Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Catching Time By The Tale: Time, History, Apocalypse In Russel Hoban's Riddley Walker

i. Catching Time by the Tale:
History as Synchronic/Diachronic Difference

by agraphia

Life is a passage from the deliverance of birth to the necessity of death. Faced with the inevitability of a mortal end we anxiously seek the order and continuity that would lend our lives significance. Our existence, at times, may seem to dwindle on, a hollow succession of events without sense or purpose. Time passes, and as we reflect on the past, we organize it into stories that give meaning to our present circumstance - we shape time as fiction, with a beginning, middle and end, and find comfort in this resolution. But time continues to trouble us. No matter how hard we strive to make connections, life, at times, is strangely absurd. In the novel Nausea, Sartre's character Roquentin is witness to the inviolable contingency of being and the insignificance of an existence that he alone is responsible for:

"A man is a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything which happens to him through these stories; and he tries to live his life as if it were a story he was telling . . . While you live, nothing happens. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that's all. There are no beginnings. Days add on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable and monotonous addition . . . I wanted the moments of my life to follow each other and order themselves like those of a life remembered. I might as well try to catch time by the tail" (Sartre 59).

Roquentin's existential crisis, both violent and liberating, is what Sartre recognizes as the shared crisis of modern life. The absence of myth, of a grand narrative that organizes community and history, has left us void of purpose, victims of an irretrievable loss of meaning. Without the fictions we collectively create, time reveals nothing, the past is rendered irrelevant and history empty. If we cling to our past as master of present circumstance, according to Sartre, we act in bad faith, denying our existential freedom to create ourselves in every moment. In denying the determinacy of our past we are free to define what we are in the present and accept responsibility for the outcome of our future. Our sense of history, the stories we tell about our past, relates the living present to the lived past - if these stories are not Truth but fiction, if History is an illusion, how do we make sense of the present, a present rendered unreadable by the sheer opacity of past and future?

Despite these moments of existential angst that disrupt daily routine, we live our lives, more or less, with purpose. Time is not always experienced as a ‘interminable and monotonous addition' of meaningless events; we remember the events of yesterday that lead to the choices we make today. Time, as a lived phenomenon, is meaningful. In The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode draws a distinction between two experiences of lived time: chronos and kairos, time experienced as a mere succession of unrelated events and time as meaningful through the imposition of a rectilinear before and after, beginning and end. "Chronos is ‘passing time' or ‘waiting time' - that which, according to Revelation, ‘shall be no more' - and kairos is the season, a point in time filled with significance, charged with a meaning derived from its relation to the end" (Kermode 47). Chronos, then, is often associated with ‘real time' or objective temporality outside human intervention, while kairos is the ‘virtual' time of fiction and narrative that lends mere chronicity human significance. Kairos is time with a plot, events structured according to a narrative whole. Good stories have rules: they begin with introductions, gradually presenting main elements to the audience, they progress meaningfully to a climactic middle, often an event of crisis, then end in resolution, making sense of the overall story as a pleroma, a fullness or completion. As Kermode says, "these rules are attractive; and they are so because we need, for our obscure cultural ends, to observe distinctions between more chronicity and times which are concordant and full. Hence our use, for our own game, of chronos, kairos, and also pleroma" (Kermode 50). The ending makes sense of what precedes it; if it was not for a good ending, the events of the story would be open-ended, unintelligible, without purpose. Even if the story is incomplete we anticipate its ending, speculating on how the events will resolve themselves, and we are left uncomfortable if an ending never comes. "Our interest in endings - endings of fictional plots, of epochs - may derive from a common desire to defeat chronicity, the intolerable idea that we live within an order of events between which there is no relation, pattern, mutuality, or intelligible progression" (Kermode 250). Like Sartre's Roquentin, we desire to order the uneasy contingency of time - to catch time through a tale.

