Refraction of time

On a Thursday evening, five men gather around a dinner table. [1] Their host, a scientist from Surrey, England, has left them a note telling them to begin eating at 19:00 if he is not yet back himself. And so they do. They are in the midst of speculating about their hosts’ whereabouts when the door quietly opens. Their host – they only saw the man one week ago – is in a terrible state. His coat is dusty and dirty, his sleeves smeared with a green substance, and his hair disordered. He looks pale, older perhaps. Once refreshed and sitting down, the host tells them a story that is fantastic in different senses of the word. He has only just returned from a journey with his time machine, the machine he had shown the men only a week before. Fast forwarding into an unknown future at a controllable pace and into a self-selected time destiny, the man called the ‘Time Traveller’ has met far away futures. He begins to recount his adventures.

This story is drawn from H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine. It would soon become a paradigmatic case to think about time travel in public imaginaries (Earman et al. 2017). Several science fiction productions took up the theme, and so it framed many people’s commonsense ways of envisioning time. At the base of this time traveller’s view of time is a conception of time as a linear trail. Much like in the Time Traveller’s tale, in ordinary ways of speaking about time, there is often a future projected, and a past assumed, which people address from a ‘now’.

The stories in this collection show, however, that recollecting time or imagining the future does not always take the shape of the Time Traveller’s time. In Jeannette’s story, for instance, people with dementia instead emerge as notoriously disjunctive time travellers. Dementia seems to locate a “person’s sense of identity vis a vis a breach in the taken-for-granted construction of a past and future” (Orona 1990:187). Dementia turns common sense living-with-time on its head. What makes it so complicated is that for the narrator – the person with dementia – time does not shift but is taken for granted. Yet the person listening to the story notices the differences between her own timeframe and the timeframe of the past where the narrator knows herself to be. The listener has to manage these differences, which is not an easy task. For the narrator, there may be no problem; or there may be a problem if the listener creates one by failing to grasp the obvious. It is important for listeners to know that a person may not be lost or disoriented, but rather alternatively oriented. For the narrator, things may be as they are. The variety in tenses and times may not be a narrative problem but a problem of listening.

This play with time is complicated when photographs come in as an aid to memory. The pictures of Alessandro’s father do something to his memories: they change them. Do the pictures reflect his dad’s mood in his last year? Do they reveal what he failed to witness at the time they were taken? Or is this something that is added in retrospect, or by the emotions of a son distanced from his father? Remembering, re-invoking time, is to perform the past in a new way, as Elinor’s story strikingly shows. It is an active re-creation of the past. In her account of a family dinner conversation, a mother’s carelessness is re-done, subtly changing the emotions connected to the past event of a very young child eating a fiercely hot chilli pepper. The now-older child re-makes the morals of a past moment through narrating it together with his mother. It is a way of aligning past and present events, rather than a travelling back and forth between past and present.

This is very different from our Time Traveller, who finds the past pristine and as it has always been, who has a clear temporal sense of order of what comes first and what comes after. This is why the theme of changing the future by changing the past is the motor of excitement in time travellers’ stories. These stories present the paradox that we already know what is the outcome of the past (which is the present). Still the question remains: will the protagonists meet? Will they fall in love? Can future disasters be diverted by moving back in time? This is great stuff for clever scenario writers.

But looking at time in daily life shows different complexities. Take the spaces and the objects around us. If a grandmother points towards her coffee cup, or walks to the other room, are we then dealing with the same coffee cup and set of rooms, or are they different for grandmother and grandchildren? What makes objects like coffee cups so flexible for time travel is that they are always there. The individual objects may differ, but a coffee cup remains a coffee cup, no matter what its age.

So when linear time is not quite doing the trick here, what other forms of time may we learn about by looking through the lens of people with dementia, and then through the lens of other stories in which time lapses occur? What happens when time lapses disappear? What does it mean to be in space-time together? And what happens if space and time become decoupled altogether? When our understandings of time do not correspond with the place in which we find ourselves, this opens a box of interesting paradoxes to describe actual encounters with people with dementia.

Events in time

Time always seems to be linked to a particular situation. Space therein figures as a place, crowded with people and things, and a temporal horizon of its own. In the anthropological lingo of the day, we could say that time, at least in the narration of events, is always situated somewhere. A general, linear notion of clock-time is always situated in the need to go to work, pick up the kids from school, and so on.

This throws some light on the complexity of assuming that we share particular times. There are other people, and objects, each endowed with a particular understanding of their history, durability and future, which gives them a sense of importance – or not. For mundane objects like coffee cups, we expect others to have a roughly similar experience of them. This makes it possible to coordinate and organise a society that has a certain order and predictability. But our stories tell about a loss of this shared-ness of time.

One way in which this loss happens is through ‘time travel’ (which is only a time travel for the spectator). Natashe’s story shows that there is another one: death. In Natashe’s contribution, dementia has brought Ms Veenstra an unwanted future: she imagines a time of suffering ahead of her, and she tries to prevent this future from happening by requesting euthanasia. But here she becomes trapped in a logic of linear time. In her attempt to purposefully plot her future, Ms Veenstra makes that very future disappear. It slips further and further away from the ‘now’ she is living, and she cannot decide on the right moment to say that her suffering has become so much that her life should end. She does not want to die; not now, nor in the nows that will occur in the future. She does not want her alternatively plotted future (death) to draw near; at least, not yet. Hence, she finds herself caught in time games. By attempting to rule the future, she faces the impossibility of imagining herself in it. In all probability, when this future does arrive, and she will be living the life she fears, she will be unable to influence it in the way she has envisioned.

