Why Making Life Decisions is more like Reading Poetry than like Reading a Map

About a week ago, my husband and I received visas to live and work in Australia. We are planning to leave Indiana sometime around mid-August. This situation – one that involves picking up our whole life and moving again to the other side of the world where we know virtually no one – has come about because I accepted a position with Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry. The decision to take the position, which implies leaving behind a comfortable job, caring community, and curious students, was not an easy one to make. I did everything in my power to find some clear reason to stay or to go. I collected as much information as I could, heard opinions from all my friends and family members, tallied pros and cons, and weighted those pros and cons. These are only some of the strategies that I found on the internet for navigating these sorts of big life-decisions. They all seem geared towards, in different ways, attempting to predict the future. In which case will your future be better? In my case, predicting the future seemed like a really important thing to do. Given the precarious nature of the academic job market in which so few academics have stability or a semblance of work-life balance, predicting whether one of my decisions might leave me trapped or send my career crashing to the ground in flames felt like an especially important thing to do. Will a research position on the other end of the world open doors to other jobs in the future? Or is my best chance at that coveted job security to stay where I am? Will staying here too long crush my marketability? Or will I be a barista in five years if I leave? Continue reading “Why Making Life Decisions is more like Reading Poetry than like Reading a Map”


Beyond Baudrillard: The Rhythms of Media Society

My last post pointed out the rhythms that Baudrillard has identified as part of consumer society. Given that he wrote the text in 1970, it’s remarkable how true it remains to the nature of Western society today. Nevertheless, there are ways in which the text does not account for all the rhythms of the current expression of consumer society. This is not to say that his text is wrong or obsolete, but that there are new instances of the commodity rhythms that he identifies.

Consumer society is becoming increasingly dominated, not by the rhythms of physical commodities, but by media rhythms. The rhythms of commodities still exist; we continue to buy and replace objects at ever faster rates as more and more objects become disposable. But these physical rhythms now intersect with more ephemeral media rhythms, which arguably hold tighter sway over everyday life than commodity rhythms because they are compound-rhythms, they include cycles at multiple levels of time-length: days, weeks, years.

A helpful picture of these rhythms has been recently supplied by Anthony Curtis Adler in his book Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life. Like Henri Lefebvre before him, who identified the cycles of radio as a significant rhythm in modern life in his book Rhythmanalysis, Adler notes that the rhythms of television are perhaps those rhythms that are now closest to us, without ever quite being our own.

The cycles of television occur at a multitude of levels that mimic natural rhythms. Each particular segment or show includes its own cycles (most visible in even “giving us the time, between shows and scenes, to defecate” (27)). These are embedded in daily cycles, like the circadian rhythms or the oscillation between night and day. Television moves through the levity of morning news, the possibilities of the game show, the heaviness of soap operas, the seriousness of prime time and evening news, and finally the infomercials for the nocturnal (27-28). These daily cycles are also, in turn, embedded in weekly cycles, in which the weekend marks a weekly repetition through the injection of sports and religion, film, and the Saturday Night Live party (28). Finally, each show has “its own time, space, and manner of truth,” in other words its own rhythm, that unfolds over the course of successive installments thus lending a longer arc to the smaller cycles. “The privileged vehicle for quality television is a series extended over the course of may seasons, combining an ‘epic,’ world-building scope with ‘dramatic’ plot lines that unfold rhythmically not only in each episode and throughout each season, but over the course of the entire series” (30). And thus shape is likewise given to the year.

This is not unlike the church calendar, which provides a yearly arc through the drama of Christ’s life, which is both the same and different every year. In the case of the church calendar, however, the dramatic plot lines that “unfold rhythmically over the course of the entire series” are not only Christ’s life as a drama that we passively watch each year. It is our own lives, the dramatic plot lines rhythmically unfolding are those of the body of Christ, in which we are participants. Adler says,

television orchestrates and organizes a kind of everydayness, …it accompanies the times and seasons of our lives. We still also exist in everydayness, between life and death, but now we…, while living, watch TV, which has become the constant accompaniment to a life beyond work, organizing it through a complex system of rhythms (interstitial, hourly, daily, weekly, yearly) that, in contrast to the schedules that govern monastic orders, the military schools, factories, and hospitals, no longer have any sacral, political, or even purely instrumental and productive rationale (25).

Television works in the same way as the other institutions that have historically codified and transmitted and accompanied the natural rhythms in which we are embedded, institutions like the church. The difference is that television does not seem to do so for any particular purpose. Rather than conveying meaning or purpose, it conveys moods, moods that organize everyday life without exactly being ours (27).

