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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The End of Part I – Water

I am done with the first section of this novel, so I’ll post here a short passage that is right toward the end, so as not to give the end away.   Part I – Water nearly ends… something like this:

Perhaps, the twin thinks, Arthur should have done more and sooner, made more and bigger revolution, taken more lovers and been more faithful to those that he had loved, furiously faithful.  She wishes that they had eaten more fruit together, drunk more wine, that they had prayed more and danced later into the night.  She is thinking that his body was burned with what was left of his love, that even now they should dance because there is still fire.  Let them dance, she thinks, and those who are dead, let them race over fields, seeking their lovers and their foes, covering the mountain with their footsteps, with their coats.  Those left behind envy their enemies who receive this passion, but it is the love that confounds them.   She has crawled into the lap of one such as she is in desire, as the sun beat down on them, then gives itself over to the moon, as the sea ebbs in and out between and around them, and they neither burn nor drown.

This mighty stillness tonight; don’t mistake it for peace.  There is a restlessness as wild rapids, as the sun’s surface and no man is large enough now to be an object of its rage.  This rage is huge.  It can accomplish great things.  It can rest for years and rise again, refreshed and vigorous.  It can change everything.  But she has no need for eyes if eyes are to see this.  And the truth, what is that to the dead but that which is buried in consequences, in circumstances that change in life, but not in death.

Distracted by the election, yet do the hard work. And please vote.

It is four in the morning.  Almost.  It is just before another election and I’ve been going places I don’t know, and I don’t know how to get there.  Thank God this app knows where I should go even if I don’t.  Once I get there another app tells me what houses to visit.  Thank God for this techie generation. 

I’m shy but it’s a desperate situation.  Before it’s been mostly about a war that I do anything like this, and I wonder if there is a single un-dead baby somewhere doing just fine because what we did helped a little just once to stop or scale back a war.  But now it’s also the ocean heating up, fish babies…  And then a gunman slaughters a group praying in a synagogue. 

It’s four in the morning.

I’m a writer.  I’m not a politician nor a political organizer nor even really much interested in politics.  So I should be writing my novel.  This political work makes little sense.  But writing a novel makes no sense in these ugly times.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  That’s my go-to place when nothing else makes sense:  It’s God’s grace, God’s fault.  Be still and know.

Tomorrow I’ll get back to work and finish this damn book.  I have a few hundred more pages to revise once I figure where they occur.  Originally it was Toronto, but that never made sense.  Vera could not get across the border, not again.  She’s in the United States illegally so crossing a border is not an option.  It’s a miracle she’s never been caught.  I’m giving too much away here.  I’ll have to hit the delete key and delete some of this.  I need to write the book, not write about the book.  And I need to encourage people to vote.  

I am so done this book.  Only it’s not done yet.  Almost.

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…

 

 

On the silence of some women, at least on some things

To what extent are we silenced, and how much do women silence ourselves, or just prefer to remain silent?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I’m engaged in a group study of Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and author.  I kind of knew… that he’d had a lover, but not that he’d fathered a child when he was a young man and again fell in love with a very young woman just before his death when he was in his mid-50’s.   The mother and Merton’s son died in a shelter in London during the Blitz, and the 19-year-old married someone else, leaving the famous monk to mourn evidently until his early death.

He doesn’t talk about it and his biographers don’t talk about it much, and these two women weren’t talking as far as we know, but what do we know?  They seem totally without a voice.

When I wrote this about Vida, I’m also thinking of all the silences in my own life, far less than women of previous generations certainly, and now with the “Me Too” movement startling so many women we ask “You too?”shocking men who had no idea something like that had happened to their friends, wives, mothers…

So yes, there’s this deafening silence:

“… It is just that no one knows how she felt, and perhaps she herself doesn’t know now, and in any case she’s not the kind of woman to go on about it.  That’s all.”

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.