Art & Culture

Carol Becker

The Agitated Now: Perceptions of Time and the Contemplative Space of Art
Reading time 29 minutes

"The Agitated Now" was first presented as the 23rd Annual Kimon Friar Lecture at the American College of Greece in June 2018. Kimon Friar, US Fulbright Research Scholar in Modern Greek Literature at the University of Athens (1954-1955), was a poet , anthologist, and first major translator of modern Greek poetry.

The perception of time is not a direct subject of history; nonetheless, it is es- sential to how we experience our world and also to how future civilizations will look and record contemporary cultures. In each period of history, writes the author Byung-Chul Han, Time has a unique "scent." 1 We discover this in the residues of the art and culture of our civilizations: their internal lives reflected externally in form. Just as we are able to observe the wind as it moves through the water, rustling the physical world and generating sound, we are able to experience the complexities of living in our own time. through the so-called rapidification of everyday life and its accompanying anxiety. But we understand our condition most clearly when artists, writers, and thinkers elucidate it, reflecting it back, making it more visible to us.

Artists and writers often play with and manipulate time. They slow it down, speed up, wend in and out of past and future. They understand that the human imagination is fluid in this look. When we go to the cinema, for example, we mostly expect and compress a compression of time and events that distills life into their essence, and thus makes them more exciting and exciting. So if we say that a movie is "too slow," what we are doing really well. Yet some of the greatest movie directors are known to be able to control the pace of the narrative. Not necessarily interested in creating action or entertaining their audience, such artists are hoping to connect to our deeper selves - and, to do that, they need to slow the story down.

Of this era, we might ask: how do we experience time in the present? Does it seem rich or impoverished? Slow or fast? Coherent gold fragmented? Do we ever take the time to contemplate the nature of time? If so, how would we characterize its "scent"? In a healthy society, citizens perceive time as continuous. They live each day with the insurance of sequentiality: one thing following another. There is also a coherent relationship between successive generations. But a society ruptured by war, migration, epidemics, catastrophic natural occurrences, and the fragmentation of families. massive disruptions in daily routines and expectations Such a state of eclipse the ability to live in the present or the future is so exasperating that one can no longer extrapolate enough from it to envision a future. While these events are occurring, it is also often impossible to create a coherent narrative. Only later do poets, filmmakers, and writers take up the challenge of addressing how horrific that period might have been and the ways in which the moment continues today. After World War I, a generation of poet-soldiers emerged, such as Wilfred Owen, who created a body of literature that articulated the devastating pains of war in poetry. Such was the case during the protracted Vietnam War. In his novel The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien, for example, attempted to articulate what he and his generation of soldiers had lived internally and externally, in some cases, continue to experience each day.

These citizens of the United States, like myself, who, at this time, are fortunate enough to be geographically displaced by disaster, war, or politics, often experience less and less overt ruptures of time than others do. Yet, even so, many in the US feel that our lives are discontinuous, that we have lost the sense of homeownership that we have disrupted the continuity of generations of the nation. world, trying to stay connected), and that we can not envision a path to the future. But perhaps most prominent - in my country, at least - the feeling that we are no longer rooted on the Earth, or even within the nation itself, tossed by the pendulum of history swing- ing dramatically from right to left and right again. Distracted by distraction, many people feel that they are barely hanging on, their attention shredded by media, information, and popular culture. Often we do not feel present in the historical time or in geographical space, and hence we can experience a deep sense of uprootedness. Ongoing conversations focus on the shared belief that it is not enough of it. Byung-Chul Han does not attribute this sense of acceleration to any actual, physical, transformed condition of the planet, but rather to fragmentation caused by the maddening pace of information. human life has become a part of the world.

Bombarded by visual imagery and information, we experience an implosion of time and space. Overwhelmed with e-mails, text messages, twenty-four-hour global media updates, Internet access - coming across devices we carry on our way of life - we find it difficult to focus on any one image, thought, person, gold event for very long. It is not time that we have accelerated so much that we are not far ahead by continuous time. In an overstimulated world, where there are demands for never-ending, rapid shifts of consciousness, we are more likely to be easily assimilated. We have evolved the technology for round-the-clock media updates, but our psyche still lag behind.

