporal. In returning us again and again to a crucial constitutive loss (which often goes unrepresented but manifests itself in narrative ellipses and repetitions), these films remind us that “no amount of time allows us to escape the hold that loss has over us” (14), particularly since trauma itself, according to this Lacanian account, provides the very grounds for subjectivity (232). These “atemporal” films thus depart radically from the cinema of the “time-image” championed by Gilles Deleuze (33).[3] Indeed, McGowan sees their nonlinear temporal articulations as representative of the “spatialization” of time that so alarmed modernist thinkers such as Henri Bergson (33).[4]

McGowan’s bold move is to frame this spatialization in positive terms, by connecting it with certain tendencies of the digital era. He argues that digital technologies, by collapsing temporal boundaries and making objects of desire available to us instantaneously, short-circuit the prospective temporality associated with capitalism, which aims constantly at the future satisfaction of present desires. These technologies accelerate capitalism’s spatialization of time, bringing the promise of desire’s fulfilment from the future into the present, and thereby unmasking its fundamental emptiness (27-28). Connecting his selection of films to this contemporary digital moment, McGowan argues that their repetitive articulation of “atemporality” is also aimed at undermining desire. By depriving desire of its orientation toward the future, these atemporal films transform desire into “the drive” (or, in Freudian terms, the death drive) (32-33). McGowan writes,

“Desire represents a belief that a satisfying object exists and can be obtained. In contrast, the drive locates enjoyment in the movement of return itself – the repetition of the loss, rather than in what might be recovered” (11).

What McGowan values in “atemporal cinema” is its privileging of the drive over future-oriented desire, and its acknowledgement of subjectivity’s necessary relation to trauma. Crucially, argues McGowan, the drive makes possible ethical behavior because, in contrast to desire, it does not lead us to regard other human beings as the means to an end. For this reason, McGowan sees atemporal films as “an ethical landmark in the history of cinema” (32).

McGowan’s complex argument is bolstered by detailed analyses of eight key films. He carefully outlines, for example, the way that Quentin Tarantino’s use of narrative loops and cultural clichés in Pulp Fiction (1994) aims to rehabilitate time by remaking such elements in the process of their repetition (41). Criticizing Tarantino’s approach for its failure to come to terms with trauma, McGowan goes on to demonstrate how, in his view, films like 21 Grams and Irréversible show that trauma and loss can never be transcended. In 21 Grams, he finds a rejection of the “logic of exchange” that would seek to mitigate trauma through the process of organ donation (148-49) or the prospect of a new child (151). In keeping with the film’s radically alinear plot, the violent tragedy that triggers the narrative can never be assigned to the past but remains instead a constant presence (139). Similarly, the reversed narrative structure of Irréversible, in which a violent murder and rape are followed by calmer and happier events that precede them chronologically, illustrates for McGowan that a time outside of trauma is in fact impossible (230). According to this model, “before” and “after” occupy the same ontological plane, meaning that every moment, including moments of peace and pleasure, is inflected by trauma. Trauma is thus “a part of bliss and inseparable from it” (216).

Whereas other writers have tended to emphasize differences as much as similarities among complex cinematic narratives, McGowan’s interpretations display a remarkable degree of conceptual and hermeneutical unity. This sense of unity undoubtedly strengthens the book, but it also represents a key weakness. McGowan’s approach is to test each of his chosen films, and a selection of others, for their adherence to his psychoanalytic perspective. Yet these readings are ultimately rather inflexible, and require attributing a high degree of rhetorical coherence to the films, while overlooking their internal contradictions and equivocations. McGowan’s reading of Irréversible, for example, frames the film in didactic terms, finding the “key” to the film in the “errors of judgment” that the film first “induces” and then “corrects” in its spectators (211). This interpretative approach has a certain fragility, since it relies to a large extent on narrative resolutions and the quest for a final message or meaning. In the case of The Butterfly Effect, a slight difference between the ending of the DVD and theatrical releases is apparently sufficient to transform the film from an affirmation of temporality to an affirmation of the drive (77).