Remember that Baudrillard suggests that the life beyond work, leisure time, does not really have a rhythm of its own that is different from the consumption-production cycle of work. Instead, we live according to rhythms that are not our own, the rhythm of objects. Adler is essentially saying the same thing, that our leisure time is marked by rhythms of something that is not really our own. “The moods of everyday life have everything to do with the fact that while each of us has been consigned to the one life that we have to live, we are, for the most part, always evading this responsibility, losing ourselves in the distractions of the world.” (28)

Each show shows its own time, space, and manner of truth (disclosure) – each opens onto its own life and its own world – and yet these are all fused to a clock and calendar time that presents itself with an almost perfect mathematical precision. While the clock and the calendar are tools organizing the activities of everyday life, this mathematically precise time elicited by the television is precisely not the time of our lives. It exists as it were at the limit of our lives as a time that imposes itself on us but that we can never actually inhabit. It is at this limit hat television touches our life, but we should never suppose on this basis that the rhythms of television have anything to do with the everyday life that we live (29).

The difficulty with Adler’s assessment, which he himself acknowledges, is that the domination of television’s rhythms is of course not exactly the relationship to media in which we currently find ourselves. His analysis is not, and he thinks it cannot, be absolutely contemporaneous. The only reason his analysis of television is at all possible is that this age of television has, in important ways, already passed. The rhythms of television have themselves been absorbed into another, more totalizing medium: the internet,

which replaces the orderly schedule of television with the absolute simultaneity of possibilities. The past coexists alongside the present, or is forgotten utterly, and the future is no longer the prospect of the new day and the new year but the constantly abiding expectation of something different showing up for us (38).

This becomes particularly the case through the “gadget,” which I take to be a veiled reference to the smart-phone. Adler describes the gadget as that which “through a strange ambivalence, names both the ‘novelty’ item without use and the eminently useful item without name (it was originally sailor’s slang for anonymous tools) – and thus, by a savage and strange irony, would also be the name bestowed on the first atom bomb, the first of the things to end all things…” (126). The smartphone is the perfect confluence of these two definitions in that on the one hand everything that a smartphone can do, other things can also do; it is a novelty item without use much like a fidget-spinner. But on the other hand, this is also what makes it eminently useful and its very multi-purpose usefulness is what means it does not have a name other than a derivation from a prior invention, “the phone,” that has now been made “smart.” Perhaps it too will in some way play a role in ending all things.

Adler seems to suggest in the above quote that a central difference between television and the internet is that the latter has no rhythm, it simply makes everything available at once. We must be careful, however, not to confuse the lack of schedule with a lack of rhythm. The rhythms of the internet are simply located somewhere slightly different, namely, not in the schedule produced independently of the viewer and projected onto his or her life from the outside, but in the user him or her self. The rhythm of the smart phone is compulsive checking that punctuates the day, beginning very likely immediately upon waking. This is interwoven with the more serious and sustained flow of laptop or desktop work. It clearly forms a rhythm of work-flow punctuated at semi-regular intervals by pings, messages, and general smart-phone checking. The internet is thus a much closer, co-operative human-object production of rhythm, which looks slightly different and yet also remarkably similar between different users. Thus the rhythm might appear slightly different – more like free-verse than like a nursery-rhyme perhaps – but it nevertheless persists.

I therefore locate this difference somewhere slightly different. Adler points out that the television is rhythm of moods without purpose. The internet is likewise without clear purpose. The difference is that it invites the production of individual meaning, identity, purpose in a way that the television cannot. I suspect this makes the internet a far more robust medium than the television. Thus, I suggested at the beginning, that we need to not replace Baudrillard’s rhythm-of-objects within the production-consumption cycle, but to understand the ways in which it intersects with media rhythms. The most saturated point of such confluence is the smart phone. Itself an object with inbuilt obsolescence, requiring very regular replacement, it is a portal into an ever-shifting self-production-through-consumption that is not limited to the object itself.

To consume in this context is not to purchase specific objects but to absorb all of life into “creative” electronic self-production. We, the consumers, have become ever more clearly not merely consumers but producers-through-consumption. We consume electronic content generated by others while nearly simultaneously consuming the whole of life as a production of posts, tweets, photos, memes, videos etc. All of life is directly subjected to the project of electronic self-production. The circle between consumption and production has revolved ever tighter until it has coalesced into a dot.


Features Image: By ArnoD27 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47890803


Baudrillard and the Rhythms of Consumer Society

Jean Baudrillard wrote a book called The Consumer Society in 1970 in which he considers an enormous number of phenomena from the perspective of consumerism, including time. The way in which time itself is changed or re-conceptualized in consumer society is especially evident in the idea of “leisure time.” We work for leisure time as much as we work for money. In fact, in consumerism, money and time are entirely exchangeable in an almost one-for-one correlation evidenced by the adage “time is money.” Baudrillard says “Divisible, abstract, measured time thus becomes homogeneous with the exchange-value system: it forms part of that system on the same basis as any other object. As an object of temporal calculation, it can and must be exchanged against any other commodity (in particular, money).” (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 153). When we pay for the convenience of something (pre-made orange juice rather than oranges themselves is Baudriallard’s example) what we are in fact buying is time. Continue reading “Baudrillard and the Rhythms of Consumer Society”

Lenten Caesura: The silence of this blog for the next 40 days

The rhythm of a poem frequently includes a device known as a caesura: a mid-line pause indicated by a punctuation mark that breaks up a line-unit. On the one hand, the caesura is experienced as an interruption to an established rhythmic flow or pattern. The caesura intrudes upon the momentum towards completion, slowing the forward-momentum of the poem. It stops the reader suddenly, creating a feeling of coming up short.