Objective being is without history; the object does not relate itself to a past or future. Objects that may appear to us as charged with historical significance (Martin's sextant in Elizabeth Hand's "Glimmering", Fontaine's watch in William Gibson's "All Tomorrow's Parties") are so only because of the stories we tell about them. History is unique to our ontology. Suspended between the contingent advancement of objective time and the meaning that our existence lends it, we are our history, we are nothing but this temporal possibility. History is nothing in-itself; it is a fiction of community. Despite the absence of myth we order time through the narration of a history of beginnings and endings, calendric cycles, critical events; history, in this sense, becomes our new myth. "History . . . is a fictive substitute for authority and tradition, a maker of concords between past, present and future, a provider of significance to mere chronicity" (Kermode 56). Yet, the pure contingency of time always threatens to out do our historical organization. The tradition of Western philosophical thought can be read as a struggle to account for time as chronos within a rational system. By the very fact that, in our lived experience, the future is indeterminate and the past is nothing but the interpretation or the re-presentation of a continual absence, chronos, a continuum of ephemeral being, evades the stasis of rational category. As Mark Taylor suggests, "since temporal change resists systematization, systems can be constructed only by excluding time. Time . . . disrupts every effort to establish a system" (Taylor 13). Existential time is never a positive presence, it is the very difference of a before and after, a coming and going. If the subject is an identity derived from this difference, how can one account for the duration of this identity over time? If the subject is this relation between a past and future, it denies qualification within any system that transcends time. Nonetheless, each of our lives is only a finite expanse of time; we will each meet our inevitable end. Systems demand endings, and as we are haunted by the possibility of our own death, that final limit of signification, we turn back on the past and make sense of what we can, with the experience of our lived time as an ambiguous mix of chronos and kairos.

We are able, then, to draw some parallels between Kermode's chronos / kairos distinction and the structuralist categories of the synchronic and diachronic. Drawing on Saussure's semiological contrast between langue as a synchronic system, a meaningful organization of differential signs at any given moment in time, and the diachronic evolution of a language over time, structural anthropology, such as the work of Lévi-Strauss, makes the distinction between the mutually exclusive categories of synchronic and diachronic analysis, interpreting the social as meaningful according to the structure of language as a complex system of signs. Put simply, synchronic analysis explains the past through the system inherent in the present, as opposed to diachronic analysis which explains the present through the factual events of the past, still relying on elements of the synchronic to make sense of a temporal structure. However, if every culture, as a sign system, adheres to the universal, ahistorical rules of differential signifying relations, history is nothing other than the arbitrary, temporal arrangement of those elements within the system. Anthropological structuralism's privileging of the synchronic, it is argued, renders history the mere repetition, or, as Nietzsche would have it, the eternal recurrence of the same original system (Fekete 114). By suppressing the play of signification, structuralists construct a total system, but it is nothing more than a fiction, an empty abstraction that cannot account for the full diversity of the social dynamic. Nonetheless, we can posit two diametrically opposed orders of signification in the experience of lived time where neither order is absolute and fully negates its opposite, thus, espousing a binary relationship by which to categorize various social relations:

Synchronic - Aion
pure structure
Diachronic - Chronos
pure event

This list is in no way complete or absolute, rather, certain social relations can be shown as the interplay between each category. Synchronic signifiers are organized in relation to a static, atemporal system that is ‘outside' of time as chronos. In myth, for example, the diachronic interval between past and present is transcended, representing time as Aion, an eternal present - history is simply the temporal unfolding of the same predetermined structure. Diachronic signifiers, on the other hand, disintegrate this structure into pure, contingent events, where meaning cannot be accounted for within the system. Our experience of lived time is necessarily suspended within this opposition.

Giorgio Agamben, in his essay "In Playland", distinguishes between different social activities, namely ritual and games, that are meaningful due to this synchronic / diachronic opposition. The content of games is often the residue of sacred rituals, in which the original significance of the actions are either forgotten or ignored. While play is derived from the sacred, it acts to invert it, displacing signs from the order of the sacred to profane time. The form of the ritual is preserved, particular actions and even specific rules, while the actions are emptied of mythic significance. "In play, man frees himself from sacred time and ‘forgets' it in human time" (Agamben 70). For Agamben, the inverse relationship between ritual and play is at once oppositional and corresponding: while ritual constructs, play destroys, signifying the difference between the synchronic and diachronic experience of time and history. Ritual works to establish a meaningful system of the present that connects the events of the past, while play disrupts and ‘unworks' the system into a contingent, succession of events. "If ritual is therefore a machine for transforming diachrony into synchrony, play, conversely, is a machine for transforming synchrony into diachrony" (Agamben 74). However, what this opposition reveals is not two entirely discrete signifying categories, but a human society constructed around a binary system that functions through the interplay, the difference and correlation, of its dual tendencies: synchronic signification and diachronic signification (Agamben 75). Neither order can fully encompass our existential experience of time; each order of signification attempts to cancel its opposite: myth seeks to subsume every event within its structure - metaphysics represents absolute presence as the pure intersection of the diachronic and synchronic in the present instant - while play attempts to release the fixed connections of systems. Neither order negates the other absolutely, rather, the relation between them opens the very space of signification, and thus, the possibility of society and its historical becoming. This ‘differential margin' between diachrony and synchrony, Agamben proposes, is the very experience of human temporality - it is "history; in other words, human time" (Agamben 75).