Accompanying this constant disruption of our mental well-being is the rapidification of expectations in the workplace - another result of the proliferation of digital media. Through technology, we are now freed from the constraints of location. Many no longer need to go to their office or to their jobs or even live in the same country or their employers. But we do not seem to be physically, we are nonetheless, we are psychically enslaved to a demand for our attention. Yes, we can work anywhere, but the result is we work everywhere. There is no "leaving work behind," because such demands follow us home and sit waiting on our laptops, not observing the concept of evenings, weekends, or holidays. Although many businesses have adopted clear policies, we know that, early Monday morning, those e-mails will be waiting for us be expecting a response. Now that we are reduced to functioning as a round-the-clock laborers, a situation in which people have tried hard to move for- .

We might call this present state Crushed Time . In Crushed Time, the normal rhythms the species has become accustomed to over centuries - which included rest; celebration; ritual; slow, deliberate thought; love, delight, and joy; are all threatened. We have an imbalanced sense of hurtling forward as we "multitask," further fragmenting our concentration. We talk nervously about "having no time," or "we are not so much", "we are not so much", "or we just do not know". have "enough time," we are trying to "stop time," but we just enjoy it and luxuriate in time. We hope that meditation or yoga or more sleep might help to slow it down. We are carve out when we are trying to catch up with ourselves and we have lost our minds, worrying all the while about how to get hold of whatever accelerated state of consciousness we might achieve.

Because we have a lot of things to say, we have a lot of things to say, we have an obsession with the pace of life. do not match. The rapidity of technology elicits a sense of an omnivorous present, which has created an unrealistic expectation of how quickly humans can actually function. We now assume that traumas of all kinds must have occurred and should be made immediately. Thus there is little time to absorb our reactions to events or to seriously contemplate their consequences for our lives.

So we might ask ourselves: Have we filled the space of consciousness with the rapid acquisition of information at the expe- rience of knowledge? Is our collective hyperactivity a way to catch up with a world that is moving faster? Are we living in Crushed Time because we do not have the ability to create Contemplative Time?

Even within this dominant condition of acceleration, humans, by nature. These perceptions, which reflect a multidimensionality of the human spirit, manifest themselves best in art and literature: the vehicles through which we slow down the world down and chronicle our psychic evolution to imagine how our species might be expected to come into the future.

The Many Categories of Time

Humans actually experience time in multiple ways simultaneously, without ever being aware of this complexity of the quality of each category of time. So it is necessary to ask: how can we characterize these myriad experiences of time? In what ways do we respond to and do they affect our lives?

Perhaps the most basic category of time is what I refer to as Continuous Time . Continuous Time is the time embedded in the narrative of a lived life. It is traceable, mostly sequential, comprehensible, and historical, but not always direct. It might, for example, be elliptical. Poets such as CP Cavafy and others tell us that the journey of life should be lived with breadth and depth, circling back on itself, fulfilling itself with itself and finally touching eternity, like the mystical snake, the Ouroboros. Homer's most famous protagonist, Odysseus, is called anthropos polytropos , often translated as "man of many turns." His journey has a beginning and end, but it is too much in nature, with dramatic and protracted detours along the way. On his great journey, Odysseus leaves his home in Ithaca and only returns to his place of origin, after experiencing exciting, albeit life-threatening, adventures and overcoming enormous obstacles every step of the way. There is complexity and continuity in his rich and multifarious journey, and he is transformed by the process. But he is homeowner, he has changed, and home, too, has changed.

In the poem "Ithaca," which I first discovered several months ago in the Kimon Friar translation, Cavafy tells us that we should savor this journey of life, take it slowly, absorb its meaning. And in these oft-quoted lines he writes,

When you set out on the trip to Ithaca,
pray that your journey may be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge ...

Yet not by any means hasten your journey.
Let's best endure for many years .... 3

Odysseus' Journey in Mythic Time , which may or may not have a historical correlative. Mythic Time is dependent on a sequential narrative or multiple narratives to convey an imagined series of events that occurred in some inexact, unquantifiable, ancient, or future time.

