Friday, August 28, 2015


Time is a central part of our lives. In fact, it's so central that it's usually used as the prime definer or descriptor of what life is - our time here on earth, the time at our disposal, the times of our lives. Whatever we do, we do it within the allotted time frame; our works might live on through the millennia, but we only live through the decades. We are while there is still time; should time suddenly stop, so also would we.

It's easy to talk about time in terms of calendar time. Time usually occurs to us in terms of hours, days, weeks, months; usually with an implicit telos in mind. Now is now, deadline is then, and if I am to do all that there is to be done between now and then, I'd better begin now. Deadline is added to deadline, weeks to months, and before we know it a whole year has passed unnoticed. We run through the calendar, run through time; hopefully not towards the deadline.

Merely stating that time is identical with what the calendar has to say won't do, though. Calendars change over time, after all, and such changing foundations are not suitable for further eternities. One could argue that we - meaning "we who happen to be here and now when this discussion takes place" - should kickstart (pick your meaning) our own calendar to measure time, just because we can. I won't go into different calendar systems or details such as whether one should base it on the sun or the moon or the seasons, but merely mention them so as to encourage you to find your own time.

I want to repeat again that time and calendars are not identical. Calendars change over time, but time can't be said to do the same. We can reasonably assume that it is the same as it's always been, that is to say tautologically itself. That is to say, persist. We could say it's a kind of objective time - time in and of itself, the raw stuff of the universe to do with as we see fit. Time comes, time goes, and in either case it does not care about us or what we do; our lives, dreams thoughts, friendships, loves - everything disappears in the end, one at a time.

We all know that time doesn't always move at the same speed. Depending on mood, situation and circumstances, it can either fly or crawl. We've all been in situations where time seems to be off the clock and occasionally even move backwards, where syrup becomes the paradigmatic image of fastflowing progression. Conversely, we've all been in the opposite situation, where a day lasted but an instant of immense joy. There's, in other words, also a subjective time, moving in some sort of relation to its objective counterpart.

This relation is often expressed in clock time. If four hours passed by like an bullet train, they went by fast; if five minutes managed to encompass the entire rise and fall of the Roman Empire, they went slow. Clock time is the closest representation we have of objective time - the clock has no measure of care for what we do with our lives. The clock does its thing, second by second, whether you live or die; time passes, moment by moment, caring little for what transpires.

Clock time is not always a reliable basis for planning one's life. Instead, it might be better to plan according to biological time - that is to say, the time since you last slept, ate, took a dump, exerted ourselves, rested, etc. As physical and biological beings, there are certain things we have to do, and that we have to do with a certain regularity. Not necessarily with the regularity of a clock, but regularly enough that we ignore it at our own peril.

When confronted with the vastness and real age of the world, neither clock time nor biological time manages to grasp just how vast this vastness is. Thus, we grasp for geological time, where a life is but an instant and the gradual shifting of the landscape moves along to the tune of millions of years. The paradoxical thing about here is that there's both very much and very little going on at the same time. The moon as we know it today, for example, came forth during the passing of geological time, but most of it wasn't what we would consider action-packed. What we can see today came out of continual asteroid strikes shaping and reshaping the landscape; while violent, the process is such that between these strikes, there's a whole lot of nothing in particular going on. You can't live geological time in an interesting way, but you can summarize it ever more vividly.

Speaking of summarizing, media time is its own special form of time. Some news stories have a running time and longevity that go beyond what anyone would have ever suspected, while other news explodes into being and fades just as quickly. Trying to find a unit of measurement for media time is a tricky proposition, even though some have attempted a geographical route by measuring the kilometers of published text on a subject. Media time exist in a sublime space, such as that feeling present moments before the sub breaks the horizon a summer morn. Hard to define, but definitely there. There are times when everyone knows about something, and can refer to it without having to specify further, but at some point this knowledge passes from zeitgeist to past tense.

Many experience work time, and the many derivations thereof: full time, part time, flex time, overtime. (There's even the strange condition of zero-hour work time.) Work time consists of those hours where work is to be done, and can only be conceived in relation to free time, whence leisure shall commence. You can't have one without the other, by definition. If you only have free time and no work time, you're apparently not simply free, but unemployed. If you, conversely, have no free time but only work time, you're either in slavery or the kind of person who live solely through your work; in either case, work lasts for a lifetime.

