Goal orientation & the decline of meaningful waiting
If the goal is the sole point of orientation, then the spatial interval to be crossed before reaching it is simply an obstacle to be overcome as quickly as possible. Pure orientation towards the goal deprives the in-between space of all meaning, emptying it to become a corridor without any value of its own. Acceleration is the attempt to make the temporal interval that is needed for bridging the spatial interval disappear altogether. The rich meaning of the path disappears. Acceleration leads to a semantic impoverishment of the world. Space and time no longer mean very much.
— Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time (37-38)
A few days after reading this passage on intervals, acceleration, and loss of meaning in the post-industrial world, I was talking to my dad about quail hunting. My father is a life-long hunter and trainer of hunting dogs. As a boy, he would hunt on his way to school, hide his gun in the woods, and hunt on the way home. Throughout his professional life, his sideline work (and perhaps his true vocation) was training dogs for other people. On this day, he described the current state of training dogs and their owners: These days, wealthy quail hunters affix GPS devices to their dogs’ collars so that when the dog points its location is immediately knowable. The hunter merely follows the GPS signal on his watch to find the dog, flush the birds, and shoot. This technology is meant to make hunting, a leisure activity, more “efficient”. The GPS device removes the element of chance and the possibility of failure. The end goal — shooting and killing quail — is the only thing that matters in this flat new world, so time spent finding the dog is “wasted time” with no meaning and thus no value. The improvised choreography of hunter, dog, and birds is stripped away. The game is rigged now; the birds don’t have a chance. It’s no longer a game of skill and chance, more of a hunting LARP where the kill is all but guaranteed. It’s no wonder my father seems to derive less and less joy from it all.
Acceleration and productivity are twin diseases of post-industrial modernity. So-called multi-tasking is really nothing more than an attempt to inject “productivity” into periods of waiting which have, in our perception, been stripped of meaning. It’s a way to, as Han says, “make the temporal interval that is needed for bridging the spatial interval disappear altogether”, by inserting new goals or products. My sense is that this is the reason I see people who cannot sit through the length of a stop light without picking up their phones: Waiting for the light to change is a meaningless “waste of time”; looking at your phone is “doing something”. Never mind that multi-tasking, including looking at your phone while waiting for the light to change, typically amounts to doing several things poorly: impatiently picking up your phone at the red light means that you don’t attend to its change and thus aren’t ready to move when the light turns green.
A couple of weeks ago, I mailed a package and a letter. With each of these I intended to surprise the recipient. And yet, so wrecked is my brain by acceleration and its discontents — the digital promise of instantaneous communication, the disintegration of the meaning of intervals, the destruction of the natural rhythms of traversing time and space — that it took a concerted act of will not to contact my friends and let them know what was coming through the mail, as if the only way to give meaning to this period of waiting was to have them join me in expectation. I didn’t give in, because I believe that surprise brings more joy than anticipation, but it was an impulse that had to be crushed over and over again.
In the past, this sort of waiting, this sort of surprise, was not only necessary, it could be enjoyable — at least for me. Send a letter and wait: Will it be delivered? Will a reply be sent? ONLY TIME WILL TELL! In those days, I exchanged letters regularly with a variety of correspondents, and the sometimes long wait for a reply never provoked anxiety or uncertainty about the fate of the letter or the state of the relationship, the way waiting for a reply to an email or a text message can. Immediacy can be satisfying; it can also be distinctly the opposite.
Try as we might, there are some intervals, some periods of waiting, that can never be skipped over: the gestation of a fetus, the growth of a plant, the proof of a loaf. When these intervals themselves were understood as necessary, they were filled with meaningful waiting, with expectation that was not regarded as hardship or denial. When only the end result, the goal, has meaning, intervals become periods of anxiety and sources of frustration. When intervals have no intrinsic meaning, great efforts are made to fill them with other goals — or, as Han says, to erase them altogether.
When space and time have lost their meaning we are alienated from these facets of existence and seek to replace these now meaningless but still unavoidable phenomena with others of our choosing. When time doesn’t mean very much, when the interval between commencing and completing an activity has no value, we struggle to fill every interval with another goal or product. In this way time is “filled” and not “wasted”.1 When space doesn’t mean very much, it’s easy to believe that it doesn’t matter much where you are in it — one place is as good as another — nor does it matter very much who is occupying it with you. The space between persons doesn’t matter, so the internet friend on the other side of the country is just as good (meaningful, valuable) as the neighbor living indifferently next door. We assume that it’s not proximity but affinity that gives a relationship meaning.2
This is the place for a conclusion, but I don’t really have one.3 I think that one antidote to the loss of time’s meaning is to pursue activities that include intervals that can’t be erased and thus provide opportunities to engage in meaningful waiting — letter-writing and cooking from scratch are my favorites. Han suggests that the antidote to acceleration and the meaninglessness it might entail is a return to the viva contemplativa, the contemplative life:
If all contemplative elements are driven out of life, it ends in a deadly hyper-activity. The human being suffocates among its own doings. What is necessary is a revitalization of the vita contemplative because it opens up spaces for breathing. (Han 113)
The conception of time as a “resource” that can be “used” or “wasted”, rather than as simply the medium of existence, is the root of much disquiet.
The elevation of affinity over proximity as a basis for human relationships is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. It occurs to me now that this phenomenon is partly a result of the denial or erasure of space as a meaningful limit.
I’m reminded of a professor’s comment on an undergraduate English paper that I seemed to just stop writing rather than concluding my paper. Thirty-six years on, this continues to be a problem, one probably solved by further revision, but this is the land of First Drafts & Fragments, so there’ll be none of that!