What Social Media Does to Time

Social media feeds present the myth of endless and therefore purposeless time. Twitter is a prime example. Picture the top of a Twitter feed where a new tweet appears, then the next, then the next. If you scroll down, you know what you will find: more tweets. What happens to all those tweets down below? They slip-slide away, into the past: down, down, down. Theoretically, they are all retrievable but with the passage of more and more time, they are each more and more covered over by the mist of movement.

Where is the present on social media?

 

It appears that the present is back up on the top of the feed, where new tweets come, passing for an instant as the present thing. That present thing will momentarily become a past thing as a new thing comes over the top. But imagine, if you will, not a single user’s Twitter feed but all Twitter feeds collapsed into one. How quickly does a tweet pass through the present? It is probably just about at the speed of what Paul calls “the twinkling of an eye,” or the speed of light. In other words, the present is never stable—no sooner do you see some tweet or discharge your own tweet than they have already been overcome.

The overwhelming message of an environment like Twitter is: More is coming. Forever. The only union between a single tweet, the one that comes before it and the one that comes after it is that they are conveyed in the same feed. The feed—or let us call it a “stream”—itself is the message: time is movement and time is endless. Time is meaningless, because this stream promises nothing other than “more.” It aims at nothing: the tweets pushed downstream go into an abyss of the past.

Hold on to that image.

Now consider what happens when you hear and understand a word through speech. Think, in particular, of a word with multiple syllables, like “memory.” If I speak this word aloud to you, each syllable passes through space in time: these syllables arrive at your ears in sequence, you receive them in sequence because I have enunciated them in sequence. Since these three syllables—mem-o-ry—travel in a sequence, they are obviously not simultaneous. It is not guaranteed that they are united. A non-English speaker, for example, would not necessarily hear them together, just as I would be unlikely to know where a “word” starts and stops in a tonal dialectic which I do not speak (which would be all of them).

How do you understand a multi-syllabic word, like “memory”? By remembering the earlier syllables that arrived a moment earlier, connecting the earlier syllables to the later syllable, willing that these three distinct parcels form one whole, and then understanding what the union of those parts mean, what this one word communicates. To recognize and grasp a word spoken to you like “memory” actually requires memory, will, and understanding, operating in union. That, in brief, is the exercise in which St. Augustine engages his parishioners when presenting to them the triad of the mind as an analogy for the Trinity in Sermon 2 on the New Testament. He teaches his parishioners the most challenging part of De Trinitate by asking them to think about how they are listening to him.

With this in mind, let us return to Twitter and consider each tweet in the stream—the stream which serves as the distance or space of time—as a syllable in a single act of communication, like they were all meant to communicate one word. The problem is that we cannot. These syllables are not coherent with each other, there is no harmony, they cannot be grasped, and you cannot will them to be one. It may appear, from time to time, as though subsets of tweets—these “syllables”—come together as though a theme were emerging or subtweets were part of a whole, but then place that subset back in its context (the stream) and you see that the subset is again reduced to a non-harmonious syllable in non-word.

Again, the only message (if it actually is a message) is “more.” There was more, there is more, there shall be more, steam without end. The medium is the overwhelming message.

Whether it is nobler in the mind to posit in the stream a syllable for good or for ill is not itself the question. The question is decided in advance: all syllables are subjected to the same fate in the endless stream—they each become parcels rendered incoherent in and through their very context.

The Word’s Redemptive Act of Creation


St. Augustine—from whom this insight about failed communication arises—also illuminates the prospects for the redemption of communication. In one manner, he contemplates the act of creation in Genesis 1, but what close attention to his later commentaries reveals is a way of conceiving of Genesis 1 as something other than a narrative of creation per se. Rather, he considers it as a narrative of redemption. Nudging towards this reconsideration, Augustine writes,

Where scripture states, God said, Let it be made, we should understand an incorporeal utterance of God in the substance of his co-eternal Word, calling back to himself the imperfection of the creation, so that it should not be formless, but should be formed, each element on the particular lines which follow in due order. By so turning back and being formed creation imitates, every element in its own way, God the Word, that is the Son of God who always adheres to the Father in complete likeness and equality of being, by which he and the Father are one; but it does not imitate this form of the Word if it turns away from the creator and remains formless and imperfect, incomplete (Gn. litt. I.4.9).

