- The Agitated NowPerceptions of Time and the Contemplative Space of Art
The perception of time is not a direct subject of history; nonetheless, it is essential to how we experience our world and also to how future civilizations will regard and record contemporary cultures. In each period of history, writes author Byung-Chul Han, time has a unique “scent.”1 We discover this scent in the residues of the art and culture left to us from previous civilizations: their internal lives reflected externally in form. Just as we are only able to observe the wind as it moves through trees or water, rustling the physical world and generating sound, we perceive the complexities of the time in which we live through the embodiment of our own ephemeral experiences—and now through the so-called rapidification of daily 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 it up, wend in and out of past and future. They understand that the human imagination is fluid in this regard. When we go to the cinema, for example, we mostly expect and crave a compression of time and events that distills life’s experiences to their essence and thus makes them more revelatory and exciting. So, if we say that a movie is “too slow,” what we often actually mean is that it reflects the pace of daily life far too accurately. Yet some of the greatest film directors have known that to control the pace of the narrative is to allow us to see life more clearly, to dwell on it and savor its nuances. Not necessarily interested in creating action or in entertaining their audiences, 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 or fragmented? Do we ever take the time to contemplate the nature of time? If so, how would we characterize [End Page 45] its “scent”? In a healthy society, citizens perceive time as continuous. They live each day with the assurance of sequentiality: one thing following another. There is also a perceived coherent relationship between successive generations. But a society ruptured by war, migration, epidemics, catastrophic natural occurrences, and the fragmentation of families that these circumstances create cannot readily experience a stable sense of time; massive disruptions in daily routines and expectations create anxiety about how the future will unfold. Such a state eclipses the ability to live in the present or creates a now that 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 difficulties of that moment continue today. After the First World War, 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 also the case during and after 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 and, in some cases, continue to experience each day.
Those citizens of the United States, like myself, who, at this time, are fortunate enough not to be displaced geographically by history, disaster, war, or politics, often experience less acute and less overt ruptures of time than others do. Yet, even so, many in the United States feel that our lives are discontinuous, that we have lost the sense of home that once anchored us to the physical world, that we have disrupted the continuity of generations (families are dispersed across the nation and the world...