Sacred Time as Phenomena

(William Blake 1757-1827)

Just to be clear (which is to admit that I’ve not been clear on this important point), my analysis here is about our felt experience of time.  It is specifically a phenomenological analysis.

This approach is distinct from scientific approaches, those of theoretical physics, and distinct from the rest of this work that is rooted specifically in media studies.  My own starting point, as an undergrad studying with Marshall McLuhan and wise folk at the University of Toronto, no doubt informs this work.  However, a phenomenological analysis attempts to bracket theories derived from other important disciplines.  I try to bracket all that, and return later to that work with my findings, following upon a reduction to the felt-world of time, the thing itself, that I discover is an open rather than narrative structure.

In doing a rigorous phenomenological analysis, I honor that experience over the theoretical framework that might eclipse the experience.  Compare this approach to eating a good meal or sipping a fine wine.  A culinary or wine expert might better appreciate the taste, and certainly might understand why a particular meal or wine tastes delightful. However, anyone enjoying the meal might be equally delighted. The expert, sharing a meal with their child, might share the child’s simple delight.

In the last century, theoretical physics caught up with artists’ and religious leaders’ insights into the nature of time.  Albert Einstein declared, “The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one,” while William Blake declared more than a hundred years early, “I see the past, present and future all at once before me.”

More than a millennium earlier yet, the two accounts of Muhammad’s Night Journey as either an actual transportation of his being or his dream is, in part, a debate about the quality of time.  Is it psychic or variable and physically experienced? 

The South Park artists might blaspheme in their depictions of the Prophet and the Christ, but capture in their lampoon the essential quality of sacred time as phenomena.  We get used to Kenny living in infinity, just as some accept in faith the Prophet and the Christ playing with our notion that time is just one thing after another.  It’s not.  We live in infinity time all the time.  It’s just we have organic bodies and die.

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Try This

I’m trying to tie this study of Kenny to the incarnation.  Having so much focus on the unknowable infinite Other, I need to consider life as we can know it.  The mediated reality, mediated by our experience, our brains, creation as it was given to us.   Past tense and ongoing.  And mediated, of course, by media.

“In the beginning was the Word…”

It was an easy mistake to make, embracing the illusion of the text as timeless.  Associating the Word with the book I was reading, I believed I might hear the Word of God in the person of Jesus through the medium of print.  I was nineteen.

Soon the printed page was largely usurped by the pixilated computer monitor.  I loved it.  Today I even participate in the Daily Office online, that selection of prayers and scripture passages read in the morning, noon and evening prayer. The practice was at first largely oral, going back to Constantine and monastic life in the third century, and is still recited aloud in communities.  But with the text flickering on my laptop, I pray not really alone, though there’s no one else in this room.

Marshall McLuhan identified the relationship between language technologies and meanings, stating “the medium is the message”, overstating his point but a point well taken.  There is a trace of the oral in the written text, the written word on the printed page, with the pixelated image on my computer screen.

Yet even when ancient sacred or even mundane symbols were pressed onto clay tablets, the clay itself containing remnants of living organisms.   The ephemeral words and the eternal Word are only adjacent. To identify the medium with the message might be straight-out idolatry.

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Mystics behaving badly

We never get used to it:  People who lead us to sacred truths sometimes behave badly, sometimes very badly.  They do wrong but that doesn’t mean they are wrong.

I was sick anyway over the weekend so I thought I might as well finally read Brian Anderson’s South Park* Conservatives.  He points out how libertarian political perspectives are distinct from Tea Party conservatives, and distinct again for those I call truly principled conservatives.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the former, and are well represented in media if not in electoral politics while principled conservatives have no one to represent them these days anywhere.  Or so it seems to me.

So what does any of this have to do with the metaphysics of digital media in general and Kenny’s capacity to die and then not be dead, defying biological processes, but then so what?   He’s a cartoon character.  He is, at the same time, illustrative of a metaphysical truth: Time’s arrow is not simply bent.  You might best imagine it pointed straight up so that it will go towards infinite space, and so it does.

Only narrative time has a beginning, middle, and end.  And we just make that shit up.

