August 28, 2011

If Time Is Your Misfortune

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I recently got into an argument with a friend about walking. I view walking as a form of waiting. Unless I’ve decided in advance that the stroll is the end in itself, I generally like to get from A to B as quickly as possible. My buddy likes to walk slow, take in his surroundings, delay arrival and enjoy the time he spends waiting to get somewhere. I, on the other hand, try to optimize my route to arrive sooner, and I’m happy if my destination appears more quickly than originally anticipated. My buddy says that its unfortunate to be in such a hurry. I should slow down and take it all in, whatever “it” may be.

The same argument occurs between us over and over about a variety of topics. He’s always rambling on about “living in the moment,” enjoying college because it’s a once in a lifetime experience and the sort of bullshit you lament about after a late night in the library or over beers at the Chapter House. I usually listen politely, before resuming my business and restoring the go get-em mentality that he had just finished criticizing. In the end, we can only agree on our sole difference: that our conceptions of time differ. Neither of us knows how to reconcile this difference.

I argue against him that the mentality that guides me around the neighborhood is more consistent with the American conception of time. Like most Americans, I accept time as a linear stream in which we all work, either together or individually, to consolidate and then advance, without regard for the unforeseen consequences or negative externalities of our actions. To get ahead, one must employ a certain vocabulary. An employer, for instance, wants to hear that their prospective employee analyzed the conditions of their prior workplace, consolidated its weaknesses and ultimately made a positive, tangible difference on the system which is still felt today. They don’t want to hear that one loved the job as it was, and  lived in the moment the entire time because they valued the present state of the organization more than the future. They definitely don’t want to hear that there was no change or effect that could have been made. Unless my friend interviews for a job in which the organization or persons work relentlessly to uphold their internal status quo, or even actively retract from what has been previously gained, he’ll have to temporarily betray his instincts and abide by the progressive language used on the job. Whether his future office of employment is one that aims to increase market share, or one that aims to increase education in impoverished neighborhoods, the language will be the same. As long as he chooses to work in America, the questions asked by his future employer — no matter its political affiliation — will be asked in linear, progressive terms. We value work here, and one typically works toward something. If your language suggests otherwise, then what are you doing?

I’m not sure if my buddy would disagree with my assessment. I’d imagine, though, that he’ll feel discomfort when it comes time for him to advertise himself for a future endeavor, and promote some idea in  a language that fundamentally contradicts his idealization of a slow, relaxed life where ambition does not permeate every single activity. To get ahead, to a place where he’ll truly be able to take things slow and live in the moment, he’ll have to temporarily contradict himself. Work, as a value of life that many different types of people in America hold dear, is shared and understood in an active language, where verbs are completed and describe actions that relate to positive progress. People who accept and understand this language will get ahead faster.

A linear, progressive notion of time dominates our language in America. One must learn to speak this adulterous language before any change is possible. Society accepts a conception of time that dominates the questions and answers in a range of settings, not limited to the job interview. It influences the language that we use — reluctantly or not — in our everyday lives.

As someone who oft tries to imitate a journalist, the problem of time in language has troubled me a number of times. I’ll interview artists, for example, who hesitantly talk about their work for fear that they’ll misrepresent it in our conversation. A writer named William Gaddis, as pointed out in a 1996 essay by Jonathan Franzen, wrote about why authors and artists don’t give interviews: “What is it that they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work, the human shambles that follow him around?” When I read these words I began to understand why I receive puzzled looks when I ask student artists to answer questions like “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “why,” as if their work would cater to the beginning, middle and end of my article.

Last semester, I attempted an interview with two art students in which we aimed to capture the essence of their artwork in the form of an interview. The transcript, we hoped, would incite a feeling in the reader identical to that felt by someone who saw their show. What followed was mostly non-sense. It was very difficult to simultaneously subvert the linear flowing story, capture a feeling unique to their artwork and communicate a clear message to readers. But it was worth a shot at least. The linear story that journalists tell flows out of a medium that is too heavy to remove in one day.

Depending on your outlook, the subservience of our language to a linear, forward directed conception of time is unfortunate. In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner wrote “a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune.” If you are an artist, like Faulkner, then time is a misfortune. If you  know how to walk slow, breath easy and let the world take hold of you — truly enjoy life, in short — then time is also your misfortune.

Original Author: Joey Anderson