On Nowness and Collective Memory

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April 6th, 2022

“It is obvious to everybody that the phenomena of the world are evidently irreversible. I mean things happen that do not happen the other way. You drop a cup and it breaks, and you can sit there a long time waiting for the pieces to come together and jump back into your hand. If you watch the waves of the sea breaking, you can stand there and wait for the great moment when the foam collects together, rises up out of the sea, and falls back farther out from the shore — it would be very pretty!” - Richard Feynman

We all have an immediate, almost visceral understanding of the distinction between the past and the future, even from the most mundane experiences. We learn from the past, and we plan for the future. We celebrate, we commemorate, we mourn, and we hope. Yet, as Feynman notes, no one would sit and wait after a long enough time for the cup to come back together.

But although we so clearly understand the distinction between past and future so many of us spend surprisingly little time thinking about the present - the way we cultivate it and the way we become inspired by it. The more I think about it the more surprising this is, since in a sense there is no period quite so long as right now.

More than anything else this is because now is such a slippery concept in the first place. One the one hand, there is a standard notion of nowness we’re all naturally in tune with as we check our calendars, our watches, and our phones. On the other hand, there’s the time we truly experience. In ancient Greek, the distinction between kronos (chronological, measured time) and kairos (qualitative, lived time) helped us better understand what we mean by the present moment. Similarly, in Sanskrit, ritu played a key cultural (and often spiritual) role marking meaningful moments of change.

In the current day, especially in light of the pandemic, our attention has slowly returned to the concept of lived time as a subject of analysis. As we all experienced time dilation together, it became more relevant, and in some ways easier for us to pinpoint just how much of an impact new experiences (and hence new memories) can have on our ability to move from one moment to the next.

Rhythm, Ritual, and Collective Memory

In every era the way we each individually interpret time comes with collective consequences. As the origins of words like kairos and ritu suggest, there has always been a sense of life and ripeness that comes with a change in environment, and with new experiences.

Simultaneously, there is a sense of punctuation that comes with ritual which guides our ability to recollect our collective memory. Rituals are intentional, repeated moments with others or even with ourselves, which somehow, incredibly, cleanse our spirits and create a renewed sense of novelty (and alter our sense of time). But the types of rituals we take part in have changed extensively over time, with the rise and fall variations of social, political, theological / ecclesiastic tradition, and perhaps most importantly with the rise of new technologies.

These times of change in ritual haven’t been left unexplored. The ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, anthropologist Victor Turner, and even the psychologist Carl Jung all touched on the notion of liminal phases in which changes in rituals and customs occur – another kind of collective present. Today, people might like to call these changes vibe shifts.

With the ever increasing pace of technology, these shifts are occurring faster than ever. With the introduction of the printing press, we moved from spoken words held in memory to books as the main store of human knowledge.

As Marshall McLuhan noted, computers, connected via the internet, have further complicated the way we remember and the way we flow through time. Especially in the modern day, we’re constantly bouncing between algorithmically generated and distributed narratives that lack the same weight, the same auras as those that we collectively imagined together.

It’s no surprise then that the idea of lore has resurfaced. But perhaps the most important questions remain unasked: namely, what actions can we take to collectively maintain it?

There are many answers to this question, and I’m not even certain there’s a right one, but it certainly feels like we need new forms of ritual that we can enact together to draw ourselves back to intentionality; to regain a sense of focus and in turn a sense of true belonging.

Exploring these rituals, however, can’t be done in writing. It can’t be done between a writer and an audience. It has to be done together.

Thanks as always to Andy Tudhope, David Phelps, and Vivek Singh for graciously reviewing this draft. Please note, this draft will likely change over time as I update my thinking and continue to add more depth and context. Feel free to check back soon!

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