Waking up from Groundhog Day in the era of the gif

UPDATE 10/06/16: having re-read this now, I realise that I had as much of a grasp on my subject matter as Tom had on Jerry’s tail. In my hopeless search for redemption, I’ve decided to vlog my somewhat less stupid current understanding of time. Upcoming.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The more it changes, the more it remains the same. Few sentences say so much, so succinctly about our modern world as this epigram from 19th-century France. In a 2012 essay for Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen speaks of the “end of history” as marking a point beyond which “the constant novelty and flux of modern life is all superficial show, that the underlying essences endure unchanged”. Yet every question of change is also a question of time. Our modern woes as laid out above can be reformulated as a desire to change over time what we experience within the frame of the present moment, while leaving that very frame untouched. For “the present” is never a fixed plane or container for existence or experience, but a changing state of being. Any attempt to properly grasp the nature and experience of time very quickly become an Essay on Everything, as Martin Heidegger and Douglas Rushkoff have discovered (and proceeded to wholeheartedly embrace), so here I only wish to undertake a partial and inevitably flawed meditation on time. I wish to draw our attention to how modern media and art mediate our experiences of time and make it difficult for us to break out of Groundhog Day.

The Greeks conceived of two separate notions of time- that of chronos and that of kairos. While chronos conceives time as a measurable quantity, and therefore a substance caught up in an eternal, necessary flow, kairos speaks of our experience of the present in all its contingency. Kairos is close to Alan Watt’s idea of “presence”, and perhaps the experience of reporter Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, both of which  highlight the possibility of seeing beyond our fixed frames once we become truly immersed in the present moment. These differing conceptions capture a phenomenological paradox of experiencing life as the passage of time while at every point experiencing what feels the totality of our existence in the present moment. This inescapable paradox is born of the fact that, while we live along a temporal dimension that seems infinite, death always renders our lives finite. There is no compromise between chronos and kairos, no reconciliation, only movement between the dialectical extremes of fragile harmony and conflict. And we live in an age where we pay our homage to chronos– shocked by the speed and transience of modern life, we are obsessed with listifying, revising, and chronicling the past and predicting, measuring and anticipating the future, while often fleeing from present experience, and our media and art reflect this.

The meme itself is perhaps the perfect analogy of how we continue to experience and attempt change through a static frame of the present. In the endless iteration of picture and text, the decontextualized nature of the original image becomes the very substance of the meme, and its false transcendence is reinforced through its sharing and introduction into ever-new contexts. And inserting any particular instance of text, speech or thought into a meme makes it easier for us to ignore the material and social context and implications of that instance of text, speech or thought, as it becomes swallowed up in the iterative virtual context of the meme itself.

Its false transcendence takes us away from the present, and we see this function taken even further by its close cousin, the gif, which is all about the endless repetition of a half-second to three-second scene, often with text. The gif is the perfect exponent of a favourite motto of our times, YOLO. YOLO, which, inherent within itself, carries the possibility that one may die at the very next moment, and trades in transcendence for the desire to live a reckless, narcissistic, hedonistic, and consummately vacuous present. These are the trademarks of the scenes depicted in one of the most popular gif-based tumblrs, whatshouldwecallme, and the characters in those scenes probably swear by YOLO or have it tattooed somewhere. What better way to conquer death, after all, than to render eternal the enjoyment of the present moment, to ensure that our experiences are never experienced as merely transient? Through endless repetition, within a gif the present is simultaneously the past and the future, the fusion of excitement and nostalgia, and we are no longer required to embrace change and uncertainty in order to come to terms with the present, or even future. Yet, in its seemingly endless repetitive motions, resembling a broken record player, or even the final convulsions of a suffocating corpse, the gif returns us to what we most fear- the ultimate stasis, death itself. To refuse to buy into this aesthetic is to open up to an unpredictable and dynamic kairos freed from anxiety over the demands of chronos.

Contrast these forms of art to another, somewhat less prolific artefact of the Internet age, but one of my personal favourites- the time-lapse. Time-lapses seem to focus predominantly on nature, but those that are shot in cities bear a special message about human agency and time, often beyond the intention of the photographer or director. Speed up Toronto, Chicago, Portland, Dubai, or any other city, and what you get is not a cyclical perpetual-motion machine defined by regularity, nor a mere reminder of the inevitable passage of time, but rather a unique experience of the present, an unpredictable kaleidoscope whose fabric is stained with glitches of people’s unpredictable movements, glitches that let us know that this is still reality. Although it is difficult to escape the virtual format of the accelerated time-lapse, the comparatively slow and steady passage of elements like the sun and the stars remind us that the time-lapse view is still a conceivable experience of reality. Thus they remind us that, no matter how caught up in transience and flux we find ourselves, our experiences are always anchored in presence, in kairos.

Ultimately, the aesthetics of each form of art and media have ethical implications, even if these are not as grave or clear-cut as I may have expressed in this post. Although each expresses quite different forms of content, in among indulging in, enjoying such expressions, we must ask ourselves how we wish to view the world. If I have any New Year’s resolution this summer, it’s to count every second with my heartbeat. To live life at my own pace, by my own kairos, so that the pace of life does not control me. Being present at every moment, I may find that I have a lot more time to live the life I want, and work on the change that truly matters. And then I won’t have to make any more New Year’s resolutions.

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