Time (Part 2)
August 26, 2010 § 1 Comment
-…., .., .1.., 1…, 19.., 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2…, 3…, -…. .
The logic of time is metrical. Its memory is asymmetrical, its meaning polymorphous. The mind’s eye is set on reference points, memories of distinct moments, interpretations and reinterpretations, and until the emergence of brain science the workings of the mind were source of much mysticism about the self, God or truth. We are talking about synapses now. But the metaphor we exchange in the name of knowledge is just another construct for what we can not know beyond personal experience.
With a medium such as this we exchange the metaphors that make experience appear reasonable. But only against the background of what has been preserved from the incessant flow of impressions, thoughts and reinterpretation can we translate a schema from chaos. This medium, just as many others preceding it, solves a time dilemma, which Niklas Luhmann characterized in a different context as a struggle between an event and a development. While the event can be isolated as a discrete instance in the present, our perception/observation of it as such an instance is necessarily established in retrospect. The present eludes us, all the time. Skeltzer’s argument on the why and how of blogging reflects this dilemma and the 90-something commentators prove that she is not alone in acknowledging that “We’ve got a lot to see before we go.” Now is merely an instance in a long development.
After the multiplication of channels on television and radio, the growth and fall of printed periodicals, the sphere of network media now makes so many sources of information available, that choice is involved in every bit of attention we dedicate to the various offers on the digital and global media marketplace. This choice is not necessarily rational but follows the same subliminal logic of advertising and consumerism. Consumption is calculated in the currency of attention. An audience of choice is regarded as progressive, the audience of centralized broadcasting is waning. We are called upon as individuals to decide but the logic which imposes the choice is not driven by any actor in particular. The choice to become audience is structural operator of the networked media sphere.
From this perspective, individual media production of content only increases the demand for choice, even more so because the retrospect rationalization of decisions helps to continue a form of interaction which resembles that of everyday interaction. In her fabulous book Living Room Wars, Ien Ang warns against this current development, which started with the postulation of an active audience in reception studies. The “active audience,” she writes, is “but a mythical discursive figure quintessentially attached to the postmodernization of the capitalist cultural industries” (p.11). Two developments overlap here: the proliferation of zillions of media channels created by media corporations and the rise of personalized network media used to manage, maintain and develop an incessant flow of communication centered around individuals. The network medium alternately attracts them as producer and audience at the same time.
“What is occurring in practice worldwide … is the increasing colonization of the times and spaces of people’s everyday lives for the purposes of media audiencehood.” (Ang, p.15)
The “colonization of time” by media can not simply be attributed to the technical possibilities of the medium itself. If we locate agency in a medium, we forget that it was created after all by a cooperative effort of humans. But the agency of these humans relies in turn to a large part on technology. Time is measured in metrical order, but its effects and meanings are polymorphous. While exposing ourselves to the various offers to understand the present, this present further eludes us. If we ignored the present by retracting from realtime media, will this present still be the same?
Take a classic in art history like Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Written in 1951, the book deals with the early modern revolution of Scholastic thought in the 12th century and its effect on European (mostly French) church architecture. Beyond an academic interest in the subject matter, the book, its author and the Scholastic endeavor of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas or Pierre Abelard, teach a lesson on the changing dimensions of time.
Although the book is rather short, and I am not familiar with scholasticism, I retained a basic idea about the scholastics’ attempt to formulate systems of thought, which could explain the godly order in a symmetrical and balanced scheme, submitting each (deviant) case to the logic of symmetry. Their summae , e.g. the Summa Theologica (Aquinas), tried to explain the godly order, but by formulating them in systematic terms, the scholastic thinkers were the first to replace a mythical concept of the world with a description cast in the deductive logic of statements and argument.
For Panofsky, this period of thought has become like a second present. The major books and authors of the period, the churches he has visited and the architectural details he relates to scholastic thought are, at least in the writing of his text, his immediate present, (re)produced as word on the page. Even without in-depth knowledge of the period, we sense the humorous familiarity he has established with his material, as can be seen in a statement like this.
“The doctrines of ‘classic’ High Scholasticism either stiffened into school traditions, or were subjected to vulgarization in popular treatises such as the Somme-le-Roy (1279) and the Tesoretto by Brunetto Latini, or were elaborated and subtilized to the limits of human capacity (not without reason does the greatest representative of this period, Duns Scotus, who died in 1308, bear the agnomen [byname] Doctor Subtilis)” (p.10).
We might as well replace “not without reason” with “not without irony” to see the expert speaking on behalf of a forgotten period, translated into the present as raw material of an argument. What would such an argument look like if the present were its subject matter? The argument would be overrun by the immediate presence of unstable and necessarily unfinished developments. While a picture of a period rests on the stocks of available documents, the present still sorts out the hierarchies between what will be preserved for posterity and what is obliterated. Panofsky establishes a form of knowledge quite unavailable for us now because he can limit the stock of available documents and establish expertise on a limited number of sources.
We have found numerous ways to discredit and question such authority. With knowledge available at a fingertip, the boundaries of expertise and amateurism falter and collapse. The experience of connected and distributed intelligence is an effect of the network medium and the storage and linking infrastructure which keeps it running. And so changes our relation to the time invested in the procurement of this knowledge, in the preservation efforts of librarians and chroniclers. The interactive screen imprints the feeling that everything was already there before we looked for it. It actualizes what is genuinely new to an observer as something that is always already passed into cybernetic memory.
Jean Baudrillard might have been wrong with many observations. But only because his perspective came to resemble the vertige of everyday media exposure to quickly before it could assert itself from the vantage point of the past. His description of the cybernetic experience folds self-referentiality of the process into his own argument.
“Cela s’appelle la cybernétique : commander à l’image, au texte, au corps, de l’intérieur en quelque sorte, de la matrice, en jouant avec le code ou les modalités génétiques. C’est d’ailleurs ce phantasme de performance idéale du texte ou de l’image, cette possibilité de corriger sans fin qui provoquent chez le “créateur” ce vertige d’interactivité avec son propre objet, en même temps que le vertige anxieux de n’être pas allé jusqu’aux limités technologiques de ses possibilités. En fait, c’est la machine (virtuelle) qui vous parle, c’est elle qui vous pense.” From: “Ecran Total”, Libération May 6 1996, p.8 (via EGS)
“This is called cybernetics: controlling the image, the text, the body from within, as it were, from its matrix, by playing with its code or the genetic details. It is this phantasm of the ideal performance of the text or image, the possibility of correcting endlessly, which produce in the ‘creative artist’ this vertige of interactivity with his own object, alongside the anxious vertige at not having reached the technological limits of its possibilities. In effect, it is the machine (virtual) which talks you, it is the machine which thinks you.” (Italics my translation. Rest taken from Screened Out. Translated by Chris Tucker. Verso: 2002, p.178. via Google Books)
Because these technological possibilities exist, they are used. Because something like a tag, a link, or a search algorithm were programmed, they are employed. The reverse logic of producing before reviewing abolishes those time constraints typically found in conditions of scarcity. From the moment of the object’s self-identification as object, the subject is left with the choice of different objects as general schema of decision making. This reversal of object and subject finds an application in William Merrin’s argument on the modification of time dimensions as the primary source of reversal between image and imprint in visual media (prime-time vs. real-time). What applies to the image, applies to all digitally preserved and retrospectively actualized content found online. Produced with the intention to preserve experience for posterity, it forgoes its own temporality only to reappear as past trace in the present. And the elliptic structure of this essay reflects the structure of its subject matter much more than the author could have fathomed in the beginning of writing it.