The end of summer: it’s hot, it’s sticky, it’s sultry. Study time melts over the edge of reality like it does in the famous Salvador Dali painting. Drip, drip, drop, splat; a metronomic rhythm resounds as our motivation slows to a crawl. But what if time stopped completely, what then? Our modern industrial psyches recoil in horror: perish the thought that time were to cease without being replaced by some other metre of measurement, of counting, of productivity, of efficiency, of purpose. Yet, as the title of Jim Morrison’s famous biography puts it: No Out Here Gets Out Alive. Neither time nor space is immune to limitation; the hottest days of the year remind us that time knows nothing of context, whereas we are certainly not immune to a cavalcade of contextual concerns.
Our AU life happens over years (if not tears) and courses (if not diplomas). Empirical evidence accompanies our every motion, like the wake of a great cargo ship carrying untold tonnes of trashy junk to Wal Mart. Yet nothing countable can contain that which we are within our study brain. So for a moment let’s just lie back and ponder the whir of a ceiling fan or the leaves of a tree, and consider the nature of where we’re going with our education and how we’ll know, really know, in our very soul, that we’ve arrived. Join me, won’t you, as we hark back to the Ancient Greek colonies of what is now the Italian peninsular boot. With an ethereal whir we are about to enter the prescient mind of a philosopher called Zeno of Elea.
Time and motion were no guarantee for Zeno. Thinking down through the labyrinth of rational thought he considered how one might get from point A to point B. Motion is not all it appears. At AU we conduct our coursework even as our actual bodies remain plunked at our desk. And when on a hot day we feel that we aren’t getting anywhere in our studies the struggle is real!
We don’t go anywhere and yet we travel vast distances within our academic minds. Arriving at our contract date we write an exam or submit a final assignment before waiting patiently (tick, tock!) for our composite mark to arrive by mail. At this temporal juncture signifying finality, a thin swath of paper fails to express all the struggle and success signified by a mere letter grade. There’s no expressing our jubilation or dismay when the time of our reckoning with a given course in toto arrives. We’re not in Kansas anymore once we get rolling at AU, although our spatial surroundings may remain the same.
Cobwebs, Spiderwebs and Woolly-Headedness: Splitting Hairs and Pedantic Palindromes
Zeno illustrated his paradox of movement over space and time by imagining a footrace between a speedy Achilles and a soporific Tortoise. They embark on their timed excursion and the following ensues (Summarized and paraphrased from Harries, Pp. 372-3):
1) Achilles leaps ahead like an interior decorator hanging curtains on a mock-up set design.
2) The tortoise lopes along like some late 1970s Saturday Night Live actor pretending to be on Quaaludes
3) Soon Achilles appears to be halfway to the end goal. But wait! Upon closer inspection we notice that he must first arrive at the tiniest parsec of a point halfway between his beginning point and the first point of arrival along the marked track. And even before that he must cover countless increasingly-hairsplitting distances between ever-tinier points A and B. His speed sends him down a hall of mirrors of infinitely receding distances that he must traverse. No measurable space is so small that it evades the fact that there will be an ever-smaller area of space between any two points. Achilles, said Zeno, will find himself for all intents and purposes going nowhere.
Meanwhile, the tortoise, while going less than half of the first possible distance between points A and B will actually be ahead in the race because he’d not made it down to the ever-smaller increments Achilles in his haste has arrived at. By being laid back between the first and larger distance covered between A and B, the Tortoise is actually leading in spatial terms. Time, as on a hot study day, evaporates as its realm is overtaken by the facts of getting to a point when innumerable smaller points must be covered.
Zeno concluded that the senses fool us into believing that motion is possible and the senses deceive us in believing that we can cover any given distance. In fact, he said, nobody is going anywhere simply because to do so would require endless splitting of distances into ever-tinier points A and B such on for eternity. And eternity, being immeasurably vast, does not allow us to finish what we started. Sounds like a recipe for cosmic procrastination to me! In this sense, the notion of being outside time in that haze of summer heat comes to fruition as a transcendental truth. We really are only ever where we are in any given moment, no matter how productive or indolent we feel in a given second, hour or lifetime.
5) So to summarize: the tortoise, still sauntering clam-like towards the first part of the first half of the race, is in fact far ahead because his first halfway point between points A and B is far larger in diameter than the ever-smaller increments Achilles has reached by being faster in speed.
6) Thus, there can be no arrival at the finish line. In fact, there cannot be any progress at all because there are unlimited tiny distances to cover between an original point and any point of travel out in any direction. Jim Morrison’s infamous line that no one here gets out alive booms out over a loudspeaker and the race is declared over.
This all might seem a bit mystical or nonsensical. Yet, it’s our ordinary sense of reality that is stymied by the hottest of days when our normal academic abilities lose traction on that slippery and countable slope of time. A bit of transcendental perspective is in order.
Prophets and Oracles: Being There Now and in the Future
As we have seen, Zeno was a flummoxing prophet in opposition to common sense. After all, you don’t have to be Usain Bolt to know that a biped will be faster than a turtle in every measurable meaning of the word. Yet Zeno was speaking as an oracle; that is, he was mystifying normality while being slyly complicit with accepted epistemic frameworks. He used rationality to overcome common sense and induce mystery or the uncanny. Just think how it sounds to speak one’s voice into a whirring portable fan and hear oneself resonate back with alien-like mystery. The stuff of wonder often feels more real than do mere facts. The same rings true with inspiration and accomplishment. If we simply show someone our diploma on some future afternoon they will only receive a shrouded and distorted view of the blood, sweat and toil (ok, hopefully not blood) that went into our AU studies. No quality of time conveys the immeasurable distances we cover as we attempt to complete our coursework on a hot day.
At some level when we feel that we aren’t getting anywhere, we really aren’t. Not because we don’t move or progress, but because, as the saying goes, wherever we go there we are. Whenever we succeed it’s because of inner conditions more than what’s externally measurable. When we feel stymied by summer heat just remember Zeno: the last shall be, if not first, at least perpetually in the running. And at AU as in life, we’re competing above all with ourselves in our distance education. Time may arbitrate our reality but that doesn’t mean it can conquer all that we do and feel; for that, we are the deciders.