Finding Identity in the Extended Present
In the article, Time and Postmodernism, Dickens and Fontana argue that the perception of time and space is reflective of the social and cultural conditions of a given era. They divide human history into separate periods (European Feudalism, Renaissance, Enlightenment, etc.) and attribute technological advances and scientific breakthroughs as the catalysts for broadening perspectives in regards to time and space. Dickens and Fontana are most interested in the break from the ideologies of the Enlightenment (objective, uninterrupted flow of time) and the postmodern representation of time, a change brought about by the expanding capabilities of transportation and communication technologies.
From this period, new depictions of time were put forth by Charles Baudelaire, Henri Bergson, and Georg Simmel. Together, they emphasized a fleeting and subjective view of time. They “highlighted the radical disjuncture between objective culture and subjective experience, where individuals resorted to a variety of coping strategies to make sense of the accelerated experiences of modern urban life” (391). Simmel used the term ‘neurasthenia’ to identify “a condition in which the individual’s inner security is replaced by a faint sense of tension and vague longing, by restlessness, by a helpless urgency which originates in the bustle and excitement of modern life” (391). He believed this blasé attitude stemmed from the individual’s desire to protect oneself from the constant evolution of modern life. “In short, extraordinary changes in the experience of space and time in modern life demanded extraordinary psychological adjustments on the part of individuals to maintain some sense of personal autonomy and identity” (391). This essay will examine the ways in which man has attempted to claim identity in the continuously shifting landscape of the modern world.
Advances in technology have always been intrinsically linked with our perception of the world. Radiocarbon dating is one such technology that changed the way mankind perceived time. Compared to the age of the universe, the history of mankind is an infinitely small, non-perceptible segment of time. Videos all over the internet attempt to visualize this fact to an audience.
There is another line of videos that focuses on space rather than time. However, the effect is a similar one; our place in space and time is insignificant compared to the boundless nature of the Universe.
These videos can redefine ones perception of their place in space and time. Recently, scientists have discovered gravitational waves, the last of Einstein’s theories to be proven. The potential of this breakthrough is immeasurable. Some scientists believe that this discovery will open avenues to look even further into the timeline of the universe, as far as the big-bang. Once again, we might be forced to reexamine our time and place in the universe. On a psychological level, how does one account for these continuous perspective shifts?
David Harvey argues that our perception of time and space can be directly influenced by our economic system and consumer driven culture. “According to Harvey, these technologically driven economic shifts led to an increased volatility and ephemerality throughout contemporary social life, including not only an emphasis on instantaneity and disposability of products, but also on values, behavior, and relationships to other people and places” (392). In other words, our ability to satiate our desires on a whim have impacted the way we perceive time. This comes at an expense. “Harvey detects two divergent sociological effects of these developments in contemporary life. In the first, individuals simply “go with the flow,” mimicking the logic of flexible accumulation in the way they live their lives, going from one escape fantasy to the next in search of constant stimulation and novelty. The second option entails the opposite of the first, wherein individuals engage in a variety of searches for some sense of personal or collective identity in a constantly shifting world” (392). This attitude is reflected in various forms of art. The Desaparacidos, a band from Omaha, frequently engage in social criticism. In their debut album, on a track titled, “Manana,” the bandmates openly discuss the positives and negatives of Starbucks taking over a local coffee shop.
One member of the band exhibits a ‘go with the flow’ attitude, adjusting his life to account for Starbucks. The other member disagrees with the first and believes that Starbucks coming into town will destroy the identity of Omaha. They take two separate attitudes but both adjust psychologically to the inevitable.
I think postmodern art reflects the idea of an inevitable and unchangeable future. However, Ursula Heise, in her article Chronoschisms, illustrates how postmodern literature takes more agency in the present. She points to the work of Helga Nowotny who claims that the “‘future’ has been replaced in the second half of the twentieth century by that of the ‘extended present’” (29). This ‘extended present’ can be seen in the work of Stuart Dybek. In his short story, “We Didn’t,” the narrator leaves his girlfriend’s house and imagines all the times he has taken the same walk to the El train.
It must have been that night when I recalled all the other times of walking home after seeing you, so that it seemed as if I was falling into step behind a parade of my former selves—myself walking home on the night we first kissed, myself on the night when I unbuttoned your blouse and kissed your breasts, myself on the night when I lifted your skirt above your thighs and dropped to my knees—each succeeding self another step closer to that irrevocable moment for which our lives seemed poised (232).
In this way, Dybek effectively expands the ‘present’ to encompass several periods of time.
The postmodern world has increasingly demanded perceptual shifts in relation to space and time. This continually shifting landscape has made it problematic to create and sustain an identity. In order to combat this, artists have drawn more meaning from the ‘present’ and less from the ‘past’ and ‘future’.