We know that the events in the Greek myths never really happened to us; However, we can not quantify how much in these narratives is pure imaginative invention and how much is it that derives from facts about historic figures? These narratives - stories that endured because they are exciting and imaginative - also explain events that took place in an undocumented time. We now recognize them, at least in contemporary incarnations, as metaphoric. They allude to trials in our lives and in our psyches, which are often more modest than those of Odysseus. We do not understand and respond to Cavafy's lines:

Of the Laestrygones and the Cyclops,
and of furious Poseidon, do not be afraid,
for such on your journey
if your thought remains lofty, if a select
emotion imbue your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygones and the Cyclops
and furious Poseidon you will never meet
unless you drag them with you in your soul,
unless your soul raises them up before you. 4

Mythic Time is always present, perplexingly, ever past. Because these images are so basic to the way we build our understanding of the world, they continue to resonate powerfully in our unconscious lives. They exist in what we might call Archetypal Time . In Man and His Symbols , Jung writes that shared patterns of human thought form clusters of images that endure throughout time and across cultures. Freud thought that these images were "archaic remnants" of the psychic life of the species, and that they repeat throughout human history, they constantly morph and manifest, transform, and evolve into what appear as new forms.5 These remnants also manifest in what Jung calls "collective representations," the shared powerful images that live in the memory of the species and can be found in dreams and in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the nature of our humanness.6

Science fiction, for example, may contain heroic figures that appear in the mythology of most ancient cultures in their present incarnations mimic the contemporary. For example, warrior protagonists might be depicted wearing a mix of Grecian battle attracts and modern, high-tech military gear, as in the US blockbuster movie Black Panther. In this film, the mythic forces of good and evil once again fight for dominance - as is true, in the same epics of adventure and war - but the battle is set in an imagined, alternate version of Africa, which, with a utopian twist, is the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet, this fact is hidden from the rest of the world. The ancient archetypal frame is the same: the good warrior will triumph over the evil one; Odysseus will escape the Cyclops. These are originary images, easily recognizable to us. But the specifics of the narrative are suitable for contemporary and future civilizations. The familiar events hearken back to the old so we can more fully understand the new.

This previewing of future potentiality might be said to encompass Prophetic Time . Many of us see or imagine occurrences in our dream lives. The Prophets of the Old and New Testaments: Cataclysmic natural disasters or annihilating wars, great punishments for destructive behavior. They lived in salvational, eschatological time, the time that marks the end of the world. But some of them often have more apparently mundane prophetic experiences. We may see something in our minds that has not yet manifested in the world but somehow we intuit it will. Freud could not imagine that the species was able to see the future, which is why he did not create a category for such prophetic images in his comprehensive study The Interpretation of Dreams. He explained this phenomenon when they were coincidental or self-fulfilling.7 He only felt comfortable testifying to what he was able to do, and he was anxious when he stepped outside his understanding of the rational.8 In this, he differed with Jung, himself a scientist, but one who also lived in the mystical and mysterious. It did not occur to Freud that time simply might be back to itself and not to be linear at all, as Einstein and other physicists since Freud's understandings are predated these more contemporary theories of time and "parallel universes." Thus it did not occur to him that humans were able to proven or not.

Another way to understand the subjective nature of time is to contemplate the time of loss , the time spent negotiating a deep, often immobilizing. In Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia," he writes that "the absorbing work of mourning" is an "inner labor" and is, as labor, a task that takes time to complete.9 In grievance - whether due to death or other causes One bit to one of the deep connections formed by another person, bit by bit, in order to allow one to leave the place in our psyches. It is difficult to withdraw an intense libidinal attachment to another, and thus the person's absence can persist in the present as bread. Because the grieving process takes place over extended periods of time, some people collapse into grievance and remain there for months before reemerging. Some nevre reemerge. Others feel the bread only much later, if at all. Grief, resulting in loss, also can endure, submerged, affecting our lives and dreams for years after the event, even while unacknowledged by our conscious selves.

