History After the End. Network Culture and Atemporality.

Published in Cornell Journal of Architecture, Issue 8.

Kazys Varnelis

The Buick, Cédric Delsaux, from The Dark Lens, Solo Exhibition, The Empty Quarter Gallery, Dubai, UAE.

By the mid-1990s theorists of postmodernism mourned its impending death.[1] In architecture, always the leading indicator for postmodernism, historically eclectic form lost its currency after the MoMA “Deconstructivist Architecture” show in 1989 which delivered up modernism as a handful of broken shards only to wane rapidly over the course of the 1990s.[2] Theory fared little better. In architecture, the decade was marked by the Any project, consisting of a series of conferences, books, and a journal, all time-delimited and coming to a predetermined expiration at the millennium. Assemblage magazine, the leading academic theoretical journal in the field also shut down in 2000, the editors declaring it was time for the “end of the end.”[3] Outside of architecture, once it became widely accepted in the academy, theory rushed to declare itself obsolete.[4]

Postmodernism is little lamented today. While we can all agree that somewhere along the line it vanished, nobody bothered to note its death and nobody tends the corpse. Contrast this with the Oedipal nature of postmodernism, which even in its very name announced its temporal succession of the modern. Take Fredric Jameson’s seminal 1983 essay on “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” which begins with the author’s observation that the era was filled with a sense that “some radical break or coupure had taken place.[5] In the Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Charles Jencks was more precise, declaring “Happily, it is possible to date the death of Modern Architecture to a precise moment in time:” the controlled implosion of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing in St. Louis, Missouri at 3.32 pm on July 15, 1972. For Jencks, the failure of this award-winning social housing project marked the end of the modernist architectural plan’s ability to create positive social change.[6]

In proclaiming rupture, the postmodernists repeat a fundamentally modernist move, made most famous by Virginia Woolf’s observation that “on or about December 1910 human character changed…”[7] Certainly in part, Woolf was referring to the impact of the show “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” mounted that year by her friend Roger Fry, but she was also making a wry commentary on how common such punctual visions of rupture were during her day. Whether it was World War I, the Russian Revolution, Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, or Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square that marked the break, a temporality of rupture was endemic to modernism. Advocates of postmodernism felt compelled to repeat this. 

But there is no rupture with postmodernism today, nor are there many claims that our time is somehow different. It’s as if the end of history really did come. If anything defines our time, it’s science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling’s observation that network culture produces a form of historical consciousness marked by atemporality. By this, Sterling means that our desire and our ability to situate ourselves within any kind of broader historical structure have dissipated.[8] The temporal compression caused by globalization and networking technologies, together with an accelerating capitalism, has intensified the ahistorical qualities of modernism and postmodernism, producing an ever more thoroughly atemporal network culture.   

Unlike modernism and postmodernism, network culture not only refuses to seek legitimation in the past by breaking from previous eras, it fails to even name its own time. Attempts to label the time in a similar fashion: “post-postmodernity,” “second modernity,” “altermodernity,” “digimodernity,” “liquid modernity,” or “automodernity” all have failed to stick. But we don’t even have to look at periodization writ big. Simple chronology trips us up: even now that it has concluded, the last decade remains nameless—is it the 2000s, the ‘00s, or hinting at emptiness, the “noughties,” the “aughts,” or worst of all the “naughty aughties”? The lack of a proper name for the decade is no mere product of a linguistic difficulty or a confusion between century, millennium, and decade. Rather it suggests that we no longer are capable of framing our time.[9]

If we take modernity as a social phenomenon, that is, as the experience of consciously living in a changing present, then we have never been more modern. But, as its reliance on rupture shows, modernity isn’t merely a timeless sociological category: it is also a period marked by an attitude toward history. To resort to a rather complex construction, modernity is a historiographic concept referring to a period that defined itself by a changed concept of history. Nor is postmodernism different in this respect. It too suggests a supersession, but of modernity, and if it treats history as pastiche—abandoning progress and mocking modernism’s teleological goals—the pains it takes to do so underscores that it continues to rely upon history for its very existence.[10]

But history is complicated, full of retrogressions and anticipations, projections and false starts. No matter the rhetoric, no period is absolute. Notwithstanding the claim that network culture is ahistorical, it is possible to create a fold in that condition, to understand network culture as a historical process, intensifying pre-modern, modern and postmodern temporalities while existing as a unique condition of its own. 