While I would agree that it is productive to approach films as vehicles for philosophical thought, treating them as fully developed conceptual statements is a risky strategy. What is overlooked here, I would argue, is the temporal agnosticism of these films, and the way that their alinear structures might suggest not simply an escape from time but the juxtaposition of different temporalities. Although McGowan offers compelling interpretations of his chosen films, his assertion that contemporary cinema “has once again revealed its bond with psychoanalytic theory” invests them with an artificial sense of conceptual congruence, attenuating their theoretical potential (xii).

Furthermore, McGowan’s argument is sometimes underwritten by simplistic claims about relations among time, media, and psychoanalysis. For example, he suggests that the gaps produced by film editing and even projection correspond to the repetition of the death drive, an assertion that seems rhetorically satisfying yet conceptually insubstantial (xi). Similarly reductive is his characterization of digital technology, which

“eviscerates the experience of authentic temporality, leaving contemporary subjects adrift in the experience of an eternal present” (25).

Although this is quite a familiar argument, it seems at best an exaggeration of the “effects” of digital mediation, and at worst, an unhelpful distortion. The conceptual opposition between repetition and temporality that underpins the entire argument is also open to question. According to McGowan, repetition in these films is associated with the “atemporality” of the unconscious. Yet narrative repetition can also be viewed as an index of the temporal, or a way of juxtaposing alternative temporal perspectives. Here, McGowan’s narrow view of repetition is determined by his treatment of narrative alinearity as, in essence, a manifestation of psychological phenomena. Yet the multi-stranded narratives of Pulp Fiction, 21 Grams and Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000) are concerned not simply with individual psychology, but also with the connective networks that produce different configurations of social time.

For McGowan, “atemporal” films challenge twentieth century philosophy’s bias towards temporal experience and mortal finitude. Collectively, they constitute a “new cinematic mode,” which

 “marks the end of the twentieth century by bringing the psychoanalytic alternative into a wider cultural circulation” (30).

By implication, psychoanalysis itself emerges as the “repressed” term in twentieth century accounts of time, and offers a powerful critique of such accounts. Modern philosophy’s attraction to temporal heterogeneity and openness, claims McGowan, is coextensive with the desire for “a better future” (15). This desire, not unlike the instrumental desire associated with capitalism, “leads us to treat others (and ourselves) as mere means to an end” (15). Despite the sophistication of McGowan’s argument, it is here that his conceptual account begins to take on the qualities of a caricature. For an openness to time is not incommensurate with the acknowledgement that the very worst as well as the very best is possible. Moreover, an ethics of time cannot merely be reduced to instrumental desire. Indeed, perhaps the key ethical question of our times has to do with our treatment of species and environments other than our own, a question that involves humans being able to take a long temporal view, and possibly to imagine life on this planet proceeding without us. The atemporality of the drive, grounded in the human subject’s experience of traumatic repetition, seems wholly inadequate to this task.

Perhaps aware of this problem, McGowan attempts to draw a distinction between biological and social time, suggesting that “the time of the biological world operates through constant change,” while “no such constant change occurs in a social structure” (221). Yet this contrast “between the temporality of life and the eternity of the social structure” (221) depends on a rigid opposition between temporality and atemporality, while overlooking the coexistence of a range of different temporalities (biological, geological, cosmological, and social) that possess their own rhythms and scales. In contrast to McGowan, I would argue that cinema has an ethical imperative to engage with these other temporalities. Although narrative is an undeniably human articulation of time, it does not follow that films’ temporal articulations are oriented only around the human psyche. Furthermore, it is not at all self-evident that calamitous social events should be treated in the same way as psychological traumas. By placing the subject’s originary trauma at the centre of each narrative and reading every other conflict or collision through it, McGowan seems to close down rather than open up these films’ ethical dimension.

Despite these reservations, this is an impressive and conceptually ambitious book, which renders an array of complex, interconnected ideas in clear and readable terms. Although its unity of purpose leads in important instances to an oversimplification of concepts and a degree of hermeneutic inflexibility, it represents a provocative and productive intervention in the field. It should prompt scholars working in this area to reconsider the terms in which cinematic temporality is framed, to develop a more rigorous account of the relations between mediated space and time, and to acknowledge the important role that traumatic experience plays in a great many complex narratives.

