Monday, February 21, 2011

Slow Time

Tom claimed that one book was enough to last a lifetime anyway, especially if you read it in the special way.
‘What do you mean?’ I’d asked him. ‘What special way?’
‘One word a day,’ he’d answer.

(Jeff Noon, ‘Crawl Town’)

Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass.

(Bob Shaw, ‘Light of Other Days’)

Imagine a sheet of glass the thickness of an ordinary window pane, except it has been engineered at a molecular level so that light takes a very long time to go through it – a staggering ten years, to be precise. When it comes out of the factory, the sheet is jet black. Then it is placed in a scenic spot somewhere in the Scottish highlands, and left there for the requisite ten years. Finally, when the time is up, an image appears of that landscape, by now ten years old, in the same way that the light of faraway stars belongs to the past even as it reaches us in the present.

Now imagine that you buy this sheet of glass and put it in your city apartment, in place of one of your regular windows, so that you can look out on that awe-inspiring northern landscape instead of the buildings on the other side of the street. This isn’t a still picture, but an actual view, with depth and movement and the cycles of day and night and of the seasons.

This scientific advance in nanotechnology is the premise of a very well-known short story by Irish author Bob Shaw, 'Light of Other Days', that was originally published in 1966. Slow glass is introduced here to the reader as a premium consumer product, designed not to relive the past but rather to improve on drab urban aesthetic, although Shaw turns this premise into a poignant story of personal loss.

(I won’t go into the details of that quite yet, except to say that the story contains at least one wonderfully poetic image, of the cleaners that come out at night where the glass is being farmed to polish the windows without making an impression in it.)

I’m interested however in what happens after the ten years is up, an aspect that is not directly addressed in the story. At this time the image will change into the regular view of the street outside your apartment, except ten years ago to the day. And if somebody were to look through that same window from one of the houses across the street, they would see the inside of your apartment not as it is, but as it was. My question is: what would you do? Would you swap that window for one of regular glass? Order another landscape, whether Scottish or otherwise? Or carry on with a window that keeps the wrong time?

In The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand suggests another thought experiment for changing one’s perspective on temporality: from now on instead of writing the year in dates using four digits, try using five. Until the year ten thousand, this will mean adding a leading zero: nineteen ninety-nine becomes 01999, two thousand and eleven becomes 02011 and so forth. Aiming as he did to convince technologists to take a longer view, Brand addressed the suggestion to computer programmers, but there’s no reason why it should be limited to them. In his provocative pamphlet on the death of cinema, Paolo Cherchi Usai employed the same notation as an ironic device against those who assume that the films from the first century of the life of cinema will be around three hundred years from now, let alone eight thousand.

Slow time, a long now: phrases that seem designed to negate the possibility of progressive change, let alone revolution. Were I to try to rescue slowness from this negative association, I could start form the Kunderian idea that slowness is essential to memory – and memory, I contend, is central in turn to any political project that aspires to be democratic. Kundera again, in a different book: ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. Which is another way of saying that memory is anti-totalitarian. But is it necessarily progressive? Doesn’t the preservation of culture – an interest of both Brand and Cherchi Usai’s – connect at some level to conservatism and, conversely, aren’t revolutionary movements at least partly predicated on the erasure of traditions and modes of knowledge that underlie the power structures they seek to overthrow?

I’m no accelerationist, but I cannot deny that there is a tension there. Nor am I unaware that an appeal to slowness at this particular historical time – after Tunisia and Egypt, and whilst the Lybian forces fire rockets at the demonstrators in Bengasi – has uncomfortable echoes with the ritualistic and appalling calls for ‘restraint’ by world leaders who don’t mind repression so long as it isn’t bloody to an unsightly extent.

So, how do you advocate decelerationism, and still claim to be interested in radical political change? I would put forward that we need to do both, slow down the juggernaut of Capital that is running down the clock on the planet and construct alternative futures that are both more equitable and more sustainable. (The latter in particular is a word that urgently needs to be reclaimed from bourgeois environmentalists and injected with far more radical meaning.) But yes, it is also, partly, about what ecologists call conservation, and not just with regard to the environment: indeed so much necessary political action is reactive, aimed at resisting change and the further narrowing of the range of available futures.

I want to keep those political connotations in the air, as it were, even as I argue for slowness in a medialogical sense, as a means of undercutting the fundamental bias of electronic media for the instantaneous and the atemporal. The Net is not only always on, always on the spot, always of the moment; it acts so fast as to make the concept of time itself meaningless. It enacts the perpetual present of postmodernity even in its hunger – that must not be mistaken for historicism – to document and catalogue absolutely everything. Here is a list of all the things that happened in 1964. And here is a list of all the things that happened on the 20th of February in history. Stripped of context, the paradoxical time signatures dictated by the wikilogic suggest that things don’t happen if not casually, or according to a perplexing, inhuman causation that one might as well seek to explain via astrology or numerology.

