After effects – an analysis of ­mediated experience and time

I’m writing this, and indeed even when I’m not writing I’m living just beneath the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.  I see its lights on the hill from where I sit tapping on my keyboard.  There people like Einstein, Keppler and Hawkins are revered and their theories modeled.  I can catch a bus and be up to the observatory in a half hour.  As well as the equipment to observe the moon and galaxies, there are models of these bodies up there.  Every high school student who attends a public school in Los Angeles will visit the Griffith Observatory.  It is part of their science curriculum, a must-visit-in-order-to-graduate sort of event unless, of course, they are sick on the day of this class trip.  Students need to explore what’s out there.  I love this, all of it, the existence of the Observatory, all that it contains, but mostly the hiking trails up and around it, the bird sanctuary that is still in ruins from a fire, the path that takes one to the Hollywood sign.

In his extraordinary work, A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawkins explains to ordinary people how two projects in physics have come to disparate and incompatible conclusions that he tried to resolve:  “The general theory of relativity describes the force of gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe, that is, the structure on scales from only a few miles to as large as a million million million million (1 with twenty-four zeros after it) miles, the size of the observable universe. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, deals with phenomena on extremely small scales, such as a millionth of a millionth of an inch. Unfortunately, however, these two theories are known to be inconsistent with each other – they cannot both be correct.” (Hawkins, p.8) He was attempting to bring the two investigations together, because there aren’t two separate universes, that of the very big and very small.

Different methods

How it relates to this study of time consciousness is something else again; not an investigation of what is but how we experience what is, and even what isn’t, because our imaginary experiences are still experiences.  We needn’t go anywhere to explore this; no class trip is required.  I’ve been at it all day and haven’t left my apartment, though now when I look up at the lights on the Griffith Observatory I wish I’d made the trip, taken a hike.  Even monks need to engage in walking meditations.  Our bodies as inseparable from consciousness.  We’ll come back to this when we consider media.

However, now all one has to do is look very closely at one’s own experience, bring it to consciousness. The investigations of the very big and very small, and our consciousness of time should be consistent.  Otherwise, either the science is wrong or our analysis of our experience is twisted.  Given the brilliant minds at work in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics, our analysis being twisted is most likely if they do diverge.  But perhaps they won’t.  We should be anticipating insight, not failure, at the outset.

Mind the gap

When I analyze my own consciousness of time, I recognize that time consciousness is gapped even if there is no consciousness of the gap.  In the case of media and stories, even the story of how we spent the last hour or millennium, and how we’re going to spend the next, there are gaps.  The narrative, one thing following another, is not how we experience the present.  We can’t even be conscious of the present because as soon as we call it to consciousness, it is past.  That’s the gap, the present, in which we of course live but can’t bring to consciousness.  We can only be present to it.

If this is merely a limitation of our human minds, so be it, but there is this apparent contradiction between the flow of events and the gapped quality of consciousness that we can analyze carefully.  It is also true of various media.  Between every note played in music is silence, and between every symbol in computer code is no-code.  The breaks symbolize something other than the code, and while the overall code has a beginning, middle, and end, it is riddled with no-code.  In every sentence there are words and with every word phonemes, and between phonemes… gaps. Silence.

Try This – an introduction

So now it’s become obvious to me:  I’m writing a book about time.  “Kenny in Infinity” is a chapter, the cartoon character Kenny my muse. 

Here’s the introduction:

This began as a study of new media, not so new now, that discloses aspects of experience we might reflect upon with new insights, given what new media discloses about, well, everything.

Try this.

Theoretical physics was born out of new means of perceiving what’s out there, these new means being new media.  Both the new physics and new media reinforce what careful introspection illuminates: time, and our being in time, spreads into infinity.  Our physical experience discloses narrative time, ‘one damn thing after another’.  But words fail us.  And between every syllable is silence.  Otherwise, it would be one long screech.

Between every note played in music is silence; between every word or at least every sentence, silence; between every symbol in computer code is no-code.  The breaks symbolize something other than the code and, while the overall code has a beginning, middle, and end, it is riddled in no-code.  In every sentence there are words and with every word phonemes, and between phonemes…  We have breath between syllables, and those familiar with meditation are aware of how noisy we are – our hearts beat, when we inhale, exhale, more noise – and everyone and our world suddenly seems noisy when we attempt to be silent.