Nevertheless, whereas a historical account of the disappearance of the modern sense of history is a tricky proposition, it is also by no means an epistemological contradiction.[11] Sterling’s diagnosis of network culture as atemporal roughly fulfills the prophecies that Jean Baudrillard made beginning in the 1990s about impending the end of history. For Baudrillard, if on the one hand, both the contemporary city and information storage technologies produce a hyperdensity, then on the other hand, the omnipresence of the network, the spread of globalization, and with it, the urbanization of the globe lead to a condition of equivocation, of horizontal spread and sameness. Information is simultaneously overdense and overdispersed. This pervasive condition leads to indifference. Baudrillard concludes that our obsession with “real time” information only amplifies this: “if we want immediate enjoyment of the event, if we want to experience it at the instant of its occurrence, as if we were there, this is because we no longer have any confidence in the meaning or purpose of the event.”[12] This closure of history marks the onset of an era of “obscenity,” governed by “an endless, unbridled proliferation of the social, of the political, of information, of the economic, of the aesthetic, not to mention, of course, the sexual.” Media produces an oversaturated condition producing a nothingness, in which concepts can’t be formed.[13]        

Compelling as Baudrillard’s analysis is, it leaves us with little ability to analyze network culture. Our ability to sequence time may be undone, but this doesn’t mean that we cease to exist. As Sterling suggests, network culture isn’t chaos, it has distinct cultural manifestations produced by the collapse of the past and the future into the present. Network culture’s temporality may best be represented by the television show Lost where the temporal sequence of the narrative is undone in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards. Instead of postmodern hyperspace, we have network culture’s hypertime. Or take the cinematic the Matrix trilogy, a product of early network culture that suggests that the present is only a simulation temporally displaced from an impossible future into the past. In novels like Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History, set a year or two before their date of publication, cyberpunk author William Gibson turns away from projecting the future to carefully describing the just-past. But network culture has been marked less by science fiction and more by fantasy in films like the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. But where J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy was an allegory for total war—remembered in the Second World War and feared in the Cold War—the movie version has nothing to act as an analog for. Instead it serves as a simulation of an alternate reality, temporally out of sequence with ours. 

In part, our new attitude toward the past is the product of a change in memory. New technologies make it possible for us to displace our memory into the database. Le Goff observed that electronic memory was “the most spectacular” change of all in the twentieth century, allowing research to be performed against vast quantities of historical data. During the last decade, the increase in inexpensive forms of data storage—both in terms of free online e-mail services with high storage quotas and portable hard drives—has made it possible to for us to personally use this calculative faculty. The need to keep track of a particular event becomes unnecessary when it has been recorded in our e-mail program or calendar and can be recalled at a moment’s notice. Much as Plato suggested that writing was simultaneously a poison and cure, allowing humans to record information on paper instead of committing it to memory, fast, inexpensive storage makes the past accessible to us even as it undermines our ability to conceptualize it in anymore. Why bother to remember the past when we can see it in a proliferation of time-stamped digital images? 

More than that, the physical past can also be more easily found today. Until the advent of the global market on the Internet, collecting traces of the past required effort and often threatened failure. Traces of the past hid in used bookstores and antique stores, necessitating that collectors seek out such places. Today, however, the past is readily available for purchase on eBay and other online marketplaces. In turn, generations of historians have scoured the world’s archives, emptying them of surprises. The past no longer waits to be discovered and exposed, it becomes subject to the universal exchangeability of capital and the recombinant effects of network culture. This is the past we see in the television show Mad Men, a past made up of connoisseurship, a past the matters less for its nostalgic values and more for its thorough perfection, immediately annotated and, as necessary, corrected at Web sites like the Footnotes of Mad Men.[14]

Under network culture, both the past and the notion of authenticity are revealed as ambiance, environmental qualities to be experienced. Take fashion, for example: the late 1990s and early 2000s were dominated by the supermodernist approach of haute-couture firms like Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and Gucci, generally employing new methods and materials to produce clothing designed with performance in mind, but during the later part of the 2000s, fashion turned toward heritage, reviving classic brands like J. Press, Filson, or Pendleton, thereby commodifying tradition as “trad.” But unlike the 1980s preppy movement, the heritage turn makes no claim to class status or to continuity with existing traditions. Rather it marks the return to American shores of a fascination with Ivy-League-college life that first emerged in Japan in the 1960s and relies on an obsessive knowledge of vintage styles, materials and techniques only possible under network culture.[15] The past has also been thoroughly rewritten, items re-created with painstaking detail, unfashionable flaws removed and cuts improved. Today we can endlessly rewrite the past to look simultaneously more antique and more appropriate for the present. As we do so, any lingering traces of earlier temporalities are further extinguished.    

