:: Article

Time Crises

By Andrew Eckholm.

Palsied to the point of extreme limited mobility, the poet Larry Eigner spent much of his life in his childhood home in Swampscott, Massachusetts, an involuntary subject of the television and radio programs kept on by his parents. It’s a subject he often complains about in his letters. In these complaints—and in his painstakingly typewritten poetry—one can often detect a conflict between the impositions of media, and the possibility of a private life; between seemingly-urgent national narratives of crisis or cold war as described by the broadcast news, and the immediate, lived concerns of sitting on one’s porch. Eigner’s work, the critic Lytle Shaw argues in his recent book, Narrowcast, can thus be read as contesting “national time”: the univocal sense of history, progress, or national crisis constructed by mass media. (This is where the title of Shaw’s book comes from: a narrowcast to oppose a broadcast.) From his “research station,” Shaw argues, Eigner lingers over the clouds and airplanes passing by overhead, the need to blow his nose, the micro-vibrations of the house—in contrast to the threat of a nuclear strike, the upcoming election, or war overseas.

What happened?

                            I’ve got to blow my nose

Mucous in summer

.                               after so warm

                                          (Aug. 1

Spring so flower in my holes

   the trouble is I have to get clear, you see

   as anything might happen and

           time    marches    on

(The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, 71)

Reading Narrowcast, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the present day, when a new broadcast technology—the Internet—has enacted seismic changes in our relationship to space and time. Time not divided into the week—the regulatory mode once imposed by TIME magazine—nor even the daily broadcast, but in a second by second drip, a continuous and eternal now. Radio, Murray Schafer observed, is the “pulse of a society organized for maximum production and consumption,” media setting the culture’s rhythm; what in the age of podcasts, tweets, notifications and Facebook posts, is our rhythm? And where are our Eigners, where is our resistance?

*

Enter Megan Boyle and her novel, LIVEBLOG. Constructed from a blog kept for a few months in 2013, the drama unfolds through time-stamped posts as Boyle tracks her hour-to-hour drug use, lack of sleep, failure to fulfill basic tasks, and more. I do not use “drama” ironically here. One of the great achievements of the book is that, while reading, one experiences the devastation of the everyday—for example, putting off mailing a package for days before driving to a USPS only to find it closed. If this sounds like a suffocating read—keeping in mind the book is some 800 pages—you’re right: LIVEBLOG is a defiantly narrow book. Alienated from society, unemployed, living at her parent’s house, the temporality is, much like Eigner’s, a wholly private one, rejecting the dominant rhythms of leisure / work, consumption / production. The posts display misspellings, typos and incoherences as she stays up for days at a time, even in its form thrusting the reader back into the narrow aperture of Boyle’s life and writing practice.

To get a better sense of what I think LIVEBLOG is up to, it’s useful to draw on an art-historical distinction that Shaw fruitfully invokes: that of history painting and genre painting. The basic distinction is between those works that depict momentous incidents in history—usually instantiated, literally figured, through great men—and those that focus on the everyday, such as still-life paintings. This in place, it’s easy to see why LIVEBLOG, with its obsessive cataloguing of the mundane, might qualify as a work of “genre-literature.”

“[U]nderneath this familiar opposition,” of addressing important subject matter in history painting, and quotidian and thus unimportant subject matter in genre, Shaw notes, “is the possibility that genre painting, like what we might call genre poetry, is actually concerned with the underlying conditions of our access to temporal experience, the groundwork for what we (most often mistakenly) think of as discrete events.” Boyle begins the book by observing that, through writing everything she does down, she might be able to figure out what is wrong with her. From her perspective, LIVEBLOG is thus a therapeutic application of genre, whereby the discrete, harmful events that plague her can, through writing and careful attention, be rearticulated as a condition that she can understand and address. As readers, however, we can understand LIVEBLOG as something more: a counter-broadcast to the rhythms of the internet, just as Shaw reads Eigner’s work as a counter-broadcast to radio.