Both the diachronic and synchronic order exposes the other as the necessity of its constitution, unable to collapse the differential margin and complete, what Agamben calls, the ‘abolition of history'. Time, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is inherently apocalyptic, positing an eternal, mythic time that transcends the temporal and historical, an order outside time that can be participated in through ritual. The Christian apocalypse is the final subsumption of the diachronic within the synchronic, completing the mythic system and ending historical contingency. It is the revelation of Truth, as Derrida says, "Truth itself is the end, the destination, and that truth unveils itself in the advent of the end" (Derrida 84). On the other hand, the death of god, the total dissolution of the synchronic by the diachronic into absolute contingency, is the threat of an apocalyptic loss of meaning. Whether individual or collective, death, the final limit of signification, continually threatens meaning as the interplay of diachronic and synchronic significance. Death, says Agamben, is "the gravest threat that nature brings to bear on the binary system of human society, for it is hardest to keep open the signifying opposition between diachrony and synchrony on which the system is founded once these seem to coincide" (Agamben 82). Ritual and play act to combat the other of death, to keep open the difference of synchronic and diachronic signification, releasing human time from the bonds of determinacy while fastening the fragments of contingency into a meaningful system.

The time of the novel is necessarily kairos, which presents an obstacle when it comes to representing time as pure contingency. Its time is determined by its beginning-end relation, a ‘miniature' creation and apocalypse. Every fiction is eschatological in that it is the revelation of what Derrida would call "the eskhaton, the end, or rather the extreme, the limit, the term, the last, what comes in extremis to close a history, a genealogy, or very simply a countable series" (Derrida 68). In Russell Hoban's post-apocalyptic novel "Riddley Walker", one world begins with the end of another. The event of the 1Big1 is, partly, a metaphor for the rupture between the time of the novel and the time of the reader. The pre-apocalyptic world the characters nostalgically seek to revive is, in one sense, our world outside the novel. While the defamiliarized reader attempts to make sense of Riddley's alien narrative, Riddley strives to decipher the language of the reader, the mysterious origin of his own language that has slipped away with the contingency of time. Through ritual, Riddley and his community invest in myth in order to restore synchronic order and make sense of their temporal wasteland. However, the system they invest in, with its apocalyptic origin, threatens to repeat the process of loss. Riddley's revelation, in the end, echoes our own existential crisis of an experience of time without transcendental order, a history that is neither absolute synchrony or diachrony. It is a fiction that illustrates the social struggle to stabilize the tension of myth and mortal time, the difference that is pure history.

clip from "McLuhan's Wake"



Q: What is Superstruct?
A: Superstruct is the world's first massively multiplayer forecasting game. By playing the game, you'll help us chronicle the world of 2019--and imagine how we might solve the problems we'll face. Because this is about more than just envisioning the future. It's about making the future, inventing new ways to organize the human race and augment our collective human potential.

Q: What does "superstruct" mean?
Su`per`struct´ v. t. 1.To build over or upon another structure; to erect upon a foundation. Superstructing is what humans do. We build new structures on old structures. We build media on top of language and communication networks. We build communities on top of family structures. We build corporations on top of platforms for manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. Superstructing has allowed us to survive in the past and it will help us survive the super-threats.

Q: How do I play Superstruct?
A: Superstruct is played on forums, blogs, videos, wikis, and other familiar online spaces. We show you the world as it might look in 2019. You show us what it's like to live there. Bring what you know and who you know, and we'll all figure out how to make 2019 a world we want to live in.

Q: Who is making Superstruct?
A: Superstruct is being developed by the Ten-Year Forecast team at the Institute for the Future, a not-for-profit think tank based in Palo Alto, California.

Q: What happens when the game is over?
A: The Ten Year Forecast team at the Institute for the Future will analyze the player-created game content. We'll prepare an official Superstruct Report featuring our top collective insights about the year 2019, and the best tactics for superstructing society. Highlights from the report will be emailed to all registered Superstruct players in April 2009. Meanwhile, the Superstruct site will stay live and open to the public as an immersive archive, so you can continue to show your friends, family and colleagues the future you helped invent.

Glass Bead Game

"I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with truly a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created" ...

"After each symbol conjured up by the director of a Game, each player was required to perform silent, formal meditation on the content, origin, and meaning of this symbol, to call to mind intensively and organically its full purport. The members of the Order and of the Game associations brought the technique and practice of contemplation with them from their elite schools, where the art of contemplation and meditation was nurtured with the greatest care."

-- Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

from HipBone Games:

Strategy games to stretch the mind, develop innovative approaches -- and overcome seemingly insurmountable tasks. A HipBone Game is a game of creative leaps between thoughts. The thoughts themselves are the "moves" the players make, and the "links" they claim between them are what make the game challenging and enjoyable -- and the process itself a powerful tool for uncovering tacit knowledge, while building bonds of collegiality, respect and friendship between players.

