Skip to content →

All of My Works are Full Length, Some are just Longer than Others

Socrates in the Agora

Peter Aspden and I were born in the same year. And when I read his columns in the Financial Times I find myself nodding as my eyes scan the page. We’ve been on the same wavelength for the last couple of months. I’ve recently been trying to come to terms with the idea of “faster” versus “realtime.” It may have been in the 50s when this idea of the velocity and acceleration of our daily lives took hold as a sign of our separation from the things that matter. As the Web moves relentlessly toward unfolding in real time, the chorus of shouts from Nicholas Carr and others rise up around us. In his latest column “iPod therefore I am,” Aspden lays out the complaint:

It is received wisdom that the velocity and superficiality of modern life have resulted in a deterioration in the quality of our thinking and means of expression. A combination of technology, social permissiveness and sheer fecklessness has wrecked our capacity to reflect calmly and lucidly on our common concerns, the argument runs: our cultural triumphs lie in the past, and a unlikely ever to be surpassed.

The chief culprit in the decline of Western Civilization? — a declining ability to fully immerse oneself in the great and engaging works of our culture. As Aspden points out, this kind of engagement implies a scholarly withdrawal from the hurlyburly of life.

First Witch: “When shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
Second Witch: “When the hurlyburly’s done, / When the battle’s lost and won.”

Aspden’s column was triggered by listening to a podcast called Philosophy Bites featuring an interview with Don Cuppitt. It’s a program that I listen to also, and in much the same way he does. He listens on the subway while commuting to work. He describes the experience:

It took 15 minutes, the length of all Philosophy Bites interviews, and it stayed with me the whole day– a day typically filled with tedious chores and niggling lack of coherence. This was how I liked my philosophy, I decided: sprinkled in short doses as part of my lived life. It made me think of the agora or market place of ancient Athens, where you were as likely in your perambulations to pick up a Socratic quip as a kilo of lentils.

When we consider the deep and abiding issues and themes of our day, must we withdraw from our lived lives and retreat to an academy where time and space allow a full measure of perspective and retrospection? Philosophy in a podcast, an RSS feed or a Tweet with a link is the opposite of the normative historical practice. Aspden describes the flavor of this new practice:

This is a little like the world we live in now, fast-moving, interlinked and demanding of minds that can absorb new information quickly and uncomplainingly. The best of our culture reflects this: it is edgy, provocative, mired in ambiguity, and happily dispensible– pop-up art for popular times.

But it’s not speed (as in more beats per second) that’s the critical factor, it’s the reintegration of this practice of thought into our lives at the speed at which they are lived. The media conforms to the speed of life rather than the reverse. As we talk about the economics and fates of walled gardens in the commerical web, perhaps we don’t notice that the walled gardens of the academy have been breached as well. Those pursuits that could only exist in the specialized environment of the classroom have escaped and are now sitting on your iPod, among other places, ready for your engagement when you have a minute or two. Aspden concludes:

But think about it this way: the closer we come to a truly inclusive, all-embracing culture, art that unifies all of us, the less time we have for those rarefied, introspecitive meanderings that once passed for genius. Art and philosphy bite harder today. Get used to it.

There are those who say we get the culture we deserve, and point despairingly at all the usual places. But I’m reminded of the old story told by Nasrudin:

One night, a neighbor strolling by Nasrudin’s house found him outside under the street lamp brushing through the dust. “Have you lost something, my friend?” he asked. Nasrudin explained that he had lost his key and asked the neighbor to help him find it. After some minutes of searching and turning up nothing, the neighbor asked him, “Are you sure you lost the key here?” “No, I did not lose it here. I lost it inside the house,” Nasrudin answered. “If you lost the key in the house, Nasrudin, why are you looking for it out here?” “Well, there’s more light out here, of course,” Nasrudin replied.

Change is a funny thing. The culture that we’re creating today may start appearing in new forms on new networks– length or venue won’t be a determining factor. It’s the work’s ability to connect inline to the flow of our lives. As Samuel Beckett once replied to a criticism of his play “Breath,” — “All of my works are full length, some are just longer than others.”

Published in art culture network philosophy real time web