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Braindump: Atemporality and Memory

Bruce Sterling, photo by kandinski

This unorganized lump of speculation is more or less a dump of my brain’s activity after I read Bruce Sterling’s talk, “Atemporality for the Creative Artist,” which he gave at Transmediale 10, Berlin, Feb. 6, 2010.

A few quotes:

Refuse the awe of the future. Refuse reverence to the past. If they are really the same thing, you need to approach them from the same perspective.


Yes, you will look ridiculous. But by what standard? By what standard can you be held to be ridiculous? Why not just go and make yourself a personal public testimony for a future that doesn’t exist? Why not just carry it out with a kind of Gandhian dedication, and see what happens?


Atemporality is a philosophy of history with a built-in expiration date. It has a built in expiration date. It’s not going to last forever. It’s not a perfect explanation, it’s a contingent explanation for contingent times.

Of course you should read the transcript to get a proper sense.

But what he proposes isn’t true atemporality: even if we glean data from various time periods, even if we transport ourselves, as in Borges’s famous story, Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote, through experience and force of will, and in our minds recreate a former time, we still live and act in a sequence; we haven’t shimmied out of time entirely. If we were to break out of chronology (if such a thing were possible) we would need to write a new method of thinking onto our brains, to use the same hardware for an unintended but feasible purpose, like using a bobbypin to pick a lock. In fact, the act of escaping time and reprogramming ourselves is the same: as we are now, we assume relationships between the moments we see. But if that were not true, what sorts of thoughts could we have? Would they be discrete, or would all the thoughts we had and ever would have coalesce into an amalgam of experience, sensation, and intention? Is that how to know an atemporal being, by the shape his thoughts and acts make as he slides through a cross-section of time, like the Sphere in Flatland, projecting the dimensions of his character onto a sequential topography?

Cross reference this TED talk by Daniel Kahneman about memory and happiness, in which Kahneman says, “We think of our future as anticipated memories,” and explains the differences between the “remembering self” and the “experiencing self.”

So then, what defines our culture’s collective remembering self? Is it simply the consensus between members? I don’t think the experiencing self exists from the collective point of view, because currently—and I say “currently” in view of Sterling’s talk, with a loose grip on my map of how any given process executes in our transient society—our culture assembles its collective consciousness through transmissions of stories from one person to another. If we can each become neurons, then we will have some collective identity and function, and perhaps spawn a collective experiencing self.

To quote Borges from Pierre Menard again, “Every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case.”

(photo credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0)

One Comment

  1. OK, so your musings really have nothing to do with Sterling’s except using, as a jumping-off point, another meaning of a word he also happens to use. I like Sterling’s piece, thanks for pointing it out. It’s very specific in its challenges and strategies, though I’d argue some of the latter are leftovers from the postmodern project he claims is finished (doesn’t postmodernity encompass mashups, lost futures, multi-author collaborative art, and recuperating forms of history?). He is, as you note, talking about atemporality with regard to a received history of ideas, and not actual atemporality: stepping outside causality and sequence.

    (I like “shimmying out of time”… it seems to paint time as a glowing hose tube top our undressing makes wiggle, or a fluorescent hula hoop as captured by a long exposure in a dark room. But really to shimmy out of time might be to shuffle off this mortal coil.)

    This reminds me of the conversation we had while driving through snowy rural PA about the difficulty of visualizing descriptions of “standing outside time and seeing it all at once.” Similarly, I have trouble concretizing your concept of a “collective remembering self,” though perhaps it’s the mythic beast you’re trying to trap with your experimental novel structure? What other duties, in your mind, does becoming a human neuron entail, since evidently merely passing stories on to one another isn’t enough?

    Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

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