What's a HipBone move?

A move can be any idea - usually a concept, a quote or vision statement, a goal or process - and the trick is to find ideas that are richly interesting in their own right, but which also connect in the most stimulating and insightful ways with the ideas your colleagues play. The idea is "named" to a particular position on the board, and the player then claims links with the ideas in play in adjacent positions.

What's the payoff?

A HipBone board is like a mind-map, in that you place ideas in circles on the game-board, linked by those creative leaps of thought to other ideas which other players have come up with - but it pushes the limits of creativity farther than mind-mapping, by providing a "tight" formal structure in which the links must be made. Players compete to find the most striking links, while collaborating to build the most brilliant structure of ideas. Since the links consist of similarities and oppositions, homologies and analogies between the ideas in play, a full game of ten moves becomes a tightly woven joint architecture of ideas - and creates an almost telepathic melding of the minds and hearts of the various players.

Second Grade Example:

1. In the nursery rhyme, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled this.
2. We call the crystals that early peoples used to trade with this.
3. Don't play with matches, you might light a this.
4. Three quarters of the earth's surface is covered with this.
5. Mount Saint Helen's is one this, and Vesuvius is another.
6. The Atlantic is one this, and the Pacific is another.
7. The geyser Old Faithful is a hot water this.
8. No two flakes of this are identical.
9. All the colors of the rainbow mixed together come out this.
10. The largest mammal on the planet is a this.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

“Similarity Begets Friendship.” – from Phaedrus

Homophily Theory

"The theory of homophily, defined by Lazarsfeld and Merton (1964), is that most human communication will occur between a source and a receiver who are alike (i.e., homophilous and have a common frame of reference). Homophily is the degree to which individuals in dyad are congruent or similar in certain attributes, such as demographic variables, beliefs and values (Touchey 1974). Gabriel Tarde (1903) also noted that social relations are generally between individuals who resemble each other in occupation and education. Hetrophily is the degree to which pairs of individuals are different in certain attributes. Thus, heterophily is the opposite of homophily.

Rogers and Bhowmik (1971) mentioned that homophily occurs frequently because communication is more effective when source and receiver are homopilous. When two individuals share common meanings, belief, and mutual understandings, communication between them is more likely to be effective. Individuals enjoy the comfort of interacting with others who are similar. Talking with those who are markedly different from us requires more effort to make communication effective. Heterophilous communication between dissimilar individuals may also cause cognitive dissonance because an individual is exposed to messages that are inconsistent with existing beliefs, resulting in an uncomfortable psychological state.

Homophily and effective communication breed one another. The more communication there is between members of a dyad, the more likely they are to become homophilous; the more homophilous two individuals are, the more likely that their communication will be effective. Individuals who depart from the homophily principle and attempt to communicate with others who are different from them often face the frustration of ineffective communication. Differences in technical competence, social status, beliefs, and language, lead to mistakes in meaning, thereby causing messages to be distorted or to go unheeded.

Homophily is the principle that contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people. The pervasive fact of homophily means that cultural, behavioral, genetic or material information that flows through networks will tend to be localized. Homophily implies that distance in terms of social characteristics translates into network distance, the number of relationships through which a piece of information must travel to connect two individuals. It also implies that any social entity that depends to a substantial degree on networks for its transmission will tend to be localized in social space, and will obey certain fundamental dynamics as it interacts with other social entities in an ecology of social forms."

Why is homophily a trap?

"The rise of the read/write web turns the problem of paying attention to the rest of the world from a supply to a demand problem. You can find Brazilian, Bengali and Bulgarian voices, but only if you bother looking for them, stumble across them or are led to them by creators and curators of content"...

"Cass Sunstein argues that it can polarize us - in Infotopia, he cites a study he helped conduct that demonstrates that deliberation of political issues with like-minded people leads subjects to a more politically polarized stance. From this, and from a close reading of political polarization in the blogosphere, he argues that the Internet may make it easier for us to share information with likeminded individuals, and that in a political context, this could be a bad thing.

While there is nothing wrong with being around others who are similar to yourself, both Smith-Lovin and Small said that people and organizations pay a price for homogeneity. In politics, for example, the fact that people rarely have friends with different views makes it difficult to seek common ground or to examine one's positions closely.

"Most of us would be hard-pressed to provide clear explanations for our political beliefs," said Small. "If you ask the average person why they believe what they believe on Roe v. Wade , you are not going to get a coherent answer. We participate in settings where we don't have to explain ourselves because everyone else agrees with us. What this means is, 'I have no reason to challenge or question my own beliefs.' "