The Fire in Which We Burn: Time and Trauma in Contemporary Television by Simon Bowie

About the Author Simon Bowie is a culture writer and film critic based in the UK. He writes and speaks about various forms of contemporary culture from film and TV to video games and memes with a particular focus on cultural representations of irony and sincerity. You can find more of Simon’s writing, conference presentations, and idle thoughts at: Website:  Twitter: @SimonXIX

Introduction to The Fire in Which We Burn: Time and Trauma in Contemporary Television

In his poem ‘Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day’, Delmore Schwartz (1967) wrote: Time is the school in which we learn,  Time is the fire in which we burn.

Soran (Malcolm McDowell) quotes this line in Star Trek: Generations (1994) as some explanation to Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) for why he wants to return to the non-linear time of the Nexus. He wants to free himself from time’s burning shackles in order to escape the psychological trauma of the Borg killing his entire family. 

Escaping trauma by disrupting the linear flow of time is a theme across many cultural properties. Characters like Soran seek to escape the tyrannical linearity of time as a way to stop experiencing the psychological trauma from an event that dominates their life. Others travel backwards in time to attempt to rewrite or expunge a traumatic incident in their lives. The meme concept of travelling back in time to kill Adolf Hitler before the rise of the Third Reich is based on the fundamental idea of erasing the collective physical and psychological trauma of World War II and the Holocaust.

We all experience time and most of us experience trauma. Time burns us all but some are burnt more than others through the trauma of war, gendered violence, racialised violence, colonial violence, genocidal violence, or any of the myriad other traumas that can befall a person.

In this short essay collection, I present three meditations on the link between time and trauma in three contemporary television series. In particular, I look at how psychological trauma is often linked to non-linear representations or conceptions of time; how trauma manifests as a distortion of time into non-linear, non-homogenous forms.




  • After Life (1998), directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Engine Film / TV Man Union.
  • Arva, Eugene L. (2011), The Traumatic Imagination: Histories of Violence in Magical Realist Fiction. Amherst, MA: Cambria Press.
  • Back to the Future (1985), directed by Robert Zemeckis. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures.
  • Back to the Future Part II (1989), directed by Robert Zemeckis. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail (1975/1981), The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Barad, Karen (2017a), ‘No Small Matter: Mushroom Clouds, Ecologies of Nothingness, and Strange Topologies of Spacetimemattering’, in Tsing, Anna; Swanson, Heather; Gan, Elaine; and Bubandt, Nils (eds.), Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. G103–G120.
  • Barad, Karen (2017b), ‘Troubling time/s and ecologies of nothingness: re-turning, re-membering, and facing the incalculable’, new formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics, 92, pp. 56–86 <>.
  • Benjamin, Walter (1968/2007), Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn. New York, NY: Schocken Books.
  • Bergson, Henri (1889/2001), Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, translated by Frank Lubecki Pogson. New York, NY: Dover.
  • Black Mirror (2011–), created by Charlie Brooker. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix.
  • Campt, Tina M. (2017), Listening to Images. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Dark (2017–2020), created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix.
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari (1980/1987), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • The Final Cut (2004), directed by Omar Naim. Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate Entertainment.
  • Frost, Mark (2016), The Secret History of Twin Peaks: A Novel. London: Macmillan.
  • Gould, Gaylene (2020), ‘Mask Appeal: Watchmen’, Sight & Sound, January 2020, p. 86.
  • Guerlac, Suzanne (2006), Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Hamilton, Edmond (1951/2019), City at World’s End. Cabin John, MD: Wildside Press.
  • Hayashi, Kyōko, (2000/2010) From Trinity to Trinity, translated by Eiko Otake. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill.
  • The House in the Square (1951), directed by Roy Ward Baker. Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox. 
  • Johns, Geoff, Gary Frank, and Brad Anderson (2017–2019), Doomsday Clock. Burbank, CA: DC Comics. 
  • Koto, Masahide (1993), ‘Nuclear Globalism: Traversing Rockets, Satellites, and Nuclear War via the Strategic Gaze’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 18:3 (Summer 1993), pp. 339–360.
  • Lacey, Alan (2005), ‘Bergson, Henri-Louis’, in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edition, edited by Ted Honderich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 91.
  • Lee, Tanya H. (2014), ‘H-Bomb Guinea Pigs! Natives Suffering Decades After New Mexico Tests’, Indian Country Today, 5 March 2014 <
  • Lim, Bliss Cua (2009), Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Marx, Karl (1885/1967), Capital, Volume II: The Process of Circulation of Capital, edited by Friedrich Engels (New York, NY: International Publishers).
  • Merton, Thomas (1971/1998), Contemplation in a World of Action. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Moore, Alan, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins (1986–1987/2014), Watchmen. Burbank, CA: DC Comics.
  • Northover, Patricia (2017), ‘Thinking “Global Blackness” Through the Frame of Angelus Novus: An Exploration of Racial Aporias and the Politics of Modern Power, Sovereignty, and Temporality’, Humanities Futures: Franklin Humanities Institute, 23 March 2017 <>.
  • Number None (2008), Braid (Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3). Redmond, WA: Microsoft Game Studios.
  • Otake, Eiko (2010), ‘Introduction’ in Hayashi, Kyōko, (2000/2010) From Trinity to Trinity, translated by Eiko Otake. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill, pp. ix–xxxii.
  • Oyola, Osvaldo (2013), ‘Invisible (Watch)Men: The Impossibility of the Black Superhero’, the middle spaces, 22 July 2013 <>. 
  • Schwartz, Delmore (1967), ‘Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day’, in Selected Poems (1938-1958): Summer Knowledge. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation.
  • Scott, David (2006), ‘The “concept of time” and the “being of the clock”: Bergson, Einstein, Heidegger, and the interrogation of the temporality of modernism’, Continental Philosophy Review, 39:2, pp. 183–213.
  • Sharp, Andy (2020), The English Heretic Collection: Ritual Histories, Magickal Geography. London: Repeater Books.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999), created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller. Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Domestic Television.


  • Star Trek: Generations (1994), directed by David Carson. Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures.
  • Twin Peaks (1990–1991), created by Mark Frost and David Lynch. Santa Monica, CA: CBS Television Distribution.
  • Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), directed by David Lynch. Burbank, CA: New Line Cinema.
  • Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), created by Mark Frost and David Lynch. New York City, NY: Showtime.
  • VanDerWerff, Emily (2019), ‘I think HBO’s Watchmen is tremendous television. Lots of people will strongly disagree.’, Vox, 20 October 2019 <>.
  • Watchmen (2019), created by Damon Lindelof. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Television Distribution.
  • Weheliye, Alexander G. (2005), ‘The Grooves of Temporality’, Public Culture, 17:2, pp. 319–338.
  • Wildcat, Daniel R. (2005), ‘Indigenizing the Future: Why We Must Think Spatially in the Twenty-first Century’, American Studies, 46:3/4 (Fall–Winter 2005), pp. 417–440; Indigenous Studies Today, Special Issue: Indigeneity at the Crossroads of American Studies, 1 (Fall 2005/Spring 2006).
  • Yastremski, Slava I. (2010), ‘Russian formalism’ in Payne, Michael and Barbera, Jessica Rae (eds.), A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, Second Edition. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 620–623.
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