Everything happens so much

Our experience of calendar time has come unmoored. We may need to consider an alternative.

Everything happens so much

Our experience of calendar time has come unmoored. We may need to consider an alternative.

The other week, there was a viral tweet from a user called @quartzen that went as follows:

As it happens, the same day as that tweet was posted, I’d had an article published on this website about the Norwegian island, Sommarøy, which according to certain news articles wanted to abolish time. That story, as it turns out, was an elaborate hoax, cooked up by the Norwegian state’s tourism agency — as this rather disproportionately outraged Forbes article makes clear.

Luckily this may not really matter (for me), because my point remains the same: If we really want to be liberated from Time, we shouldn’t just be looking into abolishing the clock like Sommarøy claimed that it was. We would need a whole new historical consciousness; we would need to found Time anew.

But now it occurs to me — perhaps this re-founding is already, in truth, under way. Day-to-day, we remain subject to the rule of the clock, even in a 24-hour world where our work and our leisure are not always strictly demarcated. But historical time — the time of the calendar — is becoming distorted, as if we have begun to project the old calendar onto an alternative, non-Euclidean, geometrical plane.

The early ‘90s, famously, saw the “End of History,” as it was dubbed by the right-Hegelian political theorist Francis Fukuyama. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus the ostensibly final victory of capitalism and liberal democracy, every important ideological battle had been fought and won — now all that remained was for the gospel of the free market to be spread over the last, dimly resisting corners of the earth. Of course, in reality, the End of History always meant “disaster capitalism” and ethnic conflict in former Soviet (and Yugoslavian) states, and obviously since 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis the myth of the ultimate victory of (a) a liberal world order and (b) a benevolent capitalism that works in the interests of everyone has largely gone completely away.

But the ideological sheen produced by such an idea helped lend the ‘90s, in the English-speaking world at least, an air of being itself somehow ultimate — as if, in this decade, the truth of human society had manifested itself and become clear, and that we may as well always be trapped in it, like The Simpsons. Presumably, the calendar also helped: positioned at the end of the millennium, the ‘90s always did, in a sense, stand on the edge of all things. The ‘90s were the default decade, just as one might think of a Golden Retriever as a “default dog.”

At any rate, even with the ‘90s now long-gone, they have continued to stand somehow at the center of the calendar. As the @quartzen tweet illustrates: 1970 was almost 50 years ago, but it still “feels” as if it lies 30 years in the past. We have a certain psychological tendency to round everything up and down from numbers with zeros at the end — this has helped contribute to the flattening of calendar-time. And this has also had real political effects: witness the tendency in British political discourse to assume that today’s 75 year-olds, who are one of the demographics most in favor of Brexit, helped defend the country during World War II, a conflict that ended as they were being born. Boomers are given an entirely unearned historical dignity, as if they were involved somehow with defeating Nazi Germany.

As the English writer and academic Mark Fisher tells us in Ghosts of My Life, in the 21st century we exist in “a general condition: in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped.” The “general trajectory” of the future has disappeared — and, with it, culture “has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present.” Popular culture exists in a constant stasis of anachronism and “formal nostalgia”, with the music of artists like Adele exemplifying a general “classic” tone which — in terms of its sonic signifiers — could be temporally placed anywhere from around 1950 on. “Or it could be,” Fisher goes on to hint, “that there is no present to grasp and articulate any more.” Without the general trajectory of the future, we have lost the ability to understand what it would mean to be present anywhere — we have only the past.

For an aesthetic representation of the malaise this flattening of history has produced, look no further than the novel A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara's vast tome of trauma and male (sexual) friendship that became a hit in 2015. Ostensibly focused on the brilliant, fragile corporate lawyer Jude and his struggle — which encompasses the whole of his adult life — to overcome his childhood history of sexual abuse, what I found most striking and, indeed, haunting, about the book was the fact that it appears to be set in a New York which never experienced 9/11; in which the financial crisis never happened. A New York, in short, in which the ‘90s never ended — and so history never needed to feel like it was going to “start” again. This was also a world in which all the air of history appears to have been sucked out, and all that is left for the characters to do is succeed or fail as individuals — on a solely individual, purely professional or psychological level. And of course, this is horrible. All of the characters’ attempts to overcome their various traumas come to seem, over the course of the narrative, completely futile. With no future, only the past exists — and so it will always weigh terribly, in all its incomprehensible brutality.

