Interesting Times

Probably, you have all heard of the Chinese curse and malediction, “May you live in interesting times!” reputedly hurled at someone who is wished ill-fortune. We tend, generally, to consider the curse to be humourous — even a benediction rather than a malediction.

It does highlight, not just an essential ambiguity in the meaning of “interest”, but also the co-existence of different human types who do not live in the same time-frames. The Chinese malediction has the same significance as Shakespeare’s “times out of joint”, where “times” are plural, and are “out of joint” because they are in conflict, upsetting “the order of Heaven and Earth”, as it were.

Someone once said that “living in times of transition is as comfortable as sitting on the edge of a razor” (which image recalls Nietzsche’s image of Man as “tight-rope walker over an abyss”). Such times are times of crisis in the order of things, times of major discontinuity, uncertainty, disorientation, confusion, and perplexity when everything arrives at a crossroads. When you appreciate the meaning of that statement about sitting on the edge of a razor, (or walking the tight-rope), you can appreciate the import — and the underlying tone of malice involved therein — of the essentially very conservative Confucian malediction, “May you live in interesting times!”

What is “interesting” in this context is something that always comes as a sudden surprising disturbance, a discontinuity, or as an anomaly in the order of time and space, and correspondingly in the ordering of society and of human self-understanding. “Interesting” has the same significance as “innovation”. The tension is between renovation and innovation. What attracts “interest” is always the anomalous, unexpected, or surprise event that upsets the “natural order of things” and which potentially brings about a discontinuity in the steady-state of the comfortably familiar, the known, and the routines of cosmic and social life (which are usually considered the same). Where once you thought you lived in a singular homogenous, universally uniform “time”, now you suddenly have “times” in the plural — bifurcation, dissonance, contradiction and controversy — and with that an attendant sense of dissolution of society and the bonds uniting Heaven and Earth within a “natural order of things”.

That attitude towards all change as being unwelcome change is familiar from the European Middle Ages. That attitude or civilisational mood also expressed antipathy towards “innovation” or “controversialism” — religious, political, social, or even technological — and the equivalent of the Chinese malediction against innovations was the Church “anathema” or “curse” against innovation. “Anathema [accursed] be the man who invents a weapon that kills at a distance”. So read the Church fiat against the introduction of the crossbow, a deadly weapon against armoured and mounted knights, but which anathema, somehow, managed to overlook the bow and arrow, the spear, or a catapult — any kind of missile in fact. What actually seemed to be disturbing to the Church was not traditional missiles, but the new vulnerability of the knighthood and the political order which the knight represented. Against the crossbow (and eventually the gun also did away with the fortified town) the knight’s armour was useless. A lowly foot soldier with a crossbow could unhorse and unman a knight and, quite literally, lay him low.

The crossbow was what we call “a game-changer”. That’s the political dimension to the legend of William Tell who is, in one aspect, the hero of the founding of the Swiss Confederacy and Swiss democracy. The innovation of the crossbow upset, in its time, the established and divinely sanctioned order and harmony of Heaven and Earth. A “game-changer” means that past and future come into conflict, contradiction, and controversy. A “game-changer” means “the times are out of joint”.

This ultra conservative, and even reactionary, attitude of the Middle Ages towards innovation contrasts sharply with the attitude towards time of the Modern Era. This is the essential difference. The meaning of time, the structure of time, the value of time, the experience of time, the consciousness of time are all completely completely different. For the Modern mind, innovation (and entrepreneurialism) is the accepted norm, and is the very engine of “progress”. Even “conservatives” today praise innovation and progress, thereby involving themselves in a deep and impossible self-contradiction — attempting to square the circle of their commitments to economic free-market liberalism, but from the stand-point of the social conservative defending “the natural order of things”. The ideal of a deregulated free-market as the engine of innovation and “progress”, along with the entrepreneur as cultural heroic figure and generator of economic society’s tablets of values, involves the very meaning of ‘conservative’ in a self-contradiction. That self-contradiction is what makes the Late Modern conservative mendacious and hypocritical, and ideological conservatism itself a bundle of self-contradictory dogmas.

The Modern Era has lurched from crisis to crisis precisely because of progressive “innovation”, which is always, in some way or another, disruptive of the status quo and steady-state, for good or ill (and usually for both). Its sense of time, and the meaning of time, is completely different from what has preceded it. It has restructured time and revalued the meaning of time in ways that would be totally incomprehensible to civilisations past (and some present, as well). It is probably no exaggeration to say that if civilisations can actually be described as different “structures of consciousness”, as cultural philosopher Jean Gebser gives it, then that “structure” — the architecture — is time itself (or, as St. Augustine put it, “time is of the soul”).

If “the times are out of joint”, as Shakespeare put it, it is because time itself “mutates”. Time evolves and changes also (as sometimes it also revolves). And if a consciousness structure is essentially its time architecture, any mutation in the experience of time is identical with a mutation in the structure of consciousness. Thus, the conflict between Age of Reason and Age of Faith (or modern and medieval) was essentially a conflict between structures of consciousness, manifested as a mutation of time.

The medieval consciousness of myth and magic had an essentially different time structure than the modern mental-rational consciousness with its syllogistic “train of thought” or “line of thought” and the rationalised ordering of time (and the universe) in the image of the clockwork mechanism, which the modern mind itself resembles in its functioning and operations as “universal reason”, in which the physical architecture of time and space was (in Newton’s “rame of the World”) considered to be universally uniform and homogenous throughout — forward and backwards, microscopically and macroscopically.  And if the reasoning is sound, then the current controversies about time, change, and the structure of time, which have become of quite central interest since Einstein and Quantum Mechanics, means that the times are once again “out of joint”, that another mutation of time is occurring, and that this correlates with a mutation in the structure and architecture of human consciousness.

It’s a novel notion, though — time itself is not a container within which events take place or transpire, but time itself changes, evolves, mutates, and we either respond adequately or inadequately to time’s mutations, which response — adequate or inadequate, fit or unfit — spells the life or death of civilisations.


One response to “Interesting Times”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    “Time” is quite puzzling to me. On the one hand it has stood still with respect to the development of our inner world of emotions (greed, envy, love, etc.), but certainly not with respect to the outer world of appearances and physical adaptations and such. It seems to me that “times out of joint” does not have to be the source of conflict and turbulence. What makes “times out of joint” a constant source of conflict is the constant greediness of mankind and his desire to feel superior to others of his own kind.

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