Atemporality for the Creative Artist

Bruce Sterling. Transmediale 10, Berlin, Feb. 6, 02010

available at and

I would like to talk about this slogan ‘Futurity Now,’ and how the idea of ‘futurity now’ might become common sense. Not a contradiction in terms, which it obviously is right now, but a legitimate demand. Or a claim, or a lament.

So, what is ‘atemporality’? I think it’s best defined as ‘a problem in the philosophy of history’. And I hate to resort to philosophy, because I am a novelist. But I don’t think we have any way out here. It is about the nature of historical knowledge. What we can know about the past, and about the present, and about the future. How do we represent and explain history to ourselves? What are its structures and its circumstances? What are the dynamics of history and futurity? What has happened before? What is happening now? What is really likely to happen next?

History is not a science; history is an effort in the humanities. It’s about meanings, values, language, historical identity, institutions, culture. The philosophy of history is about very standard philosophical issues, like ontology, hermeneutics, and epistemology. And I know that’s true, and I can’t help it. But we only have forty minutes here.

So I want to deliver a speech that’s in two parts. The first is about atemporality as a modern phenomenon. What does it look like and feel like, as it actually exists? And the second part of the speech is: what can creative artists do about that? So this is ‘Atemporality for the Creative Artist’.

Now let me start with an anecdote, because I am a novelist rather than a philosopher, and I kinda like to tell stories. So what makes an atemporal situation diferent from a post-modern situation, or a modernist situation, or a classicist situation, what’s really different about it?

Well, let me take a guy who I am very fond of, a very immediate, hard-headed scientific thinker - Richard Feynman, American physicist. Richard Feynman once wrote about intellectual labor, and he said the following: ‘Step one - write down the problem. Step two - think really hard. Step three - write down the solution’.

And I really admire this statement of Feynman’s. It’s no-nonsense, it’s no fakery, it’s about hard work for the intellectual laborer… Of course it’s a joke. But it’s not merely a joke. He is trying to make it as simple as possible. I mean: really just confront the intellectual problem!

But there is an unexamined assumption in Feynman’s method, and it’s in step one - write down the problem.

Now let me tell you how the atemporal Richard Feynman approaches this. The atemporal Richard Feynman is not very paper-friendly, because he lives in a network culture. So it occurs to the atemporal Feynman that he may, or may not, have a problem.

‘Step one - write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already. Step two - write problem in my blog; study the commentory cross-linked to other guys. Step three - write my problem in Twitter in a hundred and forty characters. See if I can get it that small. See if it gets retweeted. Step four - open source the problem; supply some instructables to get me as far as I’ve been able to get, see if the community takes it any further. Step five - start a Ning social network about my problem, name the network after my problem, see if anybody accumulates around my problem. Step six - make a video of my problem. Youtube my video, see if it spreads virally, see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem. Step seven - create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. Create some gadget or application or product that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it. Step eight - exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media. And step nine - find some kind of pretty illustrations from the Flickr ‘Looking into the Past’ photo pool.’

(If you don’t get what atemporality is by the end of these few images, I probably can’t help you.)

So, old Feynman, who was not the atemporal Feynman, would naturally object: ‘You have not solved the problem! You have not advanced scientific knowledge. There is no progress in this. You didn’t get to Step three - solving the problem.’ Whereas, the atemporal Feynman would respond: ‘It’s worse than that. I haven’t even done step one of defining the problem and writing it down. But I have done a lot of work about its meaning, and its value and its social framing, combined with some database mining, and some collaborative filtering, which is far beyond you and your pencil.’

Now, history is a story. And to write down the story of the fourteenth century, to just ask yourself - “what happened in the fourteenth century?” — Feynman style — is a very different matter from asking the atemporal question: “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘fourteenth century?’” I think we are over the brink of that. It’s a very, very different matter.

History books are ink on paper. They are linear narratives with beginning and ends. They are stories created from archival documents and from other books. Network culture, not really into that. Network culture differs from literary culture in a great many ways. And step one is that the operating system is an unquestioned given. The first thing you do is go to the operating system, without even thinking of it as a conscious choice.

Then there is the colossally huge, searchable, public domain, which is now at your fingertips. There are methods to track where the eyeballs of the users are going. There are intellectual property problems in revenue, which interferes with scholarship as much as it aids it. There is a practice of ‘ragpicking’ with digital material - of loops, tracks, sampling. There are search engines, which are becoming major intellectual and public political actors. There is ‘collective intelligence’. Or, if you don’t want to dignify it with that term, you can just call it ‘internet meme ooze’. But it’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge, quantifiable, interchangeable data with newly networked relations. We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.

