The Cliff: “We interrupt this programme…”
I will interrupt, for the moment, my own commentary on the significance of the parable of the Prodigal Son to draw attention to something perhaps more current… the metaphor of “the cliff” presently in vogue. We not only have “the fiscal cliff”, but also “the climate cliff” and “the political cliff”, all of which attest to a deepening sense of current anxiety about the human prospect. For we seem to be surrounded by a precipice on all sides.
I recall the drama of witnessing a radio or television show (at a time when I paid attention to such things) suddenly broken by the words “We interrupt this programme….”. Any annoyance at having one’s concentration focussed on the narrative continuity of a engaging programme suddenly interrupted, as with the annoying advertisement, was overruled by the dramatic tone of the announcement. What general emergency could possibly justify forgiveness of the broadcaster’s sudden and even violent suspension of the flow and continuity of a beloved programme?
“We interrupt this programme…” not only suspends the programme, it places you in a state of suspense as well. To be in suspense is to become literally ungrounded. To be in suspense is to feel oneself at the edge of an abyss. The element of surprise, the element of drama, the element of suspense, the suddenness of the experience of rupture or discontinuity– these are all invoked by the words “We interrupt this programme…”
“We interrupt this programme…” is a metaphor for the sudden emergence of an historical discontinuity. Jean Gebser’s use of the word “irruption” to describe the emergence (and emergency) of a new mutation of consciousness in our time has all the drama and suspense of “We interrupt this programme to announce” that the future ain’t going to be what it used to be. The suddenness of the announcement not only breaks the continuity of the programme we are following so attentively, in broader terms it interrupts the “Grand Narrative” of how we expect the story to unfold. For the time we await the details of the announcement, our expectations of a linear continuity between the past and the future are in suspense and in doubt. We hover over the edge of a precipice, in “suspense” at the premonition of some life or death crisis: Is it war? Is it assassination? Is it some terrible Accident with a capital “A”? It could well be something with the potential to shock and thus irrevocably alter the future and the expected routine flow of events specified in “the Grand Narrative” of history. In the words “We interrupt this programme…” we actually feel the touch of the mystery of Death, of a sense of life interrupted. That which is touched by Death acquires a mysterious power.
Such is the current metaphor of “the cliff” — a sudden looming precipice, an interruption of the course of history, a discontinuity. It fully reminds me of the Tarot card of The Fool,
….and it is uncanny, in some ways, how the Tarot illustration of The Fool resembles some current political cartoons about our being surrounded by the metaphorical “cliff” on all sides, such as this one by The Guardian’s Martin Rowson.
The metaphor of “the cliff” — as “political cliff”, “climate cliff”, “fiscal cliff” — attests to an age that is in dramatic suspense about its own future because its fate is hanging by a thread. “Living on the edge” is even a contemporary motif in popular music. The “cliff” invokes a sense of vertigo, and even of Nietzsche’s “stare into the abyss”. In the case of The Fool, the actual possibility of a step too far and an actual plunge into the abyss — a shocking, sudden and surprising interruption of his course and his trajectory. Will he, or won’t he take that last step?
Any emergency is the sudden and shocking, even apocalyptic emergence of the unanticipated, the Gebserian “irruption” as an inter-ruption in the narrative continuity of history. “Living on the edge” recalls to mind what someone once said about living in ages of transition, that it was about “as comfortable as sitting on the edge of a razor.”
If our (post-modern) Age is an “Age of Anxiety”, as some have called it, the corollary to that is that it is also an Age of Our Lady of Perpetual Suspense — a unanticipated interruption in the Grand Narrative, and a sudden, surprising turn of events that casts the whole anticipated outcome of how the Modern Story will and must conclude in radical doubt. A kind of coitus interruptus, we have even become highly suspicious of the fantasy happy endings (the happy and fruitful consummation of the marriage of past and future), like that inadvertently ironic and ambiguous one proposed by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History.
“We interrupt this programme….”