That has little to do with US politics which isn’t about metaphysical time, but the present narrative time.   Parker and Stone’s politics might be ethically offputting, even indefensible, the positions presented in their series sometimes despicable.  They are still good at what they do, and it makes us laugh.  Yet with respect to the metaphysical structure of the universe… they have a point and it’s funny too, seriously funny.

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Trey Parker and Matt Stone – Mystics in Cyberspace

Next to me are two books: Kind of Minds by Daniel Dennett, and The Essentials of Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. The twelfth edition, water damaged, makes claims tentatively offered and supported by ancient mystics qualifying everything, as if they might be saying too much by saying anything at all.

Contrast that with Dennett’s claim, “You great, great…. Grandmother was a robot! Not only are you descended from such macromolecular robots but you are composed of them: your hemoglobin molecules, your antibodies…”

Both volumes fall apart in my hand, literally.

(‘Literally’ – as if writing something down, making it literature, which certainly must be the underlying assumption of the expression, makes it really true.  The expression ‘literally’ entails so many implicit assumptions regarding the primacy of mental activity and expression over the thing itself, but I digress.)

Dennett uses robots metaphorically here.  The biological being who created robots is now described as that which is created, the terms of the metaphor becoming an odd example of circular reasoning.  This is not at all what he is talking about.  He is pointing beyond the expression, and that extension of meaning is precisely the point.  It’s not that we can’t get there from here; here is all there is.  Dennett’s insistence on this point makes me aware that I have given short shrift to the here and now.  Focusing on Kenny’s out-of-body experiences of death and rebirth, I missed Kyle’s moments of wisdom and failed to follow Trey Parker and Matt Stone into the twenty-first-century gaming world.  Here.  Now.

Here. Now in Toronto two brothers are sitting on a couch fighting over the console while I help their grandmother set up for dinner.  They are having some difficulty keeping up with their cousin who complains, “That isn’t fair.  I’m not … What are you doing?”  The cousin is playing with them from Mexico City.  The oldest of the three, eight years old.  He’s going to quit if they don’t start playing fair.

Distances are diminished in this gaming world that is as familiar to these three boys as the four-square painted on the asphalt in playgrounds of yesteryear, and today.  These three cousins get together apart from cyberspace and might play four-square, their physical world seamlessly integrated across North America and through cyberspace.  These boys are not robots.  Robots are just their tools, not unlike the spoon I use to serve soup.  Dennett’s reductionism isn’t helpful in figuring out what is happening here. The cousin in Mexico is now thoroughly annoyed.  “I’m hanging up now!”  Felt-space is bigger; for these boys it’s the entire continent and their playground.

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A third way, not the middle ground

We are too used to thinking in binaries: black and white, true and false, here and there.  I particularly enjoy ‘here and there’ because it’s clearly a position.  You’re standing here, and then you walk over there, and then that’s suddenly ‘here’.  I’m not espousing relativism:  there is truth, and I would say an absolute truth (that is as absolutely unknowable) as nevertheless true, and absolutely other (Levinas).

Perhaps the operative word with the third way is ‘way’ for mere humans.  And you have to walk it to know what it’s like, what’s to be found.  I’m sounding like a new age yogi when, in fact, I don’t even do yoga, though that would be a good idea.

I’ll get up and turn on a yoga Youtube video now – will probably just watch it, not actually do the exercises – but instead watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone discuss how they proudly ruined television:

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Trey+Parker+Interview+2014&&view=detail&mid=DF845FF305384EE06255DF845FF305384EE06255&&FORM=VRDGAR

We’ll have to come back to this and speculate as to why South Park becomes a movie, a puppet animation, and now video games – they really are artists, and artists will try anything – but now I want to focus on the nature of mysticism, to what neuroscience has to offer to our understanding of what is beyond our understanding.