There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurillous rumor.

This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from. This is the source of our gnawing discontent.

It means the end of post-modernism. It means the end of the New World Order, which is about civilizing the entire planet, stopping all the land wars, repressing the terrorism. It means the end of the Washington Consensus of the nineteen nineties. It means the end of the WTO. It means the end of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’; it ended. And it’s moving in a completely different and unexpected direction.

The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work - it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Now, a new master narrative could arise on paper. That would be easy. On paper, if it were just a matter of paper, we could do it. But to do that via the Internet is about as likely as the Internet becoming a single state-controlled television channel. Because a single historical narrative is a paper narrative.

I don’t think we are going to get one. We could conceivably get a new ideology or a new business model that is able to seize control of the course of events and reinstate some clear path to progress, that gets a democratic consensus behind it. I don’t think that’s likely. At least not for ten years. I could be wrong, but it’s not on the near-term radar.

What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.

That’s just the situation on the ground. I don’t want to belabor this point. I don’t want to go on and on about the fact that this is a new historical situation. If you don’t get it by now, you will be forced to get it; you will have no other choice.

The question is: now what? Given that we have atemporal organized representations of verbal structures, what can we actually do? Where is the fun part?

Where is the fun part? And I think there could be some, actually. We are living in an atemporal network culture, and I don’t think that requires a moral panic. I think it ought to be regarded as something like moving into a new town.

We’ve moved into a new town, and the first order of business is like : ok, what gives around here? Well, there seems to be this sort of decayed castle, and there’s also a lot of slums…. That’s not the sort of thing which requires a punk ‘no-future’ rage. Like: ‘You’ve taken away my future, and I am going to kill you, or kill myself, and throw a brick at a cop!’ I don’t really think that is helpful.

What’s needed here is like a kind of atemporality that’s like agnosticism. Just a calm, pragmatic, serene skepticism about the historical narratives. I mean: they just don’t map onto what is going on.

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists?

Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The “Frankenstein mashup” is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.”

You can do useful and interesting things in that way, but I don’t really think that offers us a great deal. Even when it’s done very deftly, it tends to lead to the kind of levelling blandness of ‘world music.’ That kind of world music that’s middle-of-the-road disco music which includes pygmy nose-flutes or sitars.

The kind of thing is tragically easy to do, but not really very effective. It’s cheap to do. It’s very punk rock. It’s very safety pins and plastic bags. But it’s missing a philosophical high-end, really an atemporal meaning of life. High-art.

And I would like to see some of that. I think there is a large hole there that could be filled, from an atemporal perspective. Not at the lowest end of artistic expression, but way up at the top philosophical end.

Then there are things like that increasing vogue we have for ‘lost futures’: steampunk, atompunk, dieselpunk. You’re finding earlier methods of production, pretending that they’d never become defunct, and then adding on to those. I would add to those: you could do a lot of good work with the materiality of dead regimes and also with colonialism.

These have been hobby activities, and even sci-fi fan activities, I think they could be classed up very considerably.

Then there are other elements which are native to our period that didn’t really work before, such as generative art. I take generative art quite seriously. I’d like to see it move into areas like generative law, or may be generative philosophy. The thing I like about generative art is that it drains human intentionality out of the art project.

Say, in generative manufacturing, you are writing code for a computer fabricator, and you yourself don’t know the outcome of this code. You do not know how it will physically manifest itself. Therefore you end up with creative objects that are bleached of human intent.

Now there is tremendous artistic intent — within the software. But the software is not visible in the finished generative product. To me, it’s of great interest that these objects and designs and animations and so forth now exist among us. Because they are, in a strange way, divorced from any kind of historical ideology. They are just not human.

There are potential and new forms of collaborative art that have no single authors. Open source arts, multiplayer arts, multimedia collaboration. Online world building is of great interest. That was not physically possible before. It’s something we can do that nobody else can do.

I am listing these methods; some of them will work, some of them will turn out to be dead-ends. The thing that interests me is that they could be done from this particular perspective, and they can be fresh.

The ‘pre-distressed antique futurity’. William Gibson wrote about this when we was writing about atemporality, associating it with his ‘Zero History’ novel that he is working on. Gibson was saying that if you have a genuinely avant garde idea, something that’s really new, you should write about it or create about it as if it were being read twenty years from now. In other words, if you want to do this, you want to strip away the sci-fi chrome, the sense of wonder. You want it to be antique before it hits the page or the screen. Imagine that it was twenty years gone into the future. Just approach it from that perspective.