The result, Bruno Latour writes is

… we have changed time so completely that we have shifted from the time of Time to the time of Simultaneity. Nothing, it seems, accepts to simply reside in the past, and no one feels intimidated any more by the adjectives “irrational,” “backward” or “archaic”. Time, the bygone time of cataclysmic substitution, has suddenly become something that neither the Left nor the Right seems to have been fully prepared to encounter: a monstrous time, the time of cohabitation. Everything has become contemporary.[16]

Beyond history, our everyday experience of temporality has changed. Through the Net, computers and mobile phones synchronize their time to accurate time servers, establishing a common time with a degree of precision that only recently was reserved for scientists and the military. But the constant display of time on computer screens and on mobile phones means that wristwatches are superfluous, mere fashion accessories. The result has been huge declines in recent sales, the watch market down 20% between 2005 and 2008 as timekeeping functions are absorbed by screens big and small.[17] Still, this new degree of precision belies the looseness that technology makes possible. Modernity was marked by a strict logic of time—embodied first in the pocket watch and then in the wristwatch—and the rise of bureaucratized culture. Timetables and schedules controlled a rationalized temporality that dominated life from the railway station to the home. This is undone today. Technologically, the end of strict timekeeping  is made possible by mobile telephony, which eliminates the practical need for precise scheduling. Until its advent individuals planning to meet each other would have to do so by scheduling meetings at distinct times. Now, individuals can easily make rough plans to meet and then get in touch with each other to coordinate the logistics, even choosing a time and a place while in transit in a common direction. Mobile phones also allow our schedules to soften: when running late, we can contact the other party to advise them. If time used to serve as a mediating device between two parties, mobile telephony allows more efficient continuous and direct contact between them.[18]

This looseness in time serves the increasing demands of capital. The rigid modernist workday is insufficient for a world of constant on-the-go connectivity and globalization. The rigid division between work time and leisure time is long gone as workers now take care of personal tasks and respond to personal e-mails during work time, even as they are also asked to be always on call, always in touch.[19] A globalized world demands rapid responses during what had previously been off hours as well as travel back and forth across time zones. Instead of feeling prisoners to an inflexible system, workers are subject to oversaturation.[20] It’s hardly any wonder that we lose the ability to sequence.

We observe the anti-temporal nature of network culture in its most distinct literary form, the blog. Organized as a series of time-stamped posts, the newest first, older ones cascading downwards in reverse chronological order, blogs appear to be have a temporal organization, but this is a ruse. By presenting material in reverse chronological order, blogs undo any potential narrative effect. In practice it is uncommon to read a blog against the grain, from the oldest posts to the newest. Instead one reads an unfamiliar blog by looking at the most recent post and then, if captivated, scrolls down a bit, rarely making it to the next page. Following a blog means catching it in mid-stream. Rarely does one scroll back, rather one skims a little off the top and then adds it to an aggregator to follow it along in the future. Past entries, then, act as an archive to direct traffic to the site via search engines.

Blogs are non-chronous, in that if there is a sequential relationship between posts on a blog, the precision of the time stamp is meaningless and, in general, bears little relationship to the actual chronological time (the exception being if the blog post corresponds directly to an event—generally a crisis of some sort—taking place in real time). Moreover, even the utility of the sequence is undone by uneven posting practices on different blogs. When one blogger posts much more than another, the latter’s older posts may appear newer than the former’s since greater frequency of posting ages older posts more rapidly.[21]

The changes in temporality that mark network culture are not without their effects for politics. When becoming is replaced by being, the possibility of transformation also disappears.[22] But where the reactionary strain in postmodernism stressed a return to family values, today we have left only what Mark Fisher dubs “capitalist realism.”[23] This realism eschews the need for legitimation or critique. It just is, positing no alternative. The critique of industrial society’s homogeneity that was common in art under modernism and postmodernism is now absorbed into management theory, the alienated factory worker replaced by the knowledge worker with the “freedom” of job flexibility (which also means no benefits or job security) and the privilege of self-expression as a member of the creative class.[24]     