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Kenny – Getting on with it

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1989–90

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions), 1990/2018, on view October 20, 2018–November 2020 at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, photo by Elon Schoenholz

I’ve been implicitly comparing to Jesus.   Kenny the super-hero but just a humble kid who opens us to understanding infinity – maybe even making Jesus make sense.  Yet accused him of being a deceiver, created all this time in 3D animation and reduced to 2D.  Of course, Kenny doesn’t exist except as a cartoon.  My complaint was with the artists all along, and not deception is involved, just artistry and a business decision.   It’s faster to create him and all South Park in 3D; a workflow issue, more efficient to work in 3D and then transfer those images to 2D….  I saw this as deception.  My next question now, at least, is, What does it matter?

I’ve been puzzling over that for a few weeks.  It matters, at least to me. The medium informs our consciousness and with consciousness or even unconsciously impacts the matter.  There is a reason the creators decided to take the 3D, easier to produce, to 2D at least as the apparent aesthetic.

While I argued that2D and 3D is all anticipation and memory in our experience – only tangentially related to our actual present existence that we can’t fathom (because that requires a thought and in the instant it is thought it is past, just a memory) — still it’s our material.

There is art history and art isn’t progressive,  so the expression “history” is misleading.  Ancient Egyptian encryptions and pottery aren’t less sophisticated than Barbara Krugger’s work at the Geffen in LA, even though Krugger’s work is more accessible to me – physically just a few Metro stops from here and aesthetically I get her work implicitly and Egyptian pottery I’m always trying to ‘read’.  We’re pasting a timeline onto a mesh of perceptual experiences that are present at least before we process them, perceive them in time.

I want to NOT read Krugger’s work.  I’m going to try to just be present so that a letter in the alphabet is a pure sensation.  That, of course, might prove impossible but I’m going try anyhow.

Approaching things another way, recently I’m trying to read South Park as I would a 3-d text, although I promised at least myself earlier I was done with South Park altogether, that it’s time to go on.  So soon…

 

 

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Thanks to the Franciscans

Working through a text with the Franciscan group Canticles Campus, I’m led back to the work of Duns Scotus, and his concept of  an unknowable “true self” that Thomas Merton took up.  (See The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton, by Daniel Horan, pp. 101-105)  There is certainly a problem here in my method of investigation.  I’m attracted to a philosophical concept developed by one man (Scotus), taken up for another (Merton), explained by a third (Horan).

And what does this have to do with Kenny?  Probably nothing.  Kenny’s big point is not about death, that has no long-term meaning for him (and maybe not for us – think reincarnation, “born again”, “life everlasting”,  if not Kenny, or Scotus).  His complaint is about dying – that if “fucking hurts”.  That’s the main point: dying has meaning, but death? not so much.

Of course, I need to go back to the original sources, but before I do that (and it might take me years) let me just say that the attraction here for me is the claim that we cannot know our true selves, set out in  formal logical terms by Scotus and in poetry by Merton.  That seems intuitively correct, whereas up to now I’ve only approached it phenomenologically (i.e. as with our ‘felt-world’).

It is in the experience itself that we find meaning, and that is what we cannot know:  To the things themselves!  was Husserl’s call, away from logic and he was a master of logic, no slouch on that score.  We make this encounter with anything, even death, in the experience and only after in reflection, performing the “phenomenological reduction” – a term that just now finally makes sense to me because I do finally see it as reduced.  However, we can’t encounter that which is making the encounter.  We will always be strangers to ourselves then, and then also God will always be a stranger as we are the image, but there is the word. We can know that much.

(Here, try this:  we might consider phenomenology as God’s own method, at least one method.  Some have seen God’s eternal perfection in numbers, so beautiful the way they always and necessarily work. It is an eternal truth that two plus two always equals four.  But life isn’t about necessary truths; it’s an experience.  In the logic of life, could God experience God-ness as a dynamic image – and a stagnant image is mere idolatry –  experience life as lived until God became the created as well as the creator?  Sorry if this is obvious to everyone, and has been answered satisfactorily, and I’m just catching up here…)

To throw in yet another author (and metaphor), James Finley:  “Here methods, techniques, ideas, and spiritualities of themselves are of little use.  We must not stand in the burning house with a dictionary thinking we are safe because we are frantically looking up the definition for a fire distinguisher!” (Horan, 114)

True, but I don’t see the urgency.  Try the metaphor of contemplating a flame or a campfire that will burn itself out in time.