In the meantime, the world’s conversation continues apace. Twitter no longer allows you to plug into the raw feed without choosing a topic, but pick any of the trending ones and see how fast it ticks over – faster than human eyes could possibly keep up with. Instant worldwide communication has been fetishised to such an unseemly extent that one might legitimately ask: if a Middle Eastern dictatorship fell and nobody in the West was there to hear it, would it make a sound? But it would be equally stupid to deny its value in facilitating organization on the ground and allowing voices to filter out from the sites of totalitarian repression. Yet what the worldwide conversation still predominantly consists of is the sum of inanities. My inanities, which are interesting to me and presumably to the people who choose to ‘follow’ me, and yours and hers and everybody else’s. It makes no sense to call it a conversation and complain that an individual couldn’t keep up with it any more than it makes sense to call the Internet a text and then presume that a single person ought to be able to read it. Furthermore: complaining that it is too fast could well imply that I would like others to stop talking, so that I can be heard.

All of which is fair enough. Still, I do actually practice at least a little bit of what I preach, in that I limit myself to one tweet per day (although I will sometimes respond to follow ups and I took a little holiday from that rule during the last soccer world cup). This partly in recognition of how addicted I could become to Twitter if I made textbook use of it, but also out of interest in the kind of texts that could be produced in such small increments and also, initially, in a vacuum (since I don’t follow anybody so until I got my first follower I was effectively writing into the void. It would in fact be even more perverse to not follow anybody and protect one’s tweets: that would be the proper way of ensuring that you talk only to an audience of subroutines). But I think there is also some value in being temporally contrarian in order to evaluate that imperative to find out what’s happening right now and what right now actually does to our capacity for critical thought.

Slowing down one’s writing as well as one’s reading can assist in this. It’s in that spirit, as well as to answer an entirely practical question regarding how could I possibly find the time to read or reread certain works of literature, that a little over a year ago I started the Slow Dante Reading Project, in which I aim to read (and copy) the Divine Comedy at the speed of one tercet per day. Twitter offered the ideal platform for such a project for the reasons outlined above and also in that each triplet of eleven-syllable lines of Dante’s terza rima is guaranteed to come under 140 characters (whilst the Longfellow translation sloppily exceeds this from time to time). At the outset I estimated a date of completion of February 18, 2023, based on the number of tercets and speculating that I might forget or be unable to post from time to time but that it would be balanced by the occasional double daily dose when a tercet runs into the one that follows it. I’m more or less on track for that, although it remains a decidedly optimistic time frame. Will I still be around in 2023? Will Twitter? More to the point: will I lose interest?

As an exercise, it has been uneven thus far. There are days when I look forward to the next tercet, and days when frankly it’s just a chore; days when the neurotic narrowing of attention on the allotted three lines appears to actually enhance my appreciation of the poem, and others when the enforced fitfulness makes the difficult passages even harder to follow, and the effect drags on from day to day.

However I am less ambivalent about the value of other experiments that interfere with the smooth workings of the perpetual wired present: so not the cool mash-ups a-la How to Be a Retronaut or the brilliant poster art of Sean Hartter, which reinforce the pre-eminence of now and its capacity to subsume all that is past, nor the ubiquitous super slow-motion videos that dilate the workings of the physical world until they acquire some beauty and little in the way of meaning; but rather anachronistic tracks such as Samuel Pepys’ Twitter feed or the diary of the miners strike ‘replayed’ a quarter of a century later, the hauntological detritus of Found Objects, or Justin Bieber’s uncanny pop wail. Lately I’m finding particular inspiration in the almost-daily offerings of If We Don’t, Remember Me, in which cinematic quotation becomes a mesmerising art form and extreme economy of movement and expression is itself the thing that signifies. It’s a picture book that moves, a little, perplexing and at the same time illuminating, with its polished coolness and infinitesimal time loops. Each of these texts has its own rhythms, but they all call attention to their own complex dealings with time and create a reflexive space in which to think slowly.


In conclusion: what of slow glass? With native 3D displays around the corner, I think it would be easy to imagine it remediated electronically: it would after all be but an extension of the desktop wallpaper or the digital photo frame, with the added ability to change the landscape, or switch it on and off according to whim. But what it would lose in the bargain is the view from the outside in that leads to the moving denouement in Bob Shaw’s story, as the visitors discover that the mother and child they could see through the window of the salesman’s cottage in the Scottish Highlands have been dead for some years, and what’s left of them is a likeness slowly seeping out of the glass. What would be lost, in other words, is the very thing that undermines the digital fantasy of absolute control over time, that we can exorcise its ghosts and recycle it into a commodity.

People interested in reading somebody who can actually write about politics are encouraged to read this extremely acute piece by Benjamin Noys on acceleration vs. deceleration. I came to it with culpable lateness as I Googled "decelerationism" not an hour ago. Great stuff.

The snail clock image comes from here via here but that doesn't clarify its actual origin so if anybody knows and they could tell me I'd be grateful. Ta.