About three weeks ago, I presented a paper at San Diego State University’s annual Crisis Carnival conference. The guiding theme for the day was “The Ecstasy of Speed” in our contemporary culture. While predominately organized by SDSU’s lit. department, the conference sought to engage in a wider, more interdisciplinary conversation regarding questions of slowness and acceleration, hyper-mobility and technological growth, local particularity and globalized hegemony. The various presenters approached this agenda from widely divergent perspectives, ranging from from philosophy and critical theory to ecology and poetic performance. Several key thinkers seemed to dominate the theoretical foundations of most of the papers: namely, Gilles Deleuze, Stanley Fish, Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Paul Virilio. In terms of the creative lit/performance pieces, many of the papers reflected the style and tone of Alan Lightman’s wonderful little novel, Einstein’s Dreams.
On the whole, the event yielded several fascinating conversations, most of which dealing with varying perspectives on time. Paper after paper discussed the disjointed, transitory, chaotic, and irreducibly fragmentary nature of human experience of time. The frenetic pace of a culture over-saturated with capital, technology, and a pathological desire for immediacy dramatically intensifies this already aggravated social environment. From what I could gather from several of the presentations, this perspective results in a definitive re-conception of our relation to the past in particular. History, memory, retrospection, recollection, all of these are so “fractured” and so “unreliable” that they ought not (cannot) be allowed to determinately constitute the shape of the present. Some papers reflected upon this admission with a twinge of regret and even nostalgia. But for the most part, this splintered rupturing of collective remembrance was touted as a necessary existential axiom of emancipatory liberation from tradition, ideology, location, borders, and identity.
There is undoubtedly degrees of legitimacy to many of these arguments. Nonetheless, the conversation seemed oddly one-sided. Two striking voices were surprisingly absent throughout the day: Paul Ricoeur and Alain Badiou. On the one hand, Ricoeur offers a deeply compelling counter-perspective to such attempts at temporal deconstruction through his phenomenological study of memory. Therein, Ricoeur is able to acknowledge the fickle nature of human recollection, while nonetheless maintaining it as constitutive of personhood. On the other hand, Badiou notion of fidelity suggests that the production and preservation of subjectivity belongs to the logic of the Event. This fidelity necessitates a certain relation to that which precedes, a relation actualized and performed through praxis, through thought, through repetition. During the conference, I raised this question to the faculty panel without a very clear response. If our embodied experience of time is so murky and distorted, what do we do with the something like fidelity to a past event? If we grant that all identity, all modes of tradition and formation (cultural, ethical, spiritual, political), all inroads to our collective past are fundamentally bankrupt, inaccessible, and irrelevant, do we not thereby guarantee the co-option of such (deterritorialized) individuals by the wider forces, structures, and narratives of the state and the market? In other words, the question remains, as MacIntyre has aptly pointed out, not tradition or no tradition, but whose tradition; not identity or no identity, but which identity. A conception of time bifurcated from its past and relegated to the narrowing confines of the now deprives itself of the means of fostering genuinely alternative modes of resistance to the raw politics of power.
I’m left wondering whether we prevent articulating an intelligible conception of time if such paradigms as fidelity, memory, and formation are methodologically excluded through an appeal to the vacuousness of time’s incessant flow from the anticipated to the forgotten. Surely the later ought to humble our confidence in the former, but to absolutize such a move seems to me phenomenologically unjustifiable.
Anyway, enough of my own little squabbles. I ended up presenting a paper of a slightly different flavor. It was entitled, “Outflanking the Bureaucratic Production of Urgency – Ivan Illich and Stanley Hauerwas on Crisis and the Cultivation of Patience”. Inspired by the insanity of the last few years of American history, I decided to reflect a bit on crisis itself. Ours is a world sustained, powered, and fed by panic and catastrophe. Our mantra is “ACT!” (which normally translates as “BUY!”). Towards what end? Well, we’re not quite sure. Or at least we’re not told. Žižek has a great quote from his new book on Violence that clearly elucidates a subtle frustration I’ve felt for years:
Better to do nothing than to engage in localized acts the function of which is to make the system run more smoothly (acts such as providing space for the multitude of new subjectivities). The threat today is not passivity, but the pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate,’ to mask the nothingness of what goes on. People intervene all the time, ‘do something’; academics participate in their meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw. Those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence – just to engage us in ‘dialogue’, to make sure our ominous passivity is broken. The voters’ abstention is thus a truly political act: it forcefully confronts us with the vacuity of today’s democracies. [. . .] Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do. (p. 138)
As with most things Žižek says, it’s worth taking it with a grain of salt and trying to sift through the hyperbole to what’s actually being talked about. That being said, he’s right in pointing out that currently “action” is always deemed more appropriate than “non-action”, even if we have lost the conception of what might constitute a “good action” or what “good” that action aims at realizing. For Žižek what we could use a bit more of these days is thought. Of course, a world spun into a constant state of emergency does not allow much time for such things. Urgency and reflection make for awkward bedfellows. At least, that seems to be the ruling ideology.
Then again, not everyone is perfectly content with this state of things. In mounting a critical intervention, I found in the sharp polemics of Ivan Illich and Stanley Hauerwas some rather profound conversation partners. Reading Illich in our present situation is certainly sobering. His writing cast quite a prophetic gaze upon the future we’re now inhabiting. Hauerwas also has a way of throwing sideways reflections into a situation that manage to change the perspective just enough to see things a bit clearer. In particular, his work on the virtues provides resources for thinking freshly about our frenetic approach to time. In his view, critically evaluating the nature of crisis itself can clear the space necessary for a fruitful exploration of the Christian practice of patience.
I’m still getting used to this whole blog thing. If I can figure out how to do it, I’ll put the whole paper up a bit later.