The “new” space/time of History

August 12, 2007 § Leave a comment

In a recent interview with Salon, William Gibson aligns himself with the sentiments of one of the principal characters in Pattern Recognition: “I basically agree with Mr. Bigend in “Pattern Recognition” when he argues that our present has become so unutterably brief and ever-changing that we have no ground upon which we can stand and project a future historical arc as H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein were able to. The short form of that is, none of us know what the hell is going to happen next.”

I find this to be an odd disclosure, in part because I find Gibson’s fiction, despite its appeals to the break-neck pace of emergent virtualities, to be almost classically historical. That is, Gibson manages to crystallize within historical registers moments that have the appearance of resisting, reforming, or recasting historical time. Neuromancer is a perfect example here, a story that in its appeals to the future-present points glaringly to its historicity — students encountering it for the first time focus immediately on its anachronisms. Some of this is a condition of the contemporary, 2.0-generation reader, but some of it results from the novel’s implicit claim to be speaking to and for the “present.” In contrast, “Bladerunner,” a fiction close enough to the present moment to warrant comparison with Gibson’s work, and one interested in similar problems, conventions, and projections, is rarely pegged as “dated.” In fact new readers/viewers in this case often focus initially on the “timelessness” of the master/slave dialectic and the troubled boundaries of the human, ignoring the story’s historically specific perspectives on genre, space, vision, sexuality,and gender (just to name some of the most obvious).

Where is “history” positioned of late on the space-time continuum? This is not a problem confined to virtual and fictional scapes. Bruce Holsinger’s most recent book, The Premodern Condition, is representative of a spate of new academic work on recuperation of “the historical” within the Western critical and theoretical corpus (I admit complicity in this enterprise). Interestingly, much of this work seems focused on putting into virtual suspension the categories of “history” AND “theory,” as opposed to a recuperation of theory as grounded in history (Christopher Pye seems an even more apt demonstration of this than Holsinger). History is treated as its own kind of theoretical enterprise rather than a grounded retreat. While there is tremendous profit in bracketing the very condition of “invoking history now” as its own political and theoretical gesture, time often surfaces in these accounts as a either a condition of duration OR conceptual stasis (Pye happily dodges some of this with the incorporation of psychoanalysis). That is, the focus seems either to be on the way in which history is employed as a (often wholly reductive) concept OF time (“the medieval”) or as a mode of meaning making IN time (ex. Holsinger’s appeals in the opening to his book to how important medievalism was not just to theory, but to post-war French theory in particular, argues for a kind of history-within-history as a model for theoretical reflection; and, moreover, connected to historical traumas that we can clearly acknowledge as such: WWII; post-9/11; and so on).

Is trauma a pre-condition that replaces the condition of “history”, and if so, how?

It is indeed almost as if trauma is becoming a new placeholder for temporality and history itself – a new “grounding” of sorts (I’ll avoid puns on Ground Zero; a neglected element of “In the Shadow of No Towers” is wonderfully satirical play on as much).

Urgency follows this tendency, at once historical and utterly ahistorical. The plethora of “calls” for a consideration of “x,y, and z” in a “post-9/11” universe demonstrates this tendency; but so does the dependency on the “brief and ever-changing moment” Gibson identifies in his view of popular culture. The ever-changing moment seems not so changeable at all, but caught up in a kind of frozen dialectic of fear and progress (we’re either lamenting the catastrophe of a break with “before” or celebrating the open-ended progressivism made possible by this emergence).

I consider another version of this in the early twentieth century (and here I am doing it myself – why Bergson?): Henri Bergson; Henri Lefebvre; Sartre and Beauvoir, all of whom wished to re-visit the concepts of space-time in the aftermath of profound psychical and historical trauma. Bergson wanted to retain a distinction between space and time in revising time. He argued as well for a fundamental asymmetry to temporality and space. Bergson thought it important to think about duration and intuition as related but separate phenoms, a distinction that we seem at odds with at the present moment in our conflation of historical time with trauma (“event” – Is there such a thing as an ethical event within late stage capitalism; or is the event itself an ethical formulation within such a framework?)

Okay, so a brief turn to the pedestrian and the ludic: Mary Flannagan’s Domestic. There’s at least two dialectical frameworks at stake here. On one level, tension emerges between the ludic and the mimetic – play is interplay with the historical narrative of the piece. At the same time, spatial intuition is in tension with temporal consciousness: spatiality unfolds in game environments as both “in time” and “as if;” temporality is both representational and affective. What happens to the affective and conceptual registers of trauma in this case? How does it dialogue with what is happening to the event of trauma in Holsinger’s or Gibson’s sense?

Notes on a theme for The Hollins Community installation for fall; revision of HASTAC article before pub in sept (work for vacation); also, return and fold post at crit/theory blog on Benjamin

By 9/15: begin translation for alternate audience; Immersive narrative and media, new technology panel for AWP

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