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Over Kenny?

Joshua Tree night

I’ve got to let go of Kenny.  South Park has been going on twenty-two years and I’ve been obsessing on Kenny nearly that whole time.  Kenny keeps dying and dying and living again.  That never bores me actually, but maybe I’ve had enough.  There are books to read…  I need to take a walk…

On a walk I encounter this-ness, haecceity – you gotta love this God.  This tree, this stone in my shoe, the smell of the wet bark.  The infinite is lonely and mostly empty space, and before all that lonely and empty space there is just a little matter here and there throughout the universe.  Or so we’re told and I believe it.  But there is here and now (that I keep reminding you, reminding myself, is past but it feels here, it feels now.  It’s not the logically necessary specious present; it’s what is felt, the phenomena.  I pay attention: this tree, this pebble in my shoe…)

My complaint against God is that our all-knowing God seems to be such a slow learner.  All those millennia where biological beings developed sensory perception and experience, we soon gained the knowledge that pain hurts.  Was God just standing outside creation, observing, tweaking this and that cosmos when life began?  With life came pleasure and pain.  Was that God’s first tickle, first breath, but maybe God was somehow outside of this creation until fully identified with the creation.  In Christianity we call it “the incarnation”, when God became one of us, although in all humility we must allow for at least the possibility that there is an ameba Christ, a plankton Jesus.

Christian teachings would have it that the particular human experience is most identified with God, the messy birth, breast milk on God’s infant lips.  And maybe only in the crucifixion, when the God-Son experiences personally and intensely and definitively death, that everything was changed because God experienced pain and death as a phenomenological truth – no turning back on this, God.  Yeah, death sucks but at least then the pain stops, at least if you’re the one who is dead.

(I think of Mary at the foot of the cross, that she might not have ever got over that moment, how absent she seems in all the resurrection scenes because she didn’t care so much about the magic trick, another resurrection.  Okay.  Welcome back, son.  But they’ll do it all again, and nothing you’ve done changes that for anyone, even for you.  You’ve still got the holes in your hands, and the slit in your side, for God’s sake…)

Yet as discussed before, we exist in the present while we can only know what is just past, even if we experience it as present.  That’s the difference between us and God, a big difference.  We enter into this knowing, or something akin to knowing, when we shut up and are still, quit putting things out there which are artifacts of the present even as we are still working on them, even a single word we speak.  The Word is different than our words, beautifully expressed by the Jewish practice of refusing to express it, spelling it with a dash marking an empty space, G-D.

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Printed books are the new media that still fascinates me – new if your perspective includes hieroglyphics. Mine does.

Marshal McLuhan and friends identified how the Guttenberg Bible, the first printed book, created a social and political revolution known as “the Reformation”.  Once everyone could own their own copy of the Bible, hold it, interpret it themselves, it wasn’t a big leap for Jesus to become their “personal Lord and Savior”.  Jesus was less a man of the crowd, feeding the crowd; now Jesus was a friend there in the privacy of one’s own home, helping everyone who can read to understand the Word up close, personal. The priests and pope are not­ so much mediaries as meddlesome.

The media is the message, was McLuhan’s catchphrase. (Understanding Media; The extensions of Man, 1964)  Moveable type and mass printing changed everything. Then came the radio. Franklin D. Roosevelt used that well with his fireside chats, taking politics out of the public square and into everyone’s living room.  Then movies, brought faraway places into every small town.  Then television, with white people learning more and more about themselves in the privacy of their living rooms, while African Americans often gathered and watched white people, laughed at them, critiquing their lifestyle.  It was a different experience for racially segregated new medium, as Bell Hooks has so brilliantly identified. (Reel to Real; Race, class and the Movies, 2008)

Now digital media.  Now South Park, created using 3D animation but taken back to 2D animation in its look, media moving backward, reversing its progress, time’s arrow bent backward.  Why.  That’s a question for the creators, why use a more advanced technology to create an older aesthetic appearance?