While one way to think of LIVEBLOG as a work of “genre literature” is that it isn’t a novel about Big Important Events, the more compelling way, to me, is in terms of its form. The continuous flow of time is quantized into the unit of the post, a stuttering rhythm that both structures Boyle’s time as she lives from time-stamp to time-stamp, burst of writing to burst of writing, and now the reader’s time as they move through the resultant book.

Megan Boyle, LIVEBLOG (NY Tyrant Books)

This experience of fracture is reminiscent of the social media newsfeed. A dominant feature of web 2.0, the feed is, like all ways of organizing media, a means of structuring time. For social media newsfeeds as on Twitter or Facebook, this time is structured to increase user engagement. This is where the incentives of social media companies and traditional media companies coincide, as ongoing conditions, whether famine, political collapse, or cultural decay, must be parceled into units—stories, posts, tweets—and distributed across time to maximize engagement, sell more advertisements and produce more data. This is why the New York Times publishes many slightly different web-only articles on the same subject, why Fivethirtyeight hosts “live-blogs” of political events, demanding continuous refresh to load new posts.

“[T]he learned equation of the media source with the frequency—one issue of Life magazine with a week, for instance,” Shaw observes, “gradually allows the magazine or book to assume the role of the time it purports to represent.” Political media in the age of the 24 hours news and social media provides a powerful example of this phenomenon, with ever more poll releases, rallies, debates, and candidate “Town Halls” providing ever more inflection points to drape narrative over. The feed, like CNN before it, shapes political coverage into an assaultive, unending flow that fosters the sense of crisis at every moment, news events heralded as transformative in the morning only to be forgotten by evening. (One here thinks of the now infamous, “…and it’s only 11 a.m.” Twitter formulation.) Something which purports to represent an event becomes, itself, the event; something which purports to mark the passage of time instead comes itself to structure it. And, owing to the economic incentives at play, that time is fragmented into as many discrete pieces as possible, shaped into a frenetic, constant flow. The social media feed, with its cascading, second-by-second updates, is only the surface, interface expression of this underlying rhythm.

And the most intrusive: the feed is in our devices, in front of our faces, there all the time. If Eigner found TV blaring in the other room to be an infringement, what should we make of the self-imposed harm of shoving the feed into our face right after waking up, right before we go to sleep? Perhaps because of this, the social media feed has the interesting quality of mixing society-level political drama (what Shaw calls history) with people cataloguing their individual complaints, routines, and observations (what Shaw calls genre). I’m interested in the possibility that the latter is a reaction to the former, in the same way that Eigner’s “narrowcasts” can be understood against the national radio broadcast. That’s what I see in LIVEBLOG: the suggestion that behind this urge to focus on the small events of one’s day is the need to resist the sense of time that our mediascape imposes upon us. Its “genre” elements advance an argument at the level of both form and content, the time-stamps mimicking the Internet’s fracturing of time, but the political crises replaced by personal problems. Imagine your Facebook feed but every post is Megan Boyle complaining. The book is at once an expression of our rhythm, and, perhaps, a cry of resistance against it—an assertion of the right not to pay attention.

But is this “resistance,” if that’s even what it is, politically useful for the reader? What can we learn from it? One thought would be that writing provides distance, allows for dispassionate examination. Reading LIVEBLOG, then—perhaps reading books in general—would be a way of achieving greater political consciousness, learning how to step back from the flow of events and see the bigger picture. But that is not what happens here: The book reads fast, the timestamps pulling you forward at a breakneck pace; her writing is compulsory and driven, not distanced and reflective. Rather than a palliative for our disordered sense of time, one finds in the book simply a different kind of anxiety, a different kind of time.

*

It’s nice to think that books might be a sinecure for our social-media addled brains, their depth and complication requiring focus, dedication. If that were true, it’s not clear exactly how LIVEBLOG would fit into that. Indeed, exactly what’s interesting about the book is that the text inside the novel doesn’t read like text in a novel—the posts read like blog-posts, as they originally were. Instead, the contrast of the physical print form and passages of the kind you’ve only read on a computer has the effect of bringing out some of the essential features of the print reading experience, and, through contrast, the Internet reading experience.

