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.

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