Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Walking Shadows

Image Source: MySpace.

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."
Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28), By William Shakespeare.

One thing the rapid rise of technology has made me intensely aware of is the time bleed.  If Shakespeare could immortalize this problem four hundred years ago when he wrote Macbeth, what would he have made of 'walking shadows' and 'brief candles' now?  The Technological Revolution, which supposedly is bringing us ever closer to anti-ageing and extended lives, constantly reminds us that we are but shadows and dust.  It feels like we are living in some Monty Python cartoon by Terry Gilliam, where we're all on a commuter train speeding us straight into our graves.  Multi-tasking whittles away our humanity.  And being forced to choose to do certain things and not others in the limited time we have radically alters our lives, sometimes irrevocably.

The White Rabbit (1865) By Sir John Tenniel. Image: Wiki.

We're being stretched too thin.  It's becoming harder to focus for sustained periods on any task that requires deep concentration, a problem that is highlighted by tech critics.  We're like the White Rabbit in Alice's Wonderland, perpetually running after the appointment or deadline that is immediately replaced with a new one by bleeping gadgets.  In one of my earlier posts on how this tech-driven tension is affecting our ability to love, I quoted Douglas Coupland as saying: "You'll spend a lot of your time feeling like a dog leashed to a pole outside the grocery store – separation anxiety will become your permanent state."  How do we scratch that itch, relieve the nagging sense that, as Coupland says, "too many things are changing too quickly"?

Slowing down and focussing on one thing at a time is difficult.  It is almost impossible to unplug.  Being disconnected from the network and reverting to what was once the normal pace of life would create panic in some, as though every grain of sand in their hourglass is falling in slow motion and crashing onto a pile of lost time. And while we must slow down in order to absorb the pace of change, doing so is strangely unhelpful.  It's a weird culture, where massive amounts of time are wasted on the internet, apparently in an unconscious effort to slow things down, while time remains at a premium.  In addition, the popular impression that the Millennium must represent some symbolic turning point also lends the impression that time is accelerating as it heads toward 'something.' It's the jetstream procrastination before the apocalypse.

How can we ease that existential discomfort? Some have leaned toward the absurd or the gothic. Kafka contemplated a quandary similar to that which Shakespeare described in Macbeth in his short short story, Before the Law, quoted in full (here):
Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in sometime later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” The gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.” 
The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” 
During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this first one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud; later, as he grows old, he only mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has also come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper. Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. 
Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”
This story implies that we all have to confront this impending end, yet we waste a lot of time anticipating it; and each of us must follow a unique path to get there.  These are moments when I take comfort in dicussions about the universe and how it functions.

Intro Song from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983). Video Source: Youtube.

There are no easy answers, but as someone on Youtube said: "Everyone should have an Eric Idle in their fridge."

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  1. EXcellent, EXcellent post.

    Very basic prime concerns of our society.

    Before a problem can be solved, it must be defined. I feel that many terms of definition are contained somewhere within this post.

  2. Thank you Thomas for your kind words. It's hard to get at the unsettled feeling of our times, but I think it's important, even though we may be trying to define the undefinable.

  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4bezYG3LBg