There are scientific (measurable, replicable, falsifiable) theories, but here is what distinguishes theoretical physics from plain old physics.  On the level of experience, apart from theory, time consciousness might be all we have to work with.  In any case, that is what I’m working with here.

Our new time consciousness reflects, amplifies and illustrates ancient understandings.  For instance, “In the beginning was the Word…”   Fundamentalism is an easy mistake to make when you can hold the Word of God in your hands.

People accept the illusion of a text as timeless, associating the Word with a lot of words.  I still hope to hear the word of God in the person of Jesus through the medium of print or, better yet, read aloud, though now the printed page is largely usurped by the pixilated computer monitor.  We talked about a paperless office in the beginning of the digital era while creating the cloud of text and images.

Today I even participated in the Daily Office online.  These selections of prayers and scripture passages for the morning, noon and evening prayer, a practice going back to Constantine and monastic life in the third century, are recited aloud in communities, and flicker on my laptop as I pray with an online community, though there’s no one else in this room.

Walter Ong, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan all identified the relationship between language technologies and meanings.  Overstating it perhaps, McLuhan’s point that “the medium is the message” became a touchstone and then a cliché, but the point is still well taken.  There is a trace of the oral in the written text, a trace of the written word on the printed page, and in the pixelated images on my computer screen.  Yet, each medium is distinct and is both a vehicle and the road the vehicle travels upon when it comes to a new consciousness of what is real.

That’s life.  When sacred or even mundane symbols are pressed onto clay tablets, the clay itself contains remnants of living organisms.  Ephemeral words and the eternal Word are only adjacent. To identify the medium with the message might be straight out idolatry because these means of expression are human.  What is other than human, absolute silence, is divine.

But I have focused too much on the otherness of text and word associated with the Word.  It is incarnate.  It is other than other; it is also this.

Try this.

I close my laptop and put my phone out of reach.

Time Consciousness

Time consciousness is gapped.  There is no consciousness of the gap, only of the flow.  In the case of media and stories, even the story of how we spent the last hour or millennium, and how we’re going to spend the next, there are gaps.  We can’t be conscious of the present because as soon as we call it to consciousness, it is past.  That’s the gap, the present, in which we of course live but can’t bring to consciousness.  We can only be present to it, enjoy it, or not.

Between every note played in music is silence, and between every symbol in computer code is no-code.  The breaks symbolize something other than the code, and while the overall code has a beginning, middle, and end, it is riddled in no-code.  In every sentence there are words and with every word phonemes, and between phonemes… gaps.

There are scientific (measurable, replicable, falsifiable) theories, but here is what distinguishes theoretical physics from plain old physics.  On the level of experience, apart from theory, time consciousness might be all we have to work with.  In any case, that is what I’m working with here.

 

From Christmas to Epiphany

So the intersection of time consciousness and ethics defies our fantasies of time travel.  As many celebrate Christmas, the incarnation, an epiphany, I come to this:

If we take time consciousness as embodying the present in a constructed narrative – it’s a story – while we actually live in an unstructured moment that has infinite dimensions – that is to say if we take our experience of time as all that we can know, accepting it as unknowable in the present – the irony at least might be humbling in a positive sense.

For instance, we must give up wild speculations about time travel.  This is it, now.  It can be otherwise.  We must recognizing that in the expansive present – actually not merely expansive but without dimensions, which is to say infinite – nothing can be other than it is.  If we traveled forward in time or back in time, we can’t help but impact it with our presence.  That would change everything, not just in the future and the past, but presently.  The whole is new.  So that is it, now.

There are some good movies that seem to clear on this point.  My favorite is Jacob’s Ladder (Lyne, 1990).

Again, if I were to travel forward in time, whatever happens, well, that happens for all infinity.  This point is more obvious if we consider traveling back in time.  If I were to travel back in time, to yesterday, and eat oatmeal instead of eggs, then today I would have eaten oatmeal yesterday.  I might today remember eating eggs, but no matter.  I would simply be mistaken, had I traveled back and eaten oatmeal.  If I hadn’t traveled, well so be it: if I ate eggs, the eggs it was.