Corporations - especially the larger ones - have their own perception of time. They have, through some accident of history, adopted a viewpoint that time progresses in a steady tri-monthly beat, where the most important thing is to have a bigger number than the last time around. Bigger is better, but no matter how big, next time needs to be even bigger. The restlessness expressed in the quarterly report time is profound, to be sure.

The political time is similar to the media time, but has more formal constraints, such as laws and constitutions and deep-rooted traditions. Depending on the form of government, these times can either be longer or shorter. Absolute monarchy defines political time in terms of generations (and in terms of biological time, such as when the health of the kingdom is synonymous with the health of the body of the monarch). Representative democracies, on the other hand, count in terms of election cycles. Political time not only defines how long someone holds the reins of power, but also how long certain questions are up for debate. Certain questions can stick around for the longest time, while others fade with quickness; some rulers stick around for years and years, while others are quickly dethroned. Just as with media time, these things are hard to predict.

Rhetoricians use a term for the most appropriate time - kairos. Kairos is that perfect moment when one can deliver the perfect answer, when the punchline is at its peak punch. Usually, we only realize what this line would be long after the moment has passed, and subsequently express the sentiment that - if only we'd said that instead! We now know the best of all possible answers, but alas, the moment has passed. But, have faith. There will be more perfect moments, and if you keep your eyes open you'll see them coming.

Speaking of appropriate times, this seems to be a good time to end. Whether I succeeded in my standing ambition to keep my posts interesting, entertaining and educative is an open question, and as the poets affirm, something only time will tell. -

Originally published February 18, 2010

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

War and not-quite peace

War is something most of us have been forced to realize is something huge and hard to grasp. Not least due to the plethora of movies to be found on the subject. Some of them try to depict war as something glorious and heroic, making heroes of young men, giving even the scrappiest of lads a chance to perform great feats in the name of the State or the Nation (or Virtue, or whatever). Other movies give a different account, less optimistic and more realistic: open wounds, maggots, death, decay, psychic trauma, extreme stress, exhaustion, uncertainty with regards to as to whether there will be a tomorrow, the constant presence of very lethal and very mobile things with every intent on closing the distance, and, worst of all, bad food.

If I had such a bent, I'd quip about this second image being unnervingly close to everyday life. However, that would be making light of the topic, and that simply would not do.

Even everyday life is described in different ways, in movies and in other mediums. Just as in the depiction of war, there are cheerful rosy accounts insisting that there is goodness and beauty to be found even in the smallest of God's creations, should we just keep our eyes open. And, conversely, the opposite: the depiction of the relentlessly grey Monday mornings with their brutal disdifferentiation of past, present and future into a brutal-eternal now, where the prospects of anything ever changing are engineered out of the realm of possibility. (That is, until the protagonist meets a manic pixie dream girl who changes everything. But still.)

If I at this point would say that there is an inherent similarity between war and everyday life, I'd be somewhat disingenuous. The fact that both war and everyday life have been depicted in similar ways at different times doesn't say anything about either war or everyday life, and to compare these discourses is more of a discourse analysis than a comparison proper.

There are thinkers who have endeavored to connect war and everyday life in a more concrete way. Paul Virilio writes in War and cinema about how the ways we use to communicate with each other - radio, cell phones, internet, the works - were invented by the military for military use in wartime. Which might seem a simple restatement that war is the mother of all invention, and that when inventions have been invented it's hard to uninvent them, and that they might as well be put to use by those who need them. Which, to be sure, isn't much to phone home or tweet about. Virilio's twist on this is that the military paradigms that these inventions were first used in - the paradigms of war - slowly but surely are bleeding over to everyday life and civil society, along with the inventions themselves.

Before we continue this line of thinking, let's turn to Clausewitz. In his monumental book On war, he discusses just about everything there is to discuss about war. He gives us the rather counterintuitive definition of war as the continuation of politics through other means. This might seem odd, but think about wars happen. It's not because two people hate each other - the hate tends to be a product of the war, rather than the other way around. Rather, war happens when a state sees something it wants in/of another state, and use the military to procure these things. Politics through other means, as it were.

He then continues to differentiate between two types of objectives, present in every war. The first kind is the political objective, which is to say what the government of the attacking country (and the defending country, to be sure) wants to achieve, whatever it might be. The second is the military objective, which is what the military needs to conquer in order to secure the political goal (fortifications, strategic locations, transport networks, supply lines etc). If these objectives coincide, as when the objective is the annexation of territory, then achieving the one achieves the other. If the political goal is more diffuse, then the relation between political and military objectives is less clear. In either case, the projection of military force is a means to an end rather than an end unto itself.