This is the upsetting puzzle of attempting to time one’s own death due to (an impending) loss of cognitive function. It is an extreme act of autonomy to decide to end one’s life, but it is exactly a feared lack of autonomy that makes it tragically impossible to decide to do so when the situation has arrived. There will never be a congruent ‘now’ paired to a condition to effect the situation. It is a fiction that can only be lived by either dying ‘before one’s time’, or dying in a way that one can no longer determine or influence one’s death.

Travelling or folding?

Time issues often go ‘unarticulated’. The assumed order that time brings makes it fit with the form of a trail that can only be run in one way: before, now, or after. In our stories, we encounter other forms, forms that make us want to explore the metaphor of time as ‘folded’. What if we look at living time as the meeting of different time-moments?

Michel Serres has introduced a notion of time as folded and crumpled. He uses a mundane image – a handkerchief – to demonstrate his intentions. A handkerchief may be ironed flat, but it can also be crumpled, as it usually is when stuffed into pockets. By crumpling it, points on the handkerchief, that were far from one another when the handkerchief was flat, meet. Through folding, these points may suddenly become close (Serres and Latour, 1995:60 in M’charek 2014; Pols 2014). It is in this way that Serres proposes that we think about time and histories in meeting present day problems. It is a radical way of not putting history into the curiosity cabinet.

Amade M’charek (2014) has written about history that is materially folded into objects, while Jeannette Pols (2014) has pointed to the history that is folded into theoretical concepts. But the stories we think with here show yet a different understanding of the folding of time. They speak of practices of folding time, pointing out the act of folding and the possible results. The conversations with people with dementia show quite some complex ways of folding time(s). What can we learn from them?

Laura’s contribution shows how pasts are artfully made to run parallel to present moments. Her story about Willem folds together moments that an outside biographer of Willem’s life might plot chronologically. These moments consist of an amalgam of elements that would affect Willem’s biographer’s understanding of his present situation – a recent lack of people coming to visit him, a feeling of his own existence as waning, and his sense that the nursing home is preventing him from living his own life – with an event that the biographer might relegate to Willem’s past – his mother’s demise. Yet what becomes present in his conversation with Laura, a guest, is the hard-felt loss of his mother.

Willem does more than fold into his present an event that the biographer might think belongs to the past. What all of the narrated moments have in common is a sense of being abandoned by others. With Laura on his arm, unfolding the story as they walk the corridors of his current residence together, he takes her along in the process of time folding. He does so by using movements in addition to words. Movements that, through his arm and the weight transferred by it, makes Laura feel how the loss of his mother and his waning energy for life come together in a visceral reality of feeble knees and necessary pauses in a stroll.

Lamenting his ill mother’s soon-to-be-expected death hence allows Willem to say something about his current situation and how he feels about it. His sadness about his ill mother’s condition is folded in with the feeling that he himself does not expect to live very long, and is not feeling well. He expresses his vulnerability in his pondering on how to get on with life without his beloved mother. Sometime after this event, the mother is folded in again in a different way, expressing how Willem has found a good way to live his new life. The presence of his mother helps him to ponder his present situation, a present on which he no longer has a cognitive grip. She is the mirror in which Willem can recognise his feelings.

With the folding metaphor, the plot of linear time travel stories is removed. Connecting times becomes messier, and much more mundane. One could say that people with dementia who time travel no longer engage in folding. They don’t synchronise their stories to those of the listeners, but leave the analytical folding work to the listener. Yet their folding often remains a creative act, in which the events and times referred to take on a new shape. It does not always work. Ms Veenstra was not able to connect a dementia-free future to her present life. Yet, creative folding works in remembering hot chillies and looking at photographs of a dear late father. In the act of its folding, something changes; the past event is reconstructed.

We suggest that there are many situations when time-space connections are unproblematic, but that there is a lot to learn from situations when they are not. How are different time-spaces then folded into one another, when does this go wrong, for whom, and why? In the different stories of this collection, time is enacted in different ways, ways that have significant consequences for how people understand each other and the objects around them. It is indeed fruitful to study time by thinking with dementia, where time takes on such highly interesting shapes.


[1] This refraction has been written by Jeannette Pols; It draws on text produced by Laura Vermeulen, Natashe Lemos Dekker and Alessandro Duranti.


Earman, J., C. Wüthrich, C.  & Manchak, J. (2016). ‘Time Machines’, in: E.N. Zalta (eEd.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), retrieved from  URL:   <>

Hoy, D. C. (2009). The Time of Our Lives: A Critical History of Temporality. Cambridge: MIT Press.

M’charek, A. (2014). ‘Race, Time and Folded Objects: The HeLa Error’, Theory, Culture & Society,  31(6):  29-56.

Orona, C. J. (1990). ‘Temporality and Identity Loss due to Alzheimer’s Disease’. Iin: A. Strauss, A. and & J. Corbin., J. Grounded Theory in Practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications

Pols, A. J. (2014). ‘Making Big Words work. About the surprising intellectual craft of pointing and folding.’ Paper for the workshop ‘Thinking through abstract nouns,’ Amsterdam, 28 April 2014.

Jeannette Pols is appointed as Socrates professor ‘Social Theory, Humanism and Materialities’ at the Department of Anthropology, program ‘Health, Care and the Body’, at the University of Amsterdam. She is Associate Professor and Principal investigator at the section of Medical Ethics of the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam. In 2017 Pols was appointed as a member of the Advisory Board for the Government on health care: RVS (Raad voor Volksgezondheid & Samenleving). The core of Pols’ research is empirical ethics, which studies ‘normativity in practice’. She formulated three research lines for the Socrates chair, to which she was appointed in 2012: 1) the analysis of ethical and aesthetic values in sociomaterial care practices; 2) the articulation of actual and preferable subject positions of people with chronic disease and other technology users; and 3) conceptualizing practical knowledge of patients and their carergivers.


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