On the other hand, however, the caesura also facilitates the perception of the rhythm by forcing “the line to reassert itself in the listener’s perception.” (Tsur, Poetic Rhythm, 113, 15.) The caesuric interruption breaks up the semantic content into two more manageable chunks, making the musicality of the line, its rhythm and pattern rather than only its semantic content, more available to the reader’s consciousness. Giorgio Agamben therefore compares the caesura to a situation in which a rider has fallen asleep on a horse. When the horse suddenly stops, the rider becomes aware of that which carriers her, that of which she was previously unaware (The Idea of Prose). The caesuric interruption makes one suddenly aware of the rhythm which was previously carrying one but had slipped into the background. The reader is then responsible for maintain the pattern in the face of this event, of accommodating the rhythm to the event such that it deepens and complexifies, but does not break. If the rhythm of a poem is to become complete, such complexification is necessary and this is largely accomplished through moments that disrupt the pattern begun at the outset.

The season of Lent is caesuric. It is an interruption, of one sort of another, to the daily routine of ordinary time. It is intended to “throw us off” in some way, destabilizing our typical habits of reliance and thereby forcing us to confront the fragility of the creaturely rhythms of eating, sleeping, working, communicating on which existence is carried. It is not necessarily a matter of breaking these rhythms as one would break a bad habit. These creaturely rhythms are good. But we are often unaware of them, eager as we are to set our minds on things that remind us less of our fragility, and as such we do not always perform them very well. So Lent is a caesura in that it requires us to notice these patterns by disrupting them and as such invites us to continue these rhythms in ways that are deeper, more complex, and more attentive.

The rhythms of the contemporary West, and consequently of my own space-time, are in large part determined by the rhythms of electronic and web media – social and otherwise – the rhythms of checking-and-rechecking, scrolling, of thinking and communicating in short bursts, of the background noises that govern electronic media. These shape the rhythms of the day more than many of us realize, and as such, my Lent this year is a caesura of the rhythms of those electronic media, so that I might return to performing them in ways that are deeper and more aware.

As such, this blog and all my other online presences will be silent for the next 40 days. I look forward to this creative interruption and wish you a likewise caesuric Lent.




Module 4, Class 4: Smartphones are not objects, they’re patterns

Everyday life is made up of rhythms – routines, cycles, patterns. Time never appears to us as a simple line, but always through such patterns. This means that not only life or time in a general sense, but all our particular activities and relationships are mediated to us through those rhythms. It is therefore worth thinking about where these rhythms come from and who or what establishes and maintains them. Is it us? The natural world? The constructed environment? Some or other institution? Likely it’s a combination of factors but it’s worth thinking about since, arguably, whoever or whatever controls the rhythm controls society itself. Continue reading “Module 4, Class 4: Smartphones are not objects, they’re patterns”

Module 2, Class 3: Acedia and Monastic Rhythms

In approaching depression from the perspective of rhythm, the students turned to consider whether the rhythms of certain Christian spiritual and liturgical practices might have any effect on depression. This session was primarily speculative in that there was no explicit connection to depression, while the following session looks at empirical research on prayer and depression. The students chose selections from The Rule of St Benedict and Mother Teresa’s No Greater Love. Continue reading “Module 2, Class 3: Acedia and Monastic Rhythms”

Module 2, Class 2: Rhythm, Rumination, and Habit Formation

Last class, the students introduced the relationship between rhythm and depression in part using Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun. This week, they introduced some psychological articles considering both biological and social contributors to depression, looking particularly at rumination, and talked about emotional-regulation as treatment.

The students suggested that rumination is an example of a very tight, maladaptive cycle. This is the case both in a psychic sense – the mind is trapped, repeating the same events over and over again – and in a physical sense. The pathways of the brain are literally organized according to the impulses that are repeatedly fired. Based on research on neuroplasticity, these pathways can be changed by changing one’s habits and thoughts. The result is that impulses travel a different path and the pathways of the brain change.

I mention this because it’s worth noting that rhythm is not simply a metaphor here but a physical phenomenon. Continue reading “Module 2, Class 2: Rhythm, Rumination, and Habit Formation”

Online Resources for Living Rhythmically

If you want to connect to the rhythms of the natural world, your own body, and the larger body of Christ, I’ve compiled some great online resources already available to help you get started. Don’t try to do everything at once – maybe just start with one thing that resonates with where you are at now, and then let that rhythm deepen into others. Continue reading “Online Resources for Living Rhythmically”