When I was a child and someone in my Jewish family died, we retreated into mourning for a week or more. We all "sat shivah." Of course, as in most societies, we sat collectively; friends and family came and went. After the week ended, they were told that they were grieving, communicating to others that they were appearing distracted, that they were not completely in the time of the present but rather still submerged in the time of loss.

Durational psychic states, such as grievances, the role of Emotional Time , in which deep feelings continues to dominate our conscious and unconscious lives. A memory of childhood humiliation or joy that may have happened forty years ago may resonate more profoundly than something that happened only yesterday. These emotional memories of our early lives create the specific Time of Childhood , perhaps the most powerful time of all, because its vividness remains easily accessible to us throughout our adulthood. We can always draw on childhood memories in present time. As adults, we can feel that we are forever following a script, built during this time of childhood, when the psyche was most permeable and without defense. These images, expectations, and dramas of children are often replayed throughout our lives. Eventually, we may want to reframe these narratives and reimagine them so that we do not keep replicating obsolete patterns. Thus we try to free ourselves from the past in order to write the future script anew. But the images of this time remain ever present. They often live deeply in the unconscious and appear to powerfully and sometimes repeatedly in dreams.

Much literature is based on the reorganization of the Time of Childhood. Of course, we think of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, The Diary of Anais Nin , JM Coetzee's Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life , Richard Ford's Between Them: Remembering My Parents , Nabokov's Speak, Memory , and Emily Dickinson's poetry and that of many others . These works are most important in a writer's psyche: the memories that lasts and keeps returning, demanding, retived, rethought in the present. These early memories seem to be in the deep neurons of the body, and as writers struggle to write about their very first selections. How is this possible? The act of writing memoir draws from the inexhaustible Time of Childhood to negotiate and represent the life of the adult.

These categories of time are important in so far as they are subjective, relative, experiential, and unique to individuals, societies, and the species itself. In the prevailing contemporary culture, there is little discussion of these complexities of time. But there is an intuitive understanding of what is now absent in most societies is Contemplative Time , which is characterized by depth of thought and concentration.

How can one find the time to think - to experience the spaciousness and timelessness of thought - if ever preoccupied and diverted by the accelerated, demanding pace of now? When do we reflect on the portion of our lives already lived and the adventures ahead? How can we consider what we have learned from the journey to date? If the possibility for expansive thought seems impossibly thin, when and how do we find or create deeper opportunities for contemplative time in our lives?

Here we must turn again to art, poetry, and literature to offer a respite from this metallic "scent" of acceleration. If we study a piece of music for long enough, for example, we are still aware of the potential of time and space and their relationship to our emotional lives. Through concentration, we experience duration, and we are in an opportunity to move into deep breathing, which can be modified by slowing down the world. In this way, we begin to experience our own complexity and that of our species' memory as well.

Art has the potential to expand our psyches, because art, which falls into these categories of time, also exists in a constant, inexhaustible present. It reminds us that, we are working in this accelerated time, we are continuing to live in the deep, slow, ancient time of our spiritual selves. Our conscious, earthbound spirit is only one of the deepest minds in the world, the mythic sea, the dense water in which the species has been swimming. We are amphibious beings who carry the memories of our species' journey, which we can conjure up through archetypes and images that we write, paint, and dream into conscious being. This ability to slow down the world, to deaccelerate and uninitiated creative, contemplative, poetic time, is an antidote to the crushing and exhausting pace of discontinuous acceleration. Art, filled with the imaginative possibility of a more perfect world of a new narrative that can inspire us to radically shift the direction of the species, can exist in all these times simultaneously.

The perfection of a work of writing, art, or music. The artist is an expert in the field of art-making, and has an idea or concept that manifests itself through the process of making the work. And it is during this process, while inhabiting the rich time of concentration, that artists can find relief from the present. They regenerate themselves and recover lost time. Art thus can be a public reflection of our shared humanity, articulated through individual voices. The actualized poem then sits silently in a book, the painting quietly on a wall, the sculpture unobtrusively on the ground, and the play hushed until enacted, until a viewer, audience, or reader interacts with its intention. It is ungrounded, incoherent, exhausting "agitated now" craves.