If everything never stops happening, then it must become impossible to get a proper sense of when anything in particular started, or ended, or was going on, or whatever.

But the flattening of history has also, we must note, happened simultaneously with the rise of the internet and social media (which also, as far as I can remember, barely feature in A Little Life). The psychological effect of the number “2000” is real — but 2000 was also a year in which home internet usage was becoming increasingly widespread, and was only a few years away from the founding of Facebook and thus the advent of modern social media. Fisher also mentions this change in Ghosts of My Life. For him, “producing the new” requires “certain kinds of withdrawal — from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms,” but “the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before.”

I don't think this is quite right. In truth, the internet has produced some genuinely new (and brilliant) cultural products: just look at how the amorphous group of social-media superusers referred to as “weird twitter” — which gave rise to authors such as dril and Patricia Lockwood — has changed the way we use language. But certainly there is a sense, in this age, of culture (and politics) being something that bombards — an endless deluge of new events that one is never able to obtain the requisite distance from to really understand.

And as the @quartzen tweet highlights, this has resulted in our understanding of events coming loose from any real sense of calendar-time: last week was ages ago; two years ago — well, two years ago lies millennia in the past. If everything never stops happening, then it must become impossible to get a proper sense of when anything in particular started, or ended, or was going on, or whatever. A familiar feeling, I think: to read about a political event and think, “wait, what the fuck, that happened in 2013?” To remember a meme and realize: “Excuse me, people were posting this in January? January of this year?” In April, when Elon Musk posted a rap about Harambe and changed his Twitter bio to “absolute unit”, part of what was so strange about it was that he seemed, by invoking these old memes, to be posting from the distant past. Presumably, Musk would love to invent time travel (I don't know if he's ever tried to, but come on, he has massive Would Like To Invent Time Travel energy) — perhaps he's already found a way.

Why has this sort of distortion arisen? Possibly it has something to do with the way in which the internet continues to run, for the most part, parallel to the everyday — it has not yet sucked the whole of the everyday in. Different people are differently Online, but most people will just dip in and out, with the internet and social media being just one facet of a life also lived and worked in Offline. And yet — the internet runs on truly 24-hour time, never stopping for anyone to sleep, or relax, or stop paying attention even for a second. Unless your existence is completely dominated by Online, whole swathes of culture can blossom and die — even in areas of the internet you usually hang out in — without your ever becoming aware of them at all. Log off for a couple of days, and there could be Wife Guys whose entire existence remains, to you if only you, completely obscure. Politically, this effect is demonstrated amply by an issue like Brexit, which is typically reported on in the UK media in the form of endlessly rolling liveblogs — but who has the energy to constantly keep track of them? Leave to eat or sleep or enjoy time with loved ones, and you've completely lost the news. “What’s happening with Brexit?” becomes both an earnest question and a joke.

I'm not quite sure what to do in relation to all this, but it's clear time needs reconstituting somehow. The old divisions of the calendar no longer seem quite relevant — and as the internet begins to dominate more and more of our everyday lives, they will gradually become ever less so.

I feel like I’m going to say something which might sound scary — like I'm about to recommend that everyone tether themselves to some sort of giant, malicious, mulitfariously-tentacled beast. But if we want to be able to articulate our world properly, we need to get a proper sense of how time functions in relation not only in relation to what is happening, but also how this happening is experienced. In short: we need to start indexing our lives to the rhythms not of the clock or the sun or the rotation of the earth's axis, but to the internet. I don't know what this would look like, exactly, or how it may affect us psychologically. I don’t know what units we would use, whether we would divide the world up into “cycles” or “beefs” or “chunguses” or whatever. But I think we might need to figure out what it would look like to live on meme-time.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.