The image Augustine seems to be evoking is of unformed, disparate parcels lying in waste, removed as they are from the Word who adheres in the obedience of love to the Father. This is not about the creation of the unformed matter—that God creates all that is is already assumed in the account, captured succinctly in the very first line: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1). What is at issue here, as Augustine detects, is the formlessness of what has been created; a formlessness due to a turning away from the Word of life. The formless matter is disjointed and inert, like so many disparate, inharmonious syllables passing without meaning in the winds of chance. The unformed, disintegrated matter of Genesis 1 awaits the Word spoken from above. As that Word is spoken and given over to the formless matter—beginning with Fiat lux: “let there be light”—the dead parcels receive life by responding to the Word. That is, they take form.

 

The Word gives form to each part and shapes them together into one “very good” whole. In each act of the Word giving itself to what is unformed, it is not as if what is pure and good is separated from what is unclean and evil, like we might otherwise fantasize the gift of redemption to be. Rather, it is the ordering of the whole, eliciting form out of formlessness, purpose out of purposelessness, meaning out of cacophony (chaos). To make this point, Augustine continues his commentary later with a precise, completely un-Manichean, rhetorical question followed by a confirming point about the Word who gives “light”:

Is the division of the light from the darkness indeed the distinction of the formed from the formless thing, while the calling of them day and night suggests their ordered succession, to indicate that God leaves nothing unordered and unregulated, and that the very formlessness through which things change from species to species by a kind of transition is not something uncatered for, and that the retreats and advances registered in creation, by which time-bound things follow one another in turn, have their contribution to add to the splendor of the universe? Night, after all, is regulated, ordered darkness (Gn. litt. I.34).

The ordering of each part is directed to the splendor of the whole, like the enunciation of a syllable is ordered to the fullness of a word. Creation itself, which falls into incoherence as it turns away from the One who spoke it into existence, is formed into a new coherence through the Word it receives. Day by day, each syllable is drawn into union with every other syllable. What was bound to the abyss of meaninglessness into which the stream of unredeemed time flows becomes, by the gift of the Word, a single word spoken to God. And all rests.

Every Part Becomes Whole in the Whole


In his Confessions, Augustine speaks of the single creaturely existence in the same terms. He recalls how in a life that was without the ordering gift of the Word who bestows mercy on him once for all and from moment to moment, each deed, each thought, each choice passed away into the dead past, overcome in an instant by what was new. Theoretically, he could have retrieved in his mind all that had been but more and more all these scattered fragments are covered over by the mist of movement, with no ordering principle to gather them up into a whole.

In Book II, Augustine sharply announces the problem of his own memory: it is the task of presenting himself as one whole—the challenge of giving “a coherent account of his disintegrated self” (Conf. II.1.1). Devoid of a principle of coherence—a principle which he knows all too well he himself does not possess on his own—the seemingly inevitable mood is despair. For what was the meaning of all that has been, all that was lost and pulled apart in disharmony, all that was gathered together only in the sense that all these things are in a single stream of what once was for a moment but are not now nor shall ever be again? Everything that can be retrieved downstream in the depths of memory presents the most tragic irony if indeed there is no order, no form to the whole: “great is the faculty of memory, so great the power of life in a person whose life is tending toward death!” (Conf. X.17.26). The unredeemed “life” is so many disjointed syllables without a coherent word.

Augustine knows that I am pulled apart. There is not an“I”, only movement, illusion, loss, ephemeral appearances and disappearances. He “himself” is tending toward nothing without a Word that is given to gather up all these disintegrated parcels to make them whole, to endow them with meaning, and to will that they have life together. And when he discovers the gift of that Word that gives itself to him as mercy, he “himself” is formed into a word of meaningful communication out of so many lost and incoherent parts. What is created is this “I”: Augustine.