Many years ago, I wrote an essay about the philosopher Herbert Marcuse's final book, The Aesthetic Dimension . It began like this:

If pressed on the subject of the political significance of certain types of
art, Marcuse often recounted an anecdote that pleased him a great
deal. It was about the painter Victor Neep, who when "challenged" to
explain the alleged element of protest in Cezanne 's Still Life With
Apples responded, "It's a protest against sloppy thinking." 10

This article is translated from French by Cézanne's seemingly benign painting. Contemplation of this painting might bring order to an otherwise "sloppy" reality. It might inspire a desire to create coherence, patience, or thoughtfulness - hence, the potential for radical change embedded in a seemingly apolitical work of art. Marcuse locates this experience of contemplating the nature of such art in what he calls the Aesthetic Dimension.11 Aesthetic Time , in which art and the aesthetic experience mind.

This concept could be understood as Poetic Time - a profoundly expansive time because it encompasses the entire range of human emotions. Kimon Friar, paraphrasing Archibald MacLeish, writes: "A poem must not mean, but be." 12 Poetic Time potentially can be boundless, without constraints, and can achieve success if artists have fully updated their intentions. Our response is always dependent on what we are able to understand and are able to understand

Artists are also capable of envisioning - and perhaps more willing to envision - alternative versions of the future. They will even consider the potentiality of a time when our species is no longer present on this planet. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine one's own death, but it is even more agonizing to imagine the death of the species, our world without us in it. The land artist Robert Smithson called the potential for such a world "ruins in reverse." 13 We might call this future projection Unimaginable Time , the time we dread but which haunts us, unconsciously, nonetheless. While researching their own work, some artists are willing to contemplate that humans may become obsolete or that we may make ourselves obsolete. The bad choices we have made, the catastrophic weather we have unleashed, the uncertain effects of the technologies of artificial intelligence and robotics that we have created.

In Frankenstein; Now, the Modern Prometheus , Mary Shelley speculated about the way in which our own creations might ultimately turn against us. In this 19th-century science fiction fantasy, she challenged a modern notion of scientific progress by illuminating its darker side. In the 20th century, the novelist Arthur C. Clarke and the film director Stanley Kubrick conceptualized a similar catastrophe. In 2001: A Space Odyssey , the robot Halera becomes paranoid and fearful of the humans who created him. He then uses his "intelligence" to destroy them one by one.

Many years ago I was struck by a wall in the San Francisco Bay Area that illuminates the concept of "ruins in reverse." the expressway was crowded with endangered species. Mountain lions, buffalo, moose, and other soon-to-be-lost creatures roamed across a barren highway that overlooked an urban landscape gone to seed - the world as we know it, but ghostly, with no trace of human life. It was a view of contemporary civilization after our demise, when a catastrophic event, or a series of less obvious events, has created an inconceivable, mostly unimaginable time of life on a posthuman planet.

As a species we have invented the mechanisms of our own destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is an imagi- nary but not entirely unimaginable idea that we would be gone - not because of anything outside us, but because of our own arrogance, pride, and care-lessness. Artists are willing to investigate this potential for the species to self-destruct. Their work is their warn- ing to us to take heed, to slow down, to observe, to pay attention, in order to prevent such destruction.

The act of making art Could Be Understood as Utopian Taking place in Time, a time for imagining for conjunctival phrase in form and That Which does not as yet exist. Every act of creation is a purposeful negation of the present moment, a reorganization of the world as the artist or artists would want to be, rather than an exact representation of the world exists now. The idea of making art, or even the belief that an interior vision can lead to a unique, external interpretation of the world, is a utopian thought. Because dystopian, totalitarian societies demanding uniformity can not tolerate individual, unique voices and perceptions of the world, art is often the first expression of human individuality to be repressed. This Ernst Bloch might call "the Not-Yet-Conscious," and to do so in original ways, reveals a key imperative of utopian thinking, which is "anticipatory enlightenment," the envisioning of what might become possible within a societal situation.