No longer allow yourself to be hypnotized by the sense of technical novelty. Just refuse to go there. Accept that it is already passe’, and create it from that point of view. Try to make it news that stays news.

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.

‘Recuperating forms of history that cannot be written.’ This is of tremendous interest. I think it escapes the literary traps of history. Just history that could not be written about. History about people who were not the winners, history about people who had no literatures. Pre-history. Human experience before the historical record was created.

We can trace this now through genetics, we can trace it through archeology. Times before humanity existed. Cosmic chronology. The way we learn about our things, through non-literary sources such as garbage, pollen counts, environmental damage, even corpses. You can look at what’s been learned from the corpse of ‘Otzi,’ this Bronze-Age European. Fantastic things.

‘Humanistic heavy iron’: it’s taken a long time for the humanities to get into super computing, and into massive database management. They are really starting to get there now. You are going to get into a situation where even English professors are able to study every word ever written about, or for, or because of, Charles Dickens or Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That’s just a different way to approach the literary corpus. I think there is a lot of potential there.

Information visualization is of great interest to me. I think it’s an art form, a potential science. And also design.

Becoming ‘multi-temporal’, rather than multi-cultural: it used to be a very big problem for historians that they supposedly could not divide themselves from the outlooks and interests of their own age. I think we are approaching a situation where the outlooks and interests of our own age make very little sense. They just don’t bind us to anything in particular. We don’t have a coherent outlook or interest that can enslave us. This means we are closer to a potentially objective history than anybody has ever been.

There are interesting potentials for a complete digital recapturing of earlier artifacts, earlier means of production. Instead of just theorizing about what people could have done with the steam engine, you just model a steam engine. You can print a steam engine out.

There are things that could be done with the museum economy in Europe that have not been done. I quite like the idea of a personal museum economy. For instance, rather than dressing up your downtown as some kind of relic of the eighteen hundreds, why don’t you just dress up your vacation home as the seventeen fifties? Or just refit your own home, really, as with the devices and services of an earlier century. Why feel that it’s not modern? If they are all the same thing, why not just go ahead, get off the grid and make your own butter and use your own well? Just go there with a kind of immediacy and just experience it as a contemporary thing.

Why not designer fiction as life? Why not role-playing games in real spaces? Why not become the change you want to see?

If, for instance, you think the future should offer ‘personal space flight’ - perhaps you are an enthusiast for that? - why don’t you just dress up as an astronaut? Just invent the whole thing, just go out and carry it onto the streets! Just invent the Jezz Bezos Blue Origin spacecraft, make your own spacecraft suitcases, spacecraft astronaut gear.

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?

There are other methods that I have not described. They will be rediscovered, or they will be invented. But I think there is tremendous creative potential in atemporality.

And I want to warn you, and also promise you, that this too shall pass. It’s just a period.

We are in a period which I think is dominated by two great cultural signifiers. An analog system that belonged to our parents, which has been shot full of holes. It is the symbol of the ruined castle. “Gothic High-Tech.” The ruins of the unsustainable.

And the other symbol is the favela slum, “Favela Chic,” the informalized, illegalized, heavily networked structure of the emergent new order. The things that the twenty first century is doing that are genuinely novel, that have not been domesticated or brought into sociality.

The Gothic High-Tech and the Favela Chic. These are very obvious to me, as a novelist and creative artist. Perhaps you won’t see things this way — but I think the life-span of this will be about ten years. A new generation will arise who does not need things explained to them in this way. They will not wonder at a slogan like ‘futurity now’, because they will have never known anything different.

They will not have to forget how things used to be. And at that point, we will be on a different playing field.

But we don’t get to choose the era of history that was given to us. We can only choose what we do within the parameters of what exists on the ground.

Now, no matter how confusing this may seem or how poorly phrased, there is a very good chance that you can physically outlive this era with your own body. It’s just ten years! ‘Futurity Now’ in some ways is like a slogan that means ‘Make me grow up’. That’s what you are demanding when you say ‘futurity now’. It’s like ‘make me get older’, ‘make me get wiser, now!’.

That’s doable.

We are going to have Early Atemporality, where we are struggling with what it means and how it’s different from post-modernism, and we are going to have Late Atemporality, where we pretty well get it about what was going on, and we can see the limits of that, and we know that something else is going to happen. That’s going to take ten years. You can physically outlive the period in which explaining things in this way makes sense.

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.

Futurity was expected, futurity is here now, there goes futurity into the past, so long futurity, thank you for an exciting, fulfilling and worthwhile time.

Thank you for your attention.

  • atemporality_for_the_creative_artist.txt
  • Last modified: 2010-09-30 17:09
  • by