All Real Atemporal Shit. No Authenticity

written in May, 2011

A long article has been making the rounds, which at first catches the eye because of the copious (if mis-directed) use of a great many technospheric buzz words, popular smart phone app titles, and a splattering of post-modern philosophy, but then when unpacked devolves into all-too-typical post-Baudrillard simulacrap. BUT, just because it is misdirected, doesn't mean that we can't learn something from it, and take this opportunity to redirect.

The author of the above has a problem with a particular sort of digital photo. It is a sort of digital photo that somehow violates the glorious rules of reality, by mimicking something from a time that it is not. Time has come unstuck, and not in a good way. A bad, fake, inauthentic, faux-vintage way.

It might sound similar to another buzz word: "atemporality". The author of the above link didn't use the word atemporality. But, the words he used are responsible for directly the sort of miscommunication that obscures what atemporality is, and how it works. His notion of the faux-vintage, meager on depth as it is, is the scum that floats on top of atemporality, and keeps us from seeing the clear waters underneath. I hope to skim the scum off in this essay.

Part of the trouble with a concept like atemporality, is that it sounds right. Much like post-modernism, this makes it easy to put out on the table like a bowl of butter pats, without taking the time to think about what it is we're having for dinner.

It's not such a big word: "atemporality". We know what that means, right? Something about time getting all weird on us, and the past, and the future, and maybe the sort of technology through which we imagine both the past and the future. Sounds good… type it up.

But atemporality is something with more nuance than time-getting-all-old-timey by way of a digital picture. To define it myself in short terms: atemporality is the act of refuting the order of temporality, through the means which temporality is usually applied. We all use an interior sense of time, or temporality. It's, you know, Time! We keep track of the order in which things happen, and form a baseline t axis by which we keep track of the world. (For a greater exposition of this concept, see Kant, Bergson, Heidegger, Deleuze, and many others.) Temporality: we know the past, and we can only guess at the future; we know something just happened, while other things are mere traces in our memories; we "remember the 80s", even though what I remember as The 80s no doubt differs from your memories of it, and we can debate when the 80s supposedly began and ended; we may remember last Tuesday, but the details could easily be suggested to us, and our "memories" might be proved false once we see the pictures. All of these things are involved in our sense of temporality: a big, flowing river of time in which we float.

At the time I wrote this, I didn't know Nathan Jurgenson, the author of the essay to which I'm so vehemently responding. I've since met him. I've always thought, and Nathan proves the point, that the people to whom it is worth responding harshly, are those we actually agree with very closely. People we actually disagree with, there's no point in engaging, because they are so far from us that nothing could be accomplished through discourse. Nathan's essay, on the other hand, is so close to the point, and in my opinion, just significantly far enough away, that I felt it was worth responding to so dialectically. In other words, although it might seem like I'm being dismissive, you should read his essay. But then, read mine. :)

Atemporality is the point at which this temporality begins to break down, though still in a temporal way. We still have a sense of time, but the wide span we call "history" begins to get weird loops, whorls, and whirlpools in it. The usual cycle of fads booming and busting grow eccentric, and spin oddly off-center. The idea of what is "current" begins to break down. We have trouble remembering if something used to be common a long time ago, or if that was today but maybe in Japan, or if maybe someone simply suggested that it would happen soon in the future. The river of time spreads out into a brackish salt marsh delta, and we know time is still flowing, but we don't remember where it was we were trying to go. Were we trying to go? What does that even mean?

Maybe it's because of the internet, maybe its because we all carry computers in our pockets, or maybe it's just because there are so damn many of us we can't see over the heads of our immediate friends to get any good "big picture", and mainstream media is only as existent as the last meme that we saw. But there are people who aren't old enough to know that record players went obsolete, out there buying records, as if there was nothing odd about it in the world. Wearing Victorian fashion is a now subculture, not an attempt to mimic something so uncool as "real life history". And, pursuant to the article I had linked to at the beginning of this essay, cell phones can take pretty pictures with weird, livid color achieved through simple algorithms. No big deal, except that someone thinks those digital pictures are "old". And what's more, "fake old".

Using a word like "nostalgia" is such a desperate sign of being out of touch, out of date, and so awfully-temporal in an atemporal time. "Nostalgia" assumes that there still was a temporal order in which someone could purposefully choose to "rewind". It implies someone wants to "turn back a clock", as if all our "wrist watches" weren't synced to regulated network time via cell phone towers. Hilarious! You are the Encino Man of epistemology. Accusing an iPhone app of being inauthentically faux-vintage is about as cool as reminding your kids that some dead guy originally recorded the song being sung on American Idol way back in the 20th century. Pipe down, old man! The only people worried about what is correctly nostalgic or otherwise faking it are people who, for some reason, need to cling to a sense of permanent history that is not fluid, crowd-sourced, and always on instant remix mode. They probably still buy paper encyclopedias.