Obviously, it’s just a tool.  The use of 3D as the first step, computer-generated technologies make animating the characters a faster, if more expensive process.  Yet, the real advance is the aesthetic appeal of the characters, not the process, taken even further into a primitive paper cutout look with South Park’s Canadian characters.

McLuhan was just half-right.  The medium extends our ability to imagine and create, but one medium doesn’t supplant another and there’s a dialectical relationship between medium and message.  Some call it art.  Modern graffiti artists may use spray paint, the gesture and motivation akin to a cave painter and Davinci painting a fresco.

McLuhan saw progress as time’s arrow but it isn’t anything without our imagination.  We make time; rocks don’t.  Only living things can conceive of a narrative structure.

But that’s not nothing.  We do make time, a narrative.  Time might be one of the great inventions of biological beings.  History.  The notion of progress or regression.  Making sense of sunrises and sunsets, days ‘passing’, birth and death.  We make sense.

I’m running out of time here.  To be continued…

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Digitize this…

Yesterday I was trying to explain this to some students.  They work with digital media. They create it.  So I thought they’d get it if I could just get it out. It didn’t go well.

Here, let me try again here.  Let me start by defining time consciousness.  It’s different than time.  It’s our consciousness of time, how we experience it, that is not as absolute time (whatever that is) but as a human being in time experiences time.

Digital media makes the structure of time consciousness clear.

The structure of time consciousness, as the German philosopher Edmund Husserl pointed out over a century ago, (and taught Heidegger but that’s another story) goes something like this.:

Think about a bell ringing.  You might anticipate the bell ringing, then someone rings the bell but you hear its reverberation and process it in your mind at least a nanosecond after it actually rings, and then you enjoy the reverberations.

So the structure of time consciousness is:

  • the anticipated future which doesn’t exist yet, just as the past and the specious present don’t exist anymore.
  • the “specious present”, specious because in the moment it takes to register the present sound in consciousness it’s already past, and
  • the remembered just-past….

We exist, we know (rehash Rene Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am”) because, if I wasn’t in existence I couldn’t be thinking. But there’s no ‘now’ to this conscious existence.  Like the sound, there is anticipation,.  Then there’s the sensation or thought that occurs,  but as we sense it and think it and it is registered in consciousness it’s  just-past.  Then there’s recollection.  It has a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and end, but this is constructed around a present that we can’t actually bring to consciousness.

There may even be the thought of the ‘now’ but, like sound, we anticipate it, we think about it in time and that is a process, thus taking time and in time, time passes.   There’s no now in this that is actually present.  It’s already past, a reflection on what we refer to as now, that has already past.  It exists as an idea we had, we might still hold, but the experience itself of the thought is past as soon as we think it.

What is actually present doesn’t share this narrative structure.   It just is.  That’s where we live, or so we assume.  That’s where we have the experience, but we can’t think about that without it already being past.

The time that we are conscious of, that’s all just what is remembered or anticipated.  There’s no ‘now’ now because in the thinking about it it’s already past.

Yet we live here; we just can’t experience it consciously or think about it in the now of narrative structures because we exist as bodies.  Bodies (us) do have a narrative structure.  We are born, we do exist now, and we live on until we die.  We can make wild imaginative variations on that structure.  But it’s gapped.  We are conscious of the structure but the ‘now’ that is the epicenter of the structure is like a black hole only more so (really less so – there’s not even dark matter there.)  The gap is the present, but as soon as it’s brought to mind it’s not ‘now’ now.

Digital media takes us back to this ancient truth.  There’s ‘now’ now that is the imagined narrative that the media presents, but it is riddled with gaps in the code.  Between the x and the o in our digital reality nothing exists, except we exist.

Without a beginning and middle and end in itself, this gap in the code has infinite breadth and width and depth, insofar as it doesn’t share the narrative structure.

We might picture it as a gap but the gap has external dimensions.  The very idea of a gap is my lame way of bringing what is infinite into the narrative of this expression, this text, that also has a beginning, middle and end. (I’m almost done here.)

So my students create code.  They make out of this infinite-lived space an  image, a game, a storyline.  They give it worldly dimensions.  A narrative.  But they just make this stuff up, out of nothing.  Really.  Infinite nothing.

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