One doesn’t scroll through a book, eyes in fixed in roughly the same place, but instead scans across, down, and across, turning the page when appropriate. Unlike a feed, the content isn’t infinitely regenerated, but has a discrete (if large) quantity: you’re heading towards an ending. At issue is two experiences of time, one associated with codex and one with the refreshing web page. The first involves racing forward into the future, awareness of a coming end pulling you forward and a visible, easily accessible past behind you in the form of surrounding text and turned pages. The second involves a continuous present, the narrow aperture of the screen, the past erased with a single algorithmically-generated refresh. Less the experience of moving into the future than the future cascading into the static now.

In Does Writing Have a Future?, Vilém Flusser makes the point that markings which appear like writing, orthography, can in fact function more like images. He gives the example of equations in a physics paper. The point is not that equations represent something spatial, but that the reader interacts with these text-things as they do images. Reading a paper, the eyes race along in typical zig-zag fashion, but halt when they get to an equation, begin to circle over and around as if in a river’s eddy. This is the way one “reads” an image. In contrast, in reading extended text like this essay, one is always movingthrough.  

Text in a feed, in a column amidst a proleptic mashup of images, videos, user-interface elements and para-text, often seems to function—to most easily be read like—an image. We don’t read-through as in an essay, but circle, hover (and then maybe click like or retweet.) This is reflected in the visual experience of text on the Internet: lower case writing, emojis, spaces before exclamation marks, all caps ranting, and standardized lineated jokes formats, all forms one perceives eidetically as image prior to parsing for meaning. And the circular, eddying way we read images, Flusser argues and the politics of our day substantiates, trickles up into how “the discourse” is conducted. The conversations endlessly circle, deprived of a sense of history or progress that a progressive (or, for that matter, conservative) politics implicitly relies upon. The winners in such a political arena are not those who can offer a narrative of history—as the mass media in Eigner’s time offered one that led inexorably towards an “American Century”—but who can best hijack, weaponize these spiraling chains of reaction. Flusser might put it this way: an image culture is necessarily a-historical (always and only in the present), a literary culture necessarily historical (never in the present, always slipping from past to future.)

On this reading, the ubiquitous negative space of web 2.0 UX design—a few scant sentences centered amidst a field of whitespace—seems less a tool for decluttering than an encroaching, amnesia-inducing fog hissing in from the vents. Didn’t someone make that joke last week? Didn’t that movie come out in 2017? What music do I like to that’s not on my Spotify playlists? What did Twitter look like before the update? What did people do on Facebook before the newsfeed? Amnesia is endemic to software, as interfaces, if they’re working properly, disappear in usage, erasing their own history to re-naturalize themselves and the political and commercial ends towards which they work.

If LIVEBLOG does have a political value, it’s in the way it combines the rhythms of the Internet with the codex’s sense of history, at once sets you adrift in a fog of circling, going-nowhere-fast updates, but also, in its very bulk, its dedication to one subject, one life, restores an awareness of the past, or at least an awareness of what you’re losing as you leap from update to update. And it also has something a webpage, always subject to update, never will: an end.

*

W.G. Sebald once called the novel an apocalyptic form: as with life, you’re heading towards the end. The corollary is a certain satisfaction when you do finish a novel, a leap from the forward momentum of the text into the whitespace below. Or maybe not quite a satisfaction: when I get to these moments, I feel more… blank, than anything. In a novel, we don’t find another time only in the sense of the internal time of the story, but also, in our engrossment, a sort of guard-rail for own forward motion through time. When the release finally comes—both dreaded and longed for—there’s a momentary gap before the other things structuring time kick back in, that moment before you check your phone, remember something you didn’t do for work, or realize you’re about to be late for the movie. The reward for submitting to the text is a momentary experience of timelessness.

That’s not a possibility with the Internet, and the absence is a felt one. The newsfeed never ends, goes on infinitely downwards even as new content accumulates above—an economically productive endlessness mimicked in the increasingly common UX choice to allow infinite downward scrolling into new content. (As I write this now, an album just ended on Spotify, and a new, algorithmically-selected song plays.) Rather than moving us from a beginning to an end, as in a book, the Internet instead asks us to take some portion of our time and feed it into the furnace. History is about beginnings and endings; in this sense, the Internet knows no history. Rather, it’s simply something that you dip in and out of, but is always there, always accumulating. The Internet is exhausting because, unlike life, it won’t end.