But what might become possible is not always positive, however. And artists are often the ones to focus our attention on the dangers of the future, to make them aware of what exists. Perhaps this is why the television series is based on Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale has become so popular - the seeds of this fictional dystopian world already exist in the world at this time. These are some of the most important aspects of the present, and they are likely to be reflected in a large and visible manner.

In this sense, Imaginative Time might be the most important time of all. Without imaginative time, there would be no process for questioning the world and no utopian thinking about how the world might become better in the future. Without imagination, there would be no progress in the evolution of the planet earth, which we humans call home. If we were unable to imagine, we could not even exist, we could never dream a new thought into being; we would only be able to repeat what we already know and have done. We would only see what already exists, with the possibility of imagining a better version of our world.

Though events in Imaginative Time may have some connection to historical occurrences, they are embellished by the imagination. Prehistoric storytellers might have tried to understand the erratic behavior of the sea, the fury of the winds, the rising and setting of the sun, or creation itself. They created stories to explain the phenomena of quantification, measure, experiment, and verify - that is, before science, as we know it. Imaginative Time explained causality: the eruption of volcanoes were linked to the fury of angry gods, and so forth. The stories of the people of the world and their worlds. In our era, Imaginative Time is often a mirror image of a more discriminating thought, practices, exploitation, and inequities.

The obsession with time, in one sense, is always about the time of our own lives - the stories that we tell ourselves As a species, Narrative Time - the framework for the story itself - birth, life, death, and all in between. We hope that there will be plenty of life, full life, but we also know that life is long enough. There is never time for all the narratives we would like to live, all the adventures we hope to experience, or all the changes in the world we would like to catalyze. Aimed at some point, our time will be up.

Cavafy writes that even this most painful understanding of time must be savored as uniquely human: "Ithaca has given you the lovely journey," he writes. "Without her you would not have ventured on the way./She has nothing more to give you." 15

Perhaps we could call such time the Never-Enough Time , which inevitably must end with our own death, the time of the long journey home to ourselves, when we like it or not, we fulfill the dream of our lives and come to understand that We have never been able to do that - and for that, in fact, there was always just enough time.


The phrase "the agitated now" is taken from Ernst Bloch, as quoted in Jack Zipes's "Introduction: Toward a Realization of Anticipatory Illumination," in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, by Ernst Bloch, trans. Jack Zipes

and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA: The MIT

Press, 1988), xix.

1. Han, Byung-Chul. The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering, trans. Daniel Steuer (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017), 18.

2. Ibid. "Chapter 3: The Speed of History," 20¬-27.

3. Cavafy, Constantine. "Ithaca," in Modern Greek

Poetry, trans. and ed. Kimon Friar (Athens: Efstathiadis Group, 2005), 38-39.

4. Ibid.

5. Jung, Carl G., et al. Man and His Symbols (New York: Dell, 1964), 32.

6. Ibid., 42.

7. Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams: The Complete and Definitive Text, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

8. Freud, "Dreams and Telepathy," in On Creativity and the Unconscious: Papers on the Psychology of Art, Literature, Love, Religion, ed. Benjamin Nelson

(New York: Harper Brothers, 1958), 236-63.

9. Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," in Sigmund Freud: Collected Papers, trans. Joan Riviere (London: Hogarth Press, 1949), 4: 155.

10. Becker, Carol. "Herbert Marcuse and the Sub- versive Potential of Art," in The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility (New

York: Routledge, 1994), 113.

11. Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension:

Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (Boston:

Beacon Press, 1978), 7-8.

12. Friar, Kimon, trans. and ed., Modern Greek Poetry (Athens: Efstathiadis Group, 2005), 24.

13. Robert Smithson used the phrase "ruins in verse" in "The Monuments of Passaic," Artforum 6, no. 4 (December 1967): 52-57.

14. Jack Zipes discusses these concepts through- out his "Introduction: Toward a Realization of Anticipatory Illumination," in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature by Ernst Bloch, XI-XIII.

15. Cavafy. "Ithaca," in Modern Greek Poetry, 3.

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