On the 16th of January, twelve people came together in a clock shaped room next to a watch factory at the edge of a city that could be any city in the world, to travel through time.
An explanation – we were at a design college, one of 5 groups of students and guides exploring the theme: ‘time-machine’. For two short weeks, the students could step away from their too-familiar revolutions round the academic year. As guides (Suvani Suri and I), it was our chance to place our world-whittled selves before the students we remembered ourselves being. This is part 1 of a 3 part series.
When we stepped out of studenthood into the world, something strange happened. Déjà vu if you noticed it: slowly, almost imperceptibly we surrounded ourselves with the same kinds of minds. It happened simply, irresistibly. So of course, this was a huge chance for us. Twelve people from an exceptional spectrum – between 19 and 31 years of age (and from six different design disciplines)! Excitedly, we wondered: Where can we go with these new folks? What can we discover together 1?
To begin at the beginning proper: over the past year, withering under the influence of Camus’ heroic ideal of facing the absurd 2 – of soldiering on in our inherited present, uneasily batting away at our uninterrupted stream of awareness 3 of the oppressive state of the world – the two of us needed something more grounded. We had had enough of being paralyzed by feeling, and of knowing too much all at once, without being able to understand or act outside what was prescribed for us.
As we pored over the works of those who had gone before us (this is well tread territory), we unearthed a couple of open secrets – (1) Attention is for engagement (reading can be done as if one is listening to a speaker) and, (2) Dialogue is for understanding (dialogue can be a practice of philosophizing together 4). What this did to us: (1) We didn’t just read books anymore, we wrote in the margins, between the paragraphs, anywhere that was needed, and we sent these books to one another. (2) We didn’t just report findings to one another, we began looking for manifestations of theories, concepts in everyday life. When faced with a new discovery, we’d ask: Why should I be as excited as you about this?
What we were coming to, was learning as a process: as listening-reflecting-provoking-speaking. We were able to learn because of time mutually granted. This allowed what was crucial to be uncovered. We were giving time, taking time, sharing time. How could trust be far behind? Between us, we grew a compass capable of directing our combined energy. This was what led us time and again in our wanderings through these dense forests of enquiry, to those quiet clearings where we could be carried away together. It led us to write a proposal for this course.
Since it was out of pure necessity that we fleshed out the course thematic from our own existential enquiries, it was inevitable that the course would be named: The Existentialist Time Traveler. What made sense, we kept; what didn’t, we reinvented. Who knew where we could go together – we who were no longer two, but twelve. That is, if we managed to come together as a learning community.
- Together, is a crucial word that will come up again and again in this essay: we use it to reference Bell Hooks’ idea of a ‘learning community’ from – Bell Hooks. Teaching to Transgress, Introduction and Essays 7 & 10.
- In 1942, Albert Camus set out a philosophical vision that was born out of the hopelessness of endless war in an essay titled – ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. He elegantly argued that one had to face life at every moment with the clarity that hope for a future is foolish; one had to choose to remain in the absurd present with courage. The curse had only to be kept in view clearly, as a curse. “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” From Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus, Part 4: The Myth of Sisyphus.
If you think about it, it is not surprising that the essay ends with: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This is the only possible ending to this kind of philosophy. It forecloses the possibility of thinking about acting in the world beyond one’s own immediate conditions – thinking about all the structural and historical connections that conspired to place one at this moment in spacetime, one feels lost and prefers to return to the Sisyphean task. The function this philosophy performs admirably is that it rescues the humanity of the thinker – when the world is postulated as absurd, to hold one’s head high in the face of this objective meaninglessness becomes a dignified act.
In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, this is “obstinate humanism, narrow and pure”. Indeed it seems like the only way to salvage one’s own sanity when faced with “the massive and formless events of the time”. It is insufficient because, while it acknowledges “the existence of the moral issue”, there it stops, on “the safe ground of morality”, unable to “ venture on the uncertain path”. (Jean-Paul Sartre. Tribute to Albert Camus from the book Camus: A Collection of Critical Essays (1960): 173-175.)
An example from Sarah Bakewell. At the Existentialist Cafe, 4: The They, The Call: “Sometimes the best-educated people were those least inclined to take the Nazis seriously, dismissing them as too absurd to last.” (underlined for emphasis) For a probable explanation of why Camus’ philosophy from Sisyphus resonates so much today, see endnote 3.
- The cognitive worker lives in a state of “total illumination” in the digital age (as used by Jonathan Crary. 24/7 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep). “Productive life is overloaded with symbols that not only have an operational value, but also an affective, emotional, (underlined for emphasis) imperative or dissuasive one. The constant mobilization of [immediately refocused] attention is essential to the productive function” of today. Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The Soul at Work, 3: The Poisoned Soul.
It means one cannot afford to disconnect even for an instant from the non-stop information flows that we now ‘need’ for the continuation of our lives. As our needs are re-encoded, so are our psyches. Experienced through the endless flows of information on our smartphones, laptops and televisions, the larger political world is always threatening to burst through the narrow skins of our lives in the here and now. We helplessly experience the world as growing more apocalyptic, while it is all that we can do to remain focused on our current tasks.
- From the Greek practice of ‘symphilosophein’, that means to philosophize together.