Or will it? Several recent works “about” the Internet—I’m think here of Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha and Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold—seem to indicate an intrinsic link between the technology and apocalypse. Such a sentiment is also quite visible on social media, a post-millennium millenarianism. Doten’s novel takes these Cassandras literally, and imagines the world (almost) ending in a nuclear holocaust sometime during the Trump presidency. The book begins with an overflowing description of a braggadocios president piloting a blimp in the opening minutes of a nuclear attack, minutely detailing his tweets—”Generals doing great job! Say they’re glad it’s me, not Hillary! Don’t listen to lying media. We Keep America SAFE!!!”—and the usual scrum of provocations and corruptions, intermixed with a horrific account of the world going up in flame. The prose proceeds in a few large blocks without line breaks, the sentences interrupting themselves and the predominate emotion exhaustion:

…it massively exploded, taking out a half-dozen helicopters in its escort, the livestream now nothing but noise and fire, and around the world millions held their breath, everyone was watching an instant that seemed to float, the whole world floating in that suspected moment, the death of Trump, the end of the Trump era, finally, and would we be able to recover, and what was to become of us, of the whole world, but as the fireball dissipated, as the smoke cleared, it was still chugging along, the aircraft, and there he was, Trump, he was still there, still going…

By the end of this section, the advent of nuclear war quite literally feels like a relief to the reader, formally evoking the media tactics of this administration—the constant stream of corruptions, scandal, tweets and crises, each one erasing all those that came before it. From the user interface of Twitter up to the decisions made in the oval office, our politics now run on social-media time. One lesson to draw from this is that it’s the Internet’s exhausting eternity—“Things can’t really just go on like this, can they?”—that makes apocalypse such a tempting proposition. It’s precisely because the Internet strips us of history that we fetishize apocalypse; precisely because it’s all just so fucking much that the idea of things ending can sound pretty nice.

Shaw argues that the New Left poets’ works of “genre poetry” were an attempt to undo the history-making work of the mid-twentieth century media, fight back against the big narratives given about America, capitalism, and war. In our time, the tactics have shifted: the effect is to deprive us of a sense of history altogether, leaving us grasping about for a vantage from which to resist. Trump, Doten’s novel seems to argue, is the logical protagonist of a post-modern media environment: someone who doesn’t seem to remember more than a few minutes in the past or think more than a few minutes into the future, but instead attacks on instinct, reacts to whatever happens to be in front of him. A president precisely of his moment—of his media.

Trump Sky Alpha’s plot picks up after this opening section, revolving around a think-piece writer commissioned by a surviving military administration to write on Internet humor at the end of the world. The center of the book is occupied by a stream of Tweets from the final minutes prior to nuclear war: a dead Trump Pepe, *mocking voice*: I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, *universe to humans*: retire bitch. Other people say about the end, “this is white supremacy,” and still others blame it on Hillary. These final outbursts of activity represent, each in their own way, a drive to grapple with what kind of society we’re living in, to even in the last moment understand and comment upon what’s happening. The very choice of the think piece as a plot device expresses this notion: in a world that feels ungrounded, without history, there’s an appeal to explainers who can provide narratives to inhabit. But, as the helpless, compulsive shit-posting in the face of nuclear war suggests—as the failure of Boyle to achieve self-understanding through liveblogging suggests, her book dismally petering out—this mode of inquiry can itself become a kind of capture. We can write as many think pieces as we want about the latest Marvel movie, distracted boyfriend meme, or episode of Succession, and maybe even make some good points—but in the end this still leaves us operating on a time-regime that is hostile to political progress, hostile to living well. I’m talking here about endlessly recursing self-examination, of the type engaged in by this essay too, a spiraling movement that mirrors the eddying of the eyes over the image, searching for a catch, lost in the eternal return of the present.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Eckholm is a writer living in New York City. @andreiwhoblev

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 15th, 2020.