Atemporality: a Viable Historical Orientation?

556656621_ba9e8c870f_m[1] (This entry is a response I posted to Alex Reid’s post, “Atemporality in the Digital Humanities” on his blog Digital Digs. He’s responding to Bruce Sterling’s talk, “Atemporality and the Creative Artist” as well as Alex Halavais’s post on “worn technologies.” I re-post it here because it helps me think through some of the ways that book-futurists historicize the currently fluid and volatile changes in book-technologies. Mostly, I’ve been coming to understand that most book futurists, like Bolter, Lanham, and Landow, among others, to some degree argue that the long histories of the book don’t yield much in the way of understanding (not to mention participating in) the near or far-reaching future of books. Hopefully, I’ll make those arguments more specifically in (much) later blog posts. For now, though, in the following post, I try to come to terms, as generously as I can, with an alarming tendency to argue for un-historical approaches to understanding the future of the book. Here’s my comment on Alex’s post…)

You know, I’ve always been kind of off-put by the "get-it" sort of rhetorical snicker like the one Sterling drops. I’ve always felt that it creates a cool-kids/nerds binary or a paying-attention/oblivious binary. And when I don’t fully ‘get-it,’ I feel a bit condescended to. I only mention this to foreground some of my own resistance to Sterling ideas. My most strenuous attempt to ‘get’ the ‘it’ of what he’s saying suggests he is arguing for an un-historical (as opposed to an ahistorical approach). One that rejects the usefulness of historicizing contemporary problems.


I’ve been thinking about this sort of move a lot lately… arguing that historical approaches to understanding contemporary problems is less and less viable given the post-post-post-modern chaos soup we seem to be swimming in. In some senses, a sort of hyper-intellectualized resignation. In other cases, I think, a techno-cool-existentialism. But I digress. Sorry. I just don’t see the necessity of working outside historical continuities. Lyotard is right, I think, about the declining relevance of the grand narratives. But not because there are no useful narratives. Mostly because it’s becoming increasingly clear that the speed by which the narratives cover their arcs is increasing exponentially, to the point where it appears as though they’ve dissolved. Not necessarily though. Alternatively, instead of narratives of emplotted (Heidegger/Ricoeur) events, we might now need to move toward narratives of narratives. This approach is more complex, but certainly workable.

And I guess that’s where I come around to agreeing with Sterling’s nine-step-program. We can now work to deal with narratives of multiple micro-narratives to help us understand the complexity of certain contemporary problems. And the duration of these narratives will inevitably overlap, resulting in a weave of narratives across space and time. But it seems that this way of understanding Sterling’s program is more hyper-temporal or multi-temporal than atemporal.

Still, his program makes a lot of sense. It takes advantage of certain crowd-sourcing and database strategies that are very new within the historical scope of his discussion. These strategies allow him to combine multiple perspectives applied to a complex problem. And his steps to take advantage of multiple modes of communication and representation are also possible in ways that appear to be very, very new.

What it comes down to, for me, is that I agree with your suggestions that his program is about "rethinking the productivity of the problem where problems are not meant to be "solved" but rather to generate intellectual activity, to spur invention."

His program never gets prescriptive about how to apply the material it generates. In this way, it reminds me a lot of some of Ulmer’s Hueretics. Really powerful stuff. But ultimately about invention, rather than problem solving. Sterling’s program seems much more directed in response to specific problems.

I also want to mention that my reaction to Sterling’s tone/style was pretty negative. See my first paragraph here. I sensed that he relied on the audience ‘getting’ what he couldn’t actually figure out or articulate. To some degree that came across to me as rhetorically laze, which in turn, made me a bit skeptical as to the structure of his nine-step-program. For instance, I’m not sure I understand the logic of the progressive steps. Seems a bit odd for an atemporal creative artist. And I’m not sure about the coherence, either. To me, his program reads like a polemic against the tyranny of historical research, more than an earnest argument for problem solving. I’m thinking for instance, of the lack of steps it would take to walk into a library (or at least search a database of articles, or order a book). As a result it comes across as a bit "stylized." More attitude. Less problem solving.

I’m not saying that his project isn’t useful or interesting. I just don’t think it’s intended to solve problems.

But it does seem like a great model for invention. Especially in response to a problem. And given they way he’s conceptualized the artist as someone who coordinates, gathers, and forwards the invention of others, there’s good reason to believe Sterling’s intent is really not to solve a problem as much as it is to generate solution-ready-materials. And that, of course, is pretty great.

(image courtesy of bogenfreund’s flickr page; creative commons license: Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)