One possible avenue for future exploration involves the relationship between trauma and technology. Considering film narratives that hinge upon ontological puzzles and mentally disturbed characters, Thomas Elsaesser argues that

“‘trauma-theory’ is only one path to access the mind of mind-game protagonists”; we must also be prepared to “understand these illnesses as anthropomorphized versions of mathematical code and automated programs.”[5]

The significance of technology is also invoked by Garrett Stewart’s term “postsubjective virtuality”[6] and my own term “modular subjectivity,”[7] both of which reflect the ways in which characters access and manipulate their own temporal experience, producing new narratives of self and identity. These works thus place trauma within a broader frame, which takes into account such factors as the films’ technological provenance, their specific deployment of digital effects, and the way that aspects of technologized work and leisure are reflected in their narrative convolutions. Films such as The Butterfly Effect, Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind might thus be viewed not only in terms of the traumatic events that appear to break apart their narratives, but also the opportunities for temporal control and ordering that become available to their respective protagonists. Thomas Elsaesser has suggested that the traumatic histories and mental aberrations depicted in many such films take the form of “productive pathologies,” which can allow the characters to overcome the laws of physics (via time travel, or example) but also, in less extreme cases, to cope with “man-made, routinized, or automated surroundings.”[8] These productive pathologies, rather than cancelling out time, serve to affirm it, because they

“indicate that ‘trauma’ is not only something that connects a character to his or her past, but also opens up to a future.”[9]

The traumas that structure such films are thus not simply manifestations of atemporality, but can also (often in conjunction with technologies of mediation) be the means for affirming time. 

Ultimately, whether trauma or technology forms the central focus in investigating complex cinematic narratives, the status of time itself remains a significant issue. The term “spatialization” has often been used to describe the way in which the unbroken “flow” of time championed by Henri Bergson is turned into static, rationalized representations by scientific and technological mediation.[10] The notion of spatialization forms the basis for McGowan’s argument about atemporality. It also informs Garrett Stewart’s discussion of digital imagery in contemporary cinema, which presents

“the spatialized configuration of time itself as in its own right a malleable medium.”[11]

Spatialization certainly offers a compelling perspective on temporal representations and interfaces, yet it is time to ask whether this term, inherited from Bergson and reused by writers from Joseph Frank to Fredric Jameson, also limits our understanding of temporal phenomena.[12] First, the use of “spatialization” often implies that space and time are opposed and thus underemphasizes their interdependence both within and beyond our everyday phenomenological experience. Second, it casts diverse modes of temporal representation together into a single moribund category, in which mediation leads ultimately to stasis. Although we have surely moved a long way from Bergson’s emphasis on “duration” and temporal flow, I wonder whether we should accept as given this connection between mediation and stasis. Must we choose, in other words, between duration and spatialization, time that flows and time that is stilled or thwarted? If time, as John Urry points out, is always encountered through mediation since it is “invisible to the senses,” then we should be prepared to explore further the diversity of temporal regimes produced through such mediation.[13] Work undertaken from this perspective would examine the alternative and overlapping temporalities that structure various media genres, including cinematic narratives. By foregrounding spatialization and atemporality, Todd McGowan’s book should prompt us to think carefully about the terms in which we frame time and space, and to consider whether time, as a subject of ethical and narrative significance, still has a future.


1. See, for example, Garrett Stewart’s Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), my own Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), and the essays in Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, ed. Warren Buckland (Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), as well as special issues of the journals Film Criticism (31:1-2, 2006) and The Velvet Light Trap (no. 58, 2006). [return to text]

2. See Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006), and D.N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

3. See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (London: Continuum, 2005).

4. See Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F.L. Pogson (London: S. Sonnenschein and Company, 1910).

5. Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film,” in Warren Buckland (ed.), Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 29.

6. Stewart, Framed Time, p. 211.

7. Cameron, Modular Narratives, p. 112.

8. Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film,” p. 31.

9. Ibid.

10. See Bergson, Time and Free Will.

11. Stewart, Framed Time, p. 2.

12. See Joseph Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1991), p. 154; and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991), p. 154.

13. John Urry, “Speeding Up and Slowing Down,” in Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheurman(eds.) High-Speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power, and Modernity (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009), p. 179.

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