Today’s self emerges from the network, not so much a whole individual as a composite entity constituted out of the links it forms with others, a mix of known and unknown others it links to via the Net.[25] As its ground, instead of immediate, lived experience, the contemporary subject relies on the immediated real, a condition in which mediation is a given and life becomes a form of performance, constantly lived in a culture of exposure in exchange for self-affirming feedback.[26] John Tomlinson comes to a similar conclusion about immediacy as the defining condition of twenty-first century life. Tomlinson observes that we’ve become accustomed to instant connection and rapid gratification, supported and that our economy and work culture not only sustains but constantly accelerates this state. If this is still rather close to the mechanical speed of the moderns, he argues, immediacy also implies proximity, the disappearance of a middle term (Tomlinson observes that the Latin “immediatus” means not separated). Under network culture we experience the “‘closure of the gap’ that has historically separated now from later, here from elsewhere, desire from satisfaction,” the gap that was the very aim of modernization to close. Invoking Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of a “fluid modernity,” Tomlinson posits that the melting of solids is no longer just a stage on the way to a newer condition, but rather an end in itself. Finally, Tomlinson concludes, as I do, that immediacy invokes the powerful role of media in the way we shape our lives. Although these last two terms appear contradictory, he writes, electronic media hide their role in media, seeking to become a seamless part of lived experience.[27]

The collapse of time is tied to the current crisis in capital, which always relied on temporal progression for its profit model. Declining profits in industry since the 1960s coupled with the demands of speculators for accelerating rates of profit. Postmodernity marked not only the end of modernization, it marked the end of the industrial age and, in turn, network culture marked the end of knowledge work and the service industries. Like industry, these couldn’t offer enough profit. Instead capital today is dominated by financialization, investment that ideally generates profit with no intermediary commodity. As Jeffrey Nealon suggests, Marx’s old model of M-C-M’ becomes M-M’.[28] At its highest levels—and these are the levels that dominate the economy—capital is speculative, a game of time given over to ultra-high speed networks. With capital unable to rely on temporal models, it twice experienced crisis. During both the dot.com bubble that marked the start of network culture and the more real estate bubble, analysts ran economic models that discounted older data, feeding their models only information from the recent past, leading to the conclusion that prices of securities or real estate could only go up.[29] Beyond that, capital today turns to new forms of trading that take advantage of the immediate present to extract profits at a speed that no human can process. By this, I am referring to high-frequency trading undertaken by investors in possession of massive amounts of capital—take mutual funds and other institutional investors but also the mega-rich—seeking to hide their trades by atomizing them over a short period of time by using software to distribute the trades and make them appear to be a part of the natural trading process. In doing so, such investors hope to mask their investment decisions and take advantage of lower buying and higher trading prices. Trying to take advantage of this, algorithmic traders seek to identify high frequency trades and buying and sell shares at the expense of the high frequency traders. All this takes place at the level of milliseconds. With 70% of trading now high frequency or algorithmic, the exchange’s trading floor becomes obsolete except as theater. No human can participate in such trading once they have given an overall command to buy or sell. Instead, computers talk to computers in data centers located at an intersection of real estate prices and network speed. The fastest algorithms, most-efficient machines, and lowest latency networks win. Time is all-important in trading today but, it is a time that exists that no human can conceive of. We stand at the event-horizon of capital, unable to see past it.[30]         

Whether network culture will lead to what Gopal Balakrishnan calls the “stationary state,” a protracted condition of a damaged but still dominant capitalism, generating profits at ever higher levels of complexity, whether it might lead to collapse, or whether as Sterling suggests, it will come to an end in a decade or so when we surpass it is as yet unclear.[31] Still, if our goal is to develop a political strategy for network culture or simply to find a way to map it, we need to face up to the temporal condition of the present and go against the grain, instead following Jameson’s imperative of dialectical thought to “Always historicize!”[32] For as Neo learns from the Oracle in Matrix Revolutions, “everything that has a beginning has an end.” 

[1]. Neil Brooks and Josh Toth, The Mourning After: Attending the Wake of Postmodernism, (New York: Rodopi, 2007), 1. Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (New York: Verso, 1995), vii.

[2]. Hans Ibelings, Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalization (Rotterdam: NAi, 1998).The rapid rise and fall of “Deconstructivist Architecture” inspired the interest in architecture and fashion soon after (personal conversation with Paulette M. Singley). See Paulette Singley and Princeton University. School of Architecture., Architecture, in Fashion (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994).