But the kids aren't idiots, just because they won't buy into your historical temporal-subscription business model. With a single Google search, anyone could tell you more about Kodachrome than you could, even if you used it yourself for over twenty years. As if they didn't know that an antique is found on eBay, while up-cycled vintage is found on Etsy. They haven't forgotten history. They've Gutenberg'ed history, if you pardon the zeitgeisty historical reference. Rather than re-write out the Old Story again and again in expensive, illuminated manuscripts, they've made their own printing presses, and they are distributing their pamphlets in the street. Or, if you prefer, they've pulled letterpresses out of the scrapheap, and they are printing comic books/novellas/vintage stationary that re-writes the story of Gutenberg as if he were an out of work Ph.D grad with a blog, or they've 3D-fabbed lost typefaces reassembled from scanned Library of Congress volumes, or they've… dammit, I've lost the metaphor, but that is the point. Atemporality is not your 20th Century post-modern critique. It is no longer enough to wrily point out a bit of irony that no one else caught, and think yourself Zarathustra for doing so. We leverage the networks, man. We access all recorded time periods with equal veracity and reach, until time periods cease being temporal. Anything that we can do with anything is only Now. Any of us, all of us, one of us. The temporality that anchors us to reality is atemporality.

When I say kids, I mean me, you, any of our contemporaries. The cutting edge is level, because the most amount of experience any of us can have with brand-new technology is none. Not all of technology is brand new, but that's why we network. If someone finds a swell photography blog, or a scanned guide to restoring old typewriters, we pass it along. The best way to learn is to find someone who knows what they are doing, and help them. We're all kids about some things, and many of us are experts in at least one thing. We come to the networks with certain abilities, certain likes and dislikes, and all the many facets of our personality. When we connect, reality happens. We're all faking it to a certain degree, and all of our fabrications are realer than we know. There's not a single person who isn't surprised when their ____ goes viral, because the only thing one can attempt to understand about viral media, is the ridiculousness of the claim that one has identified and understood an epistemological hierarchy of network culture. "Pop culture" didn't go obsolete, it splintered into more pieces than anyone can count, keep track of, or catalog and interpret. There is no such thing as un-cool. You just haven't found the other people who think it is awesome yet. The topology of culture is similar to the technology that propagates it, in that culture only works. Technology and culture do not not-work. There is no plateau other than the niche, and if something is surviving, it is because it is crossing somebody's spark gap. If something is replaced by a better tool, that former tool is either sold online or goes into the free box, where it is quickly grabbed by someone who could totally use it, or take it apart and make it into something else.

And this is how you know that the sort of person who uses the word "simulacra" with disdain doesn't use tools, and only inhabits the realm of ideas as one inhabits a titanic, steam-driven airship; a fictional craft that never lands, never makes contact with the industrial revolution changing the world down here on the surface. There is no "inauthentic" in the machine shop. There are only tools, better tools, and tools that need to be fixed. What is it that Instagram does as a tool? It makes cool pictures. What do the titles of the filters mean? I don't have the first idea. I swipe at them with my thumb until it looks sweet, and then I send it to my friends. Then I put down my iPhone, and go back to trying to un-stick the shutter on an old medium format camera. If I can make it work again, it might take cool pictures. And if I left it in that flea market where I found it, some asshole who uses words like "authentic" probably would have pulled it up into his airship and stuck it on the wall of his wine bar. I use all kinds of things. The reel to reel is next to the turntable on which my laptop sits, which is processing scanned 35 mm slides for filtering and reprinting, so I can reproject them with an overhead projector, and trace over it on a piece of tossed-out plywood. Where is the authentic in my living room? I couldn't give a shit. Where is the "era", the "epoch"? I couldn't tell you. All of these technologies function today, and work Now. I can tell you that my 6 year-old laptop is probably more obsolete than the reel to reel player, because the reel to reel works like new, whereas the laptop often struggles with simple tasks.

Anyone offering authenticity has something to sell you, and likely, a something you do not need. They try to convince you that the way you are doing it is not as "real" as something else. Funny–because reality was just fine before they came along. Before they tried to monetize a particular world-view, to increase the value of a certain temporal commodity by claiming to be the exclusive arbiter of what is authentic and what is forged and fake. And we wouldn't want to fool ourselves either; this is a capitalistic world, and everything ends up bought and sold. Any particular atemporal trend will end up named, stamped into a commodity, and sold, until stretched into a thin veneer of shiny, zombified goo. But that's okay, because we already have a friend that we met in a comment thread, that can get us that real shit. The Real Shit, because it is the stuff we want and nothing else, and because we're getting it from the source that we know and trust. That is the network, and that is atemporality. All real shit. No authenticity.

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