Is that true?  Are we logically stuck with everything just as it is?

There is no jumping into some future because, logically speaking, going into the future makes it not that particular future at all, but a transformed present in which we are living now.  Similarly, past lives or traveling into the past is simply logically impossible.  That past would be a different past, and that different past would be the only past there is.

Our freedom isn’t limited by our being stuck with the past, as it was constructed in our narrative even if that has infinite possibilities at every turn.  How we exercise our freedom, though, is definitive.  Similarly, the future will be what it is, as we construct it, even as it too is open to infinite possibilities in infinite time.

But what’s done is done.  Our freedom entails consequences or it wouldn’t be freedom at all.  And it does and it is.  There is an ethical dimension as well to the infinite possibilities:  What we do matters.  It matters for all eternity.

In Islamic thought there is this sense expressed as the ethical implications of infinite value: if you kill one person, since each life is infinitely valuable, it is as if you’ve killed all life.  And if you save one, it is as if you’ve saved all.

Consider this:  If I have that right, and if it’s true, my complaint against God (and pardon me if this is blasphemous that I write it out but I think it so I might as well put it out there and you can have the pleasure of correcting me and granting forgiveness) is that it took so long.  Change came glacially slow for many millions of years, before there was conscious experience in some galaxies and perhaps parallel universes.  Volcanoes erupt, black holes implode and, so long as that was all that was going on, no one was getting hurt.  Only when organisms evolved that could feel pain could God, through creation, experience pain.  Even then, if the creation was something other than God, would God be ignorant of this pain?  What is knowledge if it’s not knowledge of something.

Perhaps God’s pre-incarnate knowledge is akin to compassion.  “I feel your pain.” But not really.  It’s your pain, not mine. This puts the incarnation in a certain light, God experiencing joy, pain and even death, not as I do through the fictional characters I create, but as I do directly in my own life.

Well, dear God, what took you so long?  (That’s my rude question, my rude prayer.)

Winter Solstice

The shortest night of the year:  it will only get more light from now on.  Each year the cycle repeats, like a promise kept.

One difference here between the physics with which we’ve become familiar and our phenomenological analysis is that the latter doesn’t posit a theory; it merely describes what we experience and analyzes this experience carefully.  We recognized, in describing our experience, that the present moment is unknowable, beyond time consciousness, our consciousness of time always anticipated (future) or just-past (remembered), so subject to distortions and imaginings.  The structure of the present moment is without the narrative structure of anticipating and remembering.  It just is.  We just exist, true existence beyond knowing, or at least beyond our knowing.

So consider the problem of time travel in light of this analysis of our present experience.  It is theoretically possible, according to theories of modern physics but logically impossible because you can’t enter an experience without changing it.  If I come into a room from a previous century, the room is altered and I am altered so I am in a new moment, not that of the previous century.  This isn’t just the structure of physical time; it is that of creation.  It is what it is and it can’t be otherwise.

So I contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus in this light.  It isn’t fatalism, when Jesus realized at some point that it was going to happen and even God wouldn’t take this bitter cup away.  He’d have to drink it, freely, knowing… Here, try this.  Try contemplating the crucifixion in this light, and the resurrection.  Jesus took on the story and entered eternal life because he was always living even though he died because that is what it is to be fully human, incarnate… I think.  Or rather here I stop thinking, just sit with it for a short while.

After all, it’s the shortest night of the year.

And then try this

“In the beginning was the Word…”  It was an easy mistake to make.  People can embrace the illusion of a text as timeless, associating the Word with a lot of words.  And I was nineteen.

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

Of course first there is the spoken word.  Oral culture predates written culture not only historically but with every child born.  First they live, then listen, talk, then maybe someday read and write.

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

Yet I still hope to hear the word of God in the person of Jesus through the medium of print or, better yet, read aloud.  Today I participate in the Daily Office online.  The selection of prayers and scripture passages read in the morning, noon and evening prayer, a practice going back to Constantine and monastic life in the third century, recited aloud in communities, now flickers on my laptop as I pray with an online community, though there’s no one else in this room.

I have focused too much on the otherness of text and word associated with the Word.  It is incarnate.  It is other than other; it is also this.

Try this.

I close my laptop and put my phone out of reach.

 

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.