As a rule, I generally avoid novels or films that exhaustingly try to stuff decades worth of events and information into one neatly presented ‘whole.’ The notion that two hours of film-footage might hope to convey 20 or 40 years of human history and its unfolding complexity of human action (although an admirable, and in some rare cases, successful feat) really perturbs me.
The recent Ryan Gosling film, ‘Place Beyond the Pines,’ was one such film that particularly pissed me off. Not only did it axe its heroic heartthrob protagonist well before half time, but its attempt to narrate almost twenty-years worth of family-heartache, deeply convoluted Oedipal ‘daddy issues,’ bank-heists and then some, left me confused, unfocussed, and, by the end of it, totally apathetic.
In contrast, German film ‘Run Lola Run’ stands as a promising alternative to the Hollywood addiction to shoving as much cinematic storyline up our nostrils in one sitting as is possible. In this film, we are presented with a girl who is forced to help her boyfriend with a bank robbery in just twenty-minutes. The film replays the sequence three times, with minor plot alterations and slight shifts in a character’s decision-making dramatically affecting the outcome of each sequence. As a viewer, we are thrust into the infinite complexity of, dare I say it— ‘time.’ How even one-minute’s worth of human activity presents us with an unbridled wealth of information—the infinite number of neuron connections in the brain leading to a millisecond’s decision, or the boundless wealth of visual stimuli involved in just one snapshot of a human landscape. Why even attempt at grasping a lifetime’s worth of questions, when a mere ‘moment’ can suffice us with such an ungraspable variety of content?
Although I’m being slightly hyperbolic as to the film’s success at deconstructing a more than miniscule portion of human time, its overall ambitions (and its particular resonance with my distaste for ‘epics’) was itself historically indicative of the postmodern philosophical project to debunk presentations of time/history that were deterministic and teleological (indeed, those presenting life and time as some sort of narrated story, with an overall apotheosis.) French post-structuralist Jean Francois Lyotard was one particularly devoted to the project. In his The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Lyotard vigorously argues against this philosophical and cultural imaging of history that presents time as a linear process (with a beginning and end point); his term for this cultural fabrication of historical ‘stories’ was ‘grand narratives’ or ‘meta-narratives.’ It is our cultural tendency to place each single event or action into a grander, ‘significant’ picture. And that was for Lyotard the plague of modernity—if each moment is immediately sublimated into its meaning within the overall story of history, can the moment ever really be experienced in and of itself? Can’t a moment just BE a moment, without meaning anything more within the fictitious grand-narratives of history?
To try and dislodge us away from imagining time as a straight horizontal line with an arrowhead plopped onto the right of it, Lyotard uses the image of skin in his anti-philosophical gesture. He writes that the ‘skin’ of history ‘is made from the most heterogeneous textures, bone, epithelium, sheets to write on….which rather than being smooth, is on the contrary covered with roughness, corners, creases, cavities.’ [1. Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, (London, 2004), p.2] If each little moment in time could be thought of as a microscopic dimple within the overall skin of history, each with its infinite and cavernous complexity of shit going on inside it, then trying to imagine history as a smooth or narrated story starts to become impossible. Academic buddy of Lyotard’s, Giles Deleuze even comments that the mere 10th of a second is enough to provide him with intense sensation and the validity for human interest—and where else would Deleuze look for such temporal sensations, but in art.
And of course, and I would agree, it is art (well, certain forms of avant-garde art,) that allows us to escape into moments in and of themselves, outside their prescribed position in the story of history. I’ve found this most true of performance art. Last year in Venice, I was privileged enough to witness the work of fabulous performance-art couple, Weeks & Whitford, whose durational pieces swallowed me whole on a daily basis (I genuinely couldn’t stay away.) Stuck in a dark room, with no indication of actual time, but the omnipresent and continual sound of a clock ticking, the couple repeated seemingly ‘everyday’ gestures over and over again for hours on end (whether it was sipping a glass of red wine, biting an apple, or even just preparing the dinner table in an idiosyncratic fashion.) What might at first strike as something quite dull, became intensely stimulating, and at points, truly dramatic.
Through forcing their audience to concentrate on the most slight of human movements and behavior in such an intensely claustrophobic and sectioned-off environment, we became entranced by these seemingly insignificant moments as if they were the only thing left in the world, and their position in the story of time and history, or their supposed significance in ‘the grander scheme of things,’ totally evaporated as a legitimate concept. Watching them, we were trapped in a black hole of time, yet in infinity of human complexity. As Deleuze encourages in his attack on the representational imaging of history, ‘it is a question of producing a movement capable of affecting the mind outside all representation; it is a question of making movement itself a work, without interposition; of investing vibrations, rotations, whirlings, gravitations, dances or leaps which touch the mind.’ [2. Deleuze, Difference and Repitition, (2004), p.8.] In short, why worry about the ‘bigger picture’ – something we’ll never, and I mean never be able to grasp – when the microscopic, immediate moments in the present, however slight, can be so dynamic.
Another key strand of avant-garde art production that hopes to correct the human constructed stories of history is that called ‘The Archival Impulse.’ Although Niko Munz’s art-historical research is far better equipped to guide you through this issue than I ever could, in brief, what we see happening during the surge of postmodernism in the arts, is the need for artists to look back at historical ‘episodes,’ while trying to fill in the gaps left by time. Fred Wilson’s landmark exhibition, ‘Mining the Museum,’ of 1992 is a pretty banging and political example of this. For the exhibition, Wilson went though the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, re-displaying all its ‘historically significant’ artifacts, alongside equally important objects and documents that had not been recorded or deemed historically significant. Unsurprisingly, objects that had been left out were those that exposed the Society’s implicitly racist philosophies; an unfortunate fact the Maryland Society hoped time would erase.
The big question is, why are we so inclined to construct these historical stories? For me, the answer is in ambulances. I’ll qualify this. How many times have you just walked down the street, perhaps on your lunch break from work, thinking about your banal week ahead, when an ambulance just zips past you, sirens yelping? The answer is probably hundreds, though most people react to the sound as if it were just a regular breeze, swooping through the city sky. ‘Cos if you actually thought, “DREAD, at this moment, while I’m just walking on the street, going about my everyday routine, something really awful is simultaneously happening,” you’d start to be sucked into the vast black hole of a ‘moment.’ The vacuum grows stronger by then going on to think that 2 people die every second, or that 4 are born at that same moment. Getting sucked into the gaping endlessness of every single moment in time is pretty dangerous. It would certainly screw the economy up: I mean, how would you be able to plan tomorrow’s transport journeys if you really dwelled on the fact that there are train suicides happening all over the world at any given moment? You wouldn’t. So society stiches together a neat little picture of time so that we can at least move from one moment to the next with some of our sanity intact, and not only that, but so we can pretend there is some grander meaning to everything we are doing every day.
This may all sound bleakly nihilistic, but I don’t think this should necessarily be the case. Personally, I find comfort in the realization that there is no grander meaning. No, I don’t sit in my room in a ‘moment’-equivalent of a K-hole. But I do, from time to time, whether it is through movement, orgasm, laughter, art or whatever, like to, as best I can, indulge in time.