The overall military objective, in any war, is to destroy the enemy. Or, rather, to destroy their capacity to enact and project resistance. If the enemy has been effectively and totally incapacitated (ponder this word), then they have lost. By definition, there is nothing they can do. When this happens, the only option is to surrender and give in to the political demands, whatever those might be.

We see here how politics and resistance are intrinsically linked to war as such. Politics is to want something, and if this want is to procure something someone else has, then this someone else can either mobilize a resistance to this will, or give in to it. There is no third option.

Returning to Virilio. The military inventions, first used in wars and related situations, have ever so slowly found their way into civil society. And along with them, the paradigm that necessitated and facilitated their use. The military has an endemic interest in keeping its troops ready to either attack or defend, to either overcome resistance or mobilize it. The ability to quickly and effectively organize large numbers of people has always been a key military interest, and is a critical component of every hostile situation.

As these military technologies become civil, military thinking has as well. We all carry cell phones, and we have grown accustomed to changing our plans whilst out in the field. Or out on the town. We do it more or less automatically these days, and feel strangely incapacitated whenever we - for any reason - can't do it. When our phone runs out of battery, it's not just our phone that's lacking in functionality. A part of who we see ourselves as is no longer operational. Which, incidentally, is how we see people who for whatever reason choose to live outside our infotechnobubble - nonfunctional people.

The thought of organizing ourselves in collective and efficient resistances (plural) became manifest in the wake of Gategate. [A Swedish 2010 event concerning two policemen demanding that a recording of them acting objectionably be deleted. The recording was subsequently recovered and spread far and wide through social media. The name denotes the fact that this took place near the gates to the Stockholm subway, which is to say a literal gate.] Before this, the possibility of quickly organize a response to government abuse was latent, dormant; after, it became something of a civic duty to document and signal boost these whenever they occurred. Whilst it is not always clear what these resistances attack or defend, it still weighs heavily upon us as an imperative in our daily lives.

Now, this is not to say that this is necessarily a negative thing. Being able to resist the inherent totalitarian tendencies of the state is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Being able to quickly organize a meeting on short notice in order to discuss what is to be done in a crisis situation can save lives. But it is worth pondering that while it is true that this country [Sweden] hasn't been in a formal state of war for over two hundred years, there is still a constant presence of war in our everyday lives. Not as a heroic adventure or a sudden onset of post-traumatic panic, but as an ambivalent gray something which is neither this nor that. It's in the air, but it's not something we usually think about. It's just there, waiting, a latent possibility inherent in being. The constant readiness to mobilize. At a moment's notice.

It is sometimes said that these new communication technologies have changed our lives beyond recognition. I think we've barely even begun to scratch the surface of this statement. Or even begun to suspect how many kilometers this surface extends. Old virtues become incommensurate with new realities; old imperatives subsumed by new ones. "Be a good person", they used to say. "Be able to resist", we now say. But resist whom, in whose name? What new objectives are posited by our politically mobilized selves and communities?

What even is this new everyday life we are suddenly living?

Originally published February 23, 2010

Monday, August 24, 2015

The war on accidents

Virilio defined accidents as the unavoidable side-inventions of new technologies. A commonly used example is the train accident - you cannot invent and build a train system without at the same time building the possibility of trains derailing. The mere act of moving trains on rails necessitates the possibility of them going off them. You can't have one without the other, as Sinatra sang it.

Then, in September 2001, someone weaponized the accident. Rather than using a conventional weapon, such as a bomb or a missile, they used the inherent and unavoidable potential for accidents built into airplanes. (That which goes up and so on.)

Ever since, the fear of accidents have been ever present. Of course, it has not been packaged as a fear of accidents, as that would be a hard sell. Rather, it went (and still goes) by the fancier name War on Terrorism. The difference between terrorism and accidents in this case being merely propagandistic - it is hard to conceive that the ever more draconian measures put in place are meant to stop bombs, missiles and other traditional tools of the trade. The aim is not to stop terrorism - it is to prevent accidents.

Thing is, though. Accidents are inherent to everything. As in, everything. The only way to prevent them is - as Aristotle put it - do nothing. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. There is no shortage of accidents of the human body, and even being in a position to read these words puts you at risk of the unforeseen (or worse, foreseen) accident.

One day, you too will die.

Question is how to live until then. Embodying the war on accidents is an option. It can be chosen as a way of life. It doesn't work, but nevertheless.

Always the less, as it were. -