Contours of Thawing Time
The future is sluggishly starting to move again
I’ve been a bit self-indulgent with this newsletter lately, allowing myself to leisurely feel my way into 2023 over the last three issues. Instead of hitting the ground running and energetically adding to my many open serialized projects (see State of the Studio 2022), or tackling one of the many hot topics currently ripe for takes, I’ve been doing the writing equivalent of an extended stretching routine, easing into movement at a pace somewhere between an amble and a saunter.1 I’m definitely not off the blocks like a sprinter.
Or for those who prefer a more artsy metaphor, I’m allowing myself the luxury of an extended aalap,2 to play with the ragas that seem to fit the nascent moods of the year, to try and ease into the motifs and themes that most naturally suggest themselves.
Somehow, it feels like this is the appropriate opening tempo and creative mode for 2023. It’s clearly not a year that’s in a tearing hurry to reveal its essential nature to us. We’re nearing the end of January, and there are still no lighthouse memes, unambiguous vibes, or strong zeitgeist currents to navigate by. Instead of hitting us in the face like most of the last half-dozen years, 2023 seems to be inviting us (daring us?) to tease out its hidden meanings. I for one am prepared to dance that slow dance. I’ve had enough of in-your-face years that start off going hard and never ease up. Famous last words perhaps.
I’m pleased with the three essays I’ve written so far — Logics of Caring, The Permaweird, and Disturbed Realities. I still don’t know what 2023 is going to be about, but I think these three essays successfully circle whatever it is. I could be entirely wrong, but I have a feeling the year will continue to unfold languorously. I suspect there is not going to be an attention-cornering shock-and-awe event (major war, insurrection, pandemic…) forcing the pace of the year. But the things that do get going will not be shallow dramas that thrash about confusedly for a few years before subsiding. They will be deep, subterranean movements with clear momentum that unfold over a very long time, like decades or centuries, coloring more superficial events in systematic ways. The last time a January felt this way was probably 2002.
I like the metaphor of a slow thawing of the future for this. For the last few years, it has felt like the future has, in some weird way, been frozen. Despite the theatrical tumult on the surface of worldly affairs, it has felt like deeper layers have been changing less and less; that historical possibilities were being closed off rather than opened up. I
tweeted farcasted this thought recently:
Pre-2016 futures vibes
All futures are possible
As-yet-unimagined futures are the best
Post-2016 futures vibes
Futures that are not yet imagined are forbidden
Futures that are already imagined are compulsory
The last two lines, by the way, for those who don’t recognize the allusion, are snowclones of a pair of sardonic maxims about authoritarian and traditionalist societies: Everything that is not permitted is forbidden; everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.
I was starting to get worried last year that perhaps the Permaweird was also a sort of end-of-history permafrost, featuring only foreclosed death-march futures you could neither resist, nor opt out of. But finally, after many years, I sense some movement; some deep disturbances in reality of the sort I talked about last week. Disturbances at levels we mostly sense through disturbed Lovecraftian dreams, rather than through news of events.
I have no concrete things to point to as evidence; only a gut sense of temporal horizons slowly beginning to recede from the tip of my nose, and retreating to distances that are more appropriate for self-respecting horizons. It feels like after years of struggling to think beyond the current week, I can finally meaningfully (if not coherently) think about, and feel about, months, years, and decades.
When I say the future is thawing, I mean the contours of the future are beginning to shift in response to events the way they are supposed to, like the contours of a lava flow. I have this suspicion that humans cannot actually sense time on larger scales until futures shift and morph in possibility space, in response to both new surprises lobbed our way by the universe, and the unforeseen consequences of our own incompletely understood actions. A frozen future is a future we cannot feel in our bones, even if we can go through the motions of describing and acting on it through plans, bets, and speculations.
Our time-sense is like reptilian vision3 in this sense. When the future stands still, we cannot see it at all, and our sense of time progressively collapses until it is confined to a narrow band around the present. But when the future moves, we can sense all time. We can then construct a sense of the future that extends past the next weekend, a sense of history that contains multitudes, and a sense of the present that feels alive.
The future can only actually freeze under two conditions — perfect information and perfect deadness. Godly futures and zombie futures. I doubt we’ve been on the threshold of godly futures, so I’m glad I’m seeing fresh signs of temporal life. Signs that even if history has ended in a Fukuyama sense, we are not necessarily inhabiting a canned set of zombie futures that we are destined to helplessly enact like automatons.
So if I’m right, I think I know what most of us are going to end up doing this year — tracking the contours of the thawing future, and looking for our place in the ever-shifting flows of deep time.
I think an amble is faster than a saunter, but I could be wrong.
If you’re not used to raga music, an aalap can be very frustrating to listen to. An aalap is an extended improvised opening movement where the performer simply plays with the chosen raga (which is a construct somewhere between a Western scale and a melody) to feel their way into the mood of the performance. This is a function of the performer’s own creative mood and the properties of the raga. The aalap ends when the performer discovers melodic motifs to work with and has decided what to attempt in the more structured second movement. This can take an indeterminate amount of time, hence the frustration experienced by unseasoned listeners. An aalap is basically something like a search for a mood-motif fit. A startup phase of the performance
Or the Jurassic Park version of T-Rex vision… I don’t actually know if it was accurately depicted.