[3]. Compare Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994) and Hays and Kennedy, “After All, or the End of “The End of”,” Assemblage (2000): 6-7

[4]. Payne, Michael, and John Schad. Life after Theory. (New York: Continuum, 2003), ix. See also 

Martin McQuillan, Post-Theory: New Directions in Criticism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), Thomas Docherty, After Theory: Postmodernism/Postmarxism (New York: Routledge, 1990), and Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004).

[5]. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Post-Contemporary Interventions (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 1

[6]. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1977), 9.

[7]. Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (London: The Hogarth Press, 1924), 4.

[8]. Bruce Sterling, “Atemporality for the Creative Artist,” in Beyond the Beyond (2010). The changes Sterling describes imply ahistoricism more than atemporality, but with the use of atemporality to refer to new forms of cultural practice spreading, it seems that a certain precedent has been set. Moreover, referring to this phenomena as atemporal, allows us to better understand its effects on the temporal experience, which will occupy us later in this essay. 

[9]. “It’s 2002 – and the decade still has no name,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/1735921.stm For a collection of mainstream media links on the problem of naming the decade, see http://www.theweek.com/article/index/103534/Why_cant_we_name_this_decade Also see http://www.naughtyaughty.com/

[10]. Compare with Jameson, Postmodernism, 311.

[11]. A much-expanded version of this essay serves an the first chapter on my book on Network Culture and contains an extended section on modernity and postmodernity. See http://varnelis.net/network_culture/1_time_history_under_atemporality

[12]. Baudrillard. The Illusion of the End, 9. 

[13]. Baudrillard “The End of the Millennium or the Countdown,” Economy & Society 26, no. 4 (1997): 451.


[15]. David Colman, “Dress Codes; The All-American Back from Japan,” the New York Times, June 18, 2009, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D00E1DE153AF93BA25755C0A96F9C8B63

[16]. Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitick to Dingpolitick or How to Make Things Public” in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 30. 

[17]. David Ho, “Tick. Tick. Tick. Will The Cell Phone Slay the Wristwatch?” Cox News Service (September 1, 2008), http://www.coxwashington.com/news/content/reporters/stories/2008/30/2008/09/01/WATCHES01_1STLD_COX.html.

[18]. Richard Seyler Ling, The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone’s Impact on Society (San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2004)73.

[19]. Ling sees this as the most important aspect of mobile telephony, 58. 

[20]. Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

[21]. Eric Baumer, Mark Sueyoshi, and Bill Tomlison, “Exploring the Role of the Reader in the Activity of Blogging,” in Proceeding of the twenty-sixth annual SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. Florence, Italy: ACM, 2008, http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1357054.1357228.

[22]. Doreen B. Massey, Space, Place, and Gender. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 119.

[23]. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative (Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009).

[24]. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2005).

[25]. Kazys Varnelis, ed. Networked Publics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 154. See also Gergen, The Saturated Self and Brian Holmes, “The Flexible Personality. For A New Cultural Critique,” http://www.16beavergroup.org/brian/

[26]. This idea relies on Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulation, but in its very language, the simulation still holds out a premise that it is produced by the media industry for us to occupy indirectly. Immediated reality is produced by everyone, constantly, and the media industry’s influences fades in it, or rather is transformed. 

[27]. John Tomlinson, The Culture of Speed. The Coming of Immediacy. (London: Sage, 2007), 74-75, 99.

Zygmunt Bauman. Liquid Modernity. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000).

[28]. Jeffrey Nealon, Foucault Beyond Foucault: Power and Its Intensifications since 1984. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 63. On the dominance of the economy by finance, see Kevin Phillips, Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (New York: Viking, 2009), xiii.. Phillips points out the “extraordinary rise of the U.S. financial sector from 11–12 percent of the gross national product back in the 1980s to a stunning 20–21 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product by 2004–2005. During that same quarter century, manufacturing, for a century the pillar of our economy, slipped from about 25 percent to just 12 percent.” The recent economic crisis has not reversed the trend. 

[29]. The article quotes economist Myron Scholes as saying that the analysts took a “view of the world that was far more benign than it was reasonable to take, emphasising recent inputs over more historic numbers,” says Mr Scholes.” See “Efficiency and Beyond,” The Economist, July 16, 2009, http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14030296.

[30]. Charles Duhigg, “Stock Traders Find Speed Pays, in Milliseconds,” the New York Times, July 23, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/business/24trading.html

[31]. Gopal Balakrishnan, “Speculations on the Stationary State,” The New Left Review, no. 59 (2009).

[32]. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), ix.