Necessary interruptions

At a lecture-forum held in UP the other day to mark the retirement of fellow sociologist, Dr. Manuel Bonifacio, I learned of the untimely passing of another colleague, the quiet historian Diosdado Asuncion.

Manny’s retirement gave us a chance to pause so we could appreciate his achievements as a scholar and as a teacher.   Ding’s death, like the death of friends we do not get to see often, made me wonder how it is possible for people to work in the same campus for many years and not be able to stop and have a conversation.  His death restored him to my consciousness, even if it is too late now to have that conversation with him.

Mercifully, we live in a culture that prescribes conscious interruptions like retirements and holidays.  These stops confer a duration on our activities.  We are able to talk of the dimensions of an active career only because of the limits put upon it by retirement.  We can talk of the fulfillment of productive work because of the break provided by holidays.  We can talk of life in intimate terms only because of the inevitability of death.

Death, of course, is the greatest of all interruptions.  All religions are built around its mystery.  Which is why Lent is the most important period in the Christian calendar.  This is a time to reflect on the meaning of life as viewed from the perspective of its limit, death.

More than ever, we need conscious interruptions in our lives.  The societies we live in are fast becoming civilizations of speed.  As speed compresses time, the intervals of our lives are getting shorter and shorter.  There is a violence in speed that has not been fully recognized, says the French urbanist Paul Virilio.

“People say: ‘You are too rich,’ but no one ever says: ‘You are too fast.’  But they’re related.  There is a violence in wealth that has been understood: not so with speed.”  As I was reading these lines from Paul Virilio (Pure War, 1997), I was on board a flight from London Heathrow to Hong Kong.  The poor stewardess was frantically distributing breakfast trays to passengers.  The captain had just proudly announced that we had made good time and we were landing thirty minutes ahead of schedule.

The menu card had promised a full English breakfast of scrambled eggs, ham and sausage patty, grilled tomato and baked beans, with fruit juice, rolls, and coffee.  When my tray arrived, however, I noticed the empty dish in the middle of the tray.  The hot meal was missing; there was not enough time to distribute it, and even less time for the passengers to consume it.  In fact, there was barely time to collect the trays back before landing.  We had all become victims of speed.

Outbound from Manila the previous week, I had the opposite experience.  A light dinner of cold cuts was served on the Manila to Hong Kong leg.  Two hours later, after the plane had picked up more passengers in HK, a second dinner was served, with a double round of drinks.  But I was still digesting the previous meal.  My metabolic speed could not keep up with the plane’s speed.  On some flights, you could look out the window and watch the approaching dawn catch up with the last light of dusk.  My intestines felt like that.

Machines are getting faster, says Virilio, but the body’s rhythms and reflexes remain the same.   We think we drive machines, when in truth we are driven by them.  The result is a type of violence whose magnitude we have not begun to contemplate.

Many years ago, on my first visit to Bali in Indonesia, I had wondered why there were so many animal carcasses by the roadside of that exotic island.  It did not take long for me to get the answer.  The small powerful Liteace van that I was riding in, known locally as a “Bimo”, ran over two dogs and sideswiped a person in the course of a single journey.  Before the arrival of these speed demons, the narrow streets of Bali had been the exclusive pathways of bull carts and unhurried pedestrians.   The big tourist coaches had to honor their right of way.

But the Bimos were different; they were alien machines meant for locals.

The same scene was replicated in Beijing in the mid-80s.  China’s frenetic modernization and open-door policy ushered in the era of the fast taxi.  In the hands of local drivers who were just beginning to taste the exhilaration of speed, Volvos and Benzes became killing machines.  Overnight, millions of commuters on bicycles who moved in slow graceful waves along Beijing’s wide boulevards found themselves marginalized by these new masters of the highway.

The most terrifying technological violence however is that of the war machine.    In the modern war that Virilio imagines, “The pilot answers to the slogan of the Exocet missiles: ‘Fire and forget’.  Push the button and get out of there.  You go home, you’ve seen nothing.  You fired forty, sixty kilometers away from your target, you don’t care, the missile does it all.”  He could have been describing the Patriot missiles and Smart bombs unleashed by the US military in the war against Saddam.

Speed leaves us no time to think, to contemplate the meanings of our actions, or to realize what we have become.  Ancient societies, says Virilio, were systems of brakes, interdictions, and limits.  Today’s societies are systems of accelerators.  Power is invested increasingly not in regulation but in acceleration.  Speed is the new form of violence.

The only effective antidote to speed, advises Virilio, is “picnolepsy” — frequent interruptions that allow us to reconstitute time.   That’s what I intend to be this Holy Week: picnoleptic.


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