As with each day of creation, so with the parcels of self-determination that are transformed into one whole man. He was unformed, disintegrated, and yet he was given the gift of order in the Word spoken to him. He took form when he began to offer himself as one word of praise: his confession. The drama of the whole is already presented with the beautiful prayer that closes Book I:

In a living creature such as this everything is wonderful and worthy of praise, but all these things are gifts from my God. I did not endow myself with them, but they are good, and together they make me what I am. He who made me is good, and he is my good too; rejoicing, I thank him for all those good gifts which made me what I was, even as a child. In this lay my sin, that not in him was I seeking pleasures, distinctions and truth, but in myself and the rest of his creatures, and so I fell headlong into pains, confusions and errors. But I give thanks to you, my sweetness, my honor, my confidence; to you, my God, I give thanks for your gifts. Do preserve them for me. So will you preserve me, too, and what you have given me will grow and reach perfection, and I will be with you; because this too is your gift to me—that I exist (Conf. I.20.31).

He has been claimed—or reclaimed—as a “due part of [God’s] creation” (Conf. I.1). In this way and only in this way does life itself become a pilgrimage; only if an end is given, a call is offered, and a response becomes possible. The Word does not drown out the syllables of the otherwise disintegrated, unformed life—instead, forgiveness becomes the coherent present of past sins. All is retrieved and redeemed in mercy. All in all, praise is the coherent response to the gift of that coherence: to allow those syllables to actually say something with your voice: “thank-you.

Augustine Deconstructs Twitter


Herein lies the deepest problem with Twitter and all social media feeds. As a whole, they are designed to gobble up and portray many disparate syllables that, in the end, say nothing. The only message is “more” and “more of the same.” It is not, therefore, really about what is said in the space; rather, it is about what the space itself says. That space is a medium in which we are being formed. We become practiced in the movement of time into a dead past as the norm. We set expectations, we develop habits accordingly. What this stream says is the antithesis of what the Word does.

But just like the Word that gives light, that is mercy, and that grants the possibility of coherence is not about the business of separating good from evil to preserve the pure, wholesome parcels—or syllables, or tweets—the redemption to be wrought here is not about selected fragments but the whole. If Twitter is itself an overwhelming suggestion about what time really is, it is also in many respects an accurate image of how we treat time as the stream of the irredeemable—as the story that is no story: the story of loss without end, where histories and relationships and actions and thoughts and deeds and misdeeds and persons are all gobbled up and deposited into the abyss of nothing. That is precisely the world into which the Word of God is given, to which the Word that gives order is spoken, in which the Word comes to dwell. As Hans Urs von Balthasar comments upon his own reading of Augustine on time in A Theological Anthropology:

Vanity had to affect his earthly existence and work, not only as the common lot of man, but especially in that, obedient unto death, he had to descend to the bottom of the abyss of time. Thus, it was not a case of reversing futile time, as it were, bit by bit [syllable by syllable, tweet by tweet]; rather he had to take upon and into himself the total passage through the absolute past in order to achieve from the other end the reversal of the whole . . . His steadfastness in the unsteady is his filial faithfulness to the Father: the important thing is not that it is eternity intervening in time, but that it is obedience through love. The point of greatest antithesis—between sinful time run to its end and spotless eternity—becomes the place of the most intimate loving union between Father and Son (36).

The Word gives us hope for something other than the seemingly intractable bind of choosing between acquiescence to the inevitable loss of streaming time or the futile neo-Platonic-cum-Gnostic attempt to abscond from time. The Word condescends to us who speak and who hear syllable by syllable, even though we have made a mess of communication and offer our grunts into a void. Not as a strongman who bats away what he does not desire, the Word submits himself to the incoherence of this unformed babble and in the confusion of all of it, He says one and only one thing unto the end: “Dear Father.”

He and he alone—as Word, as this one unrepeatable Person—transforms the possibilities and the meaning of time. Nothing shall be lost if, in him, we creatures allow all the syllables to rise up as an offering to God: with contrition, in thanks. Twitter works over time and works it over completely. By its design, it presents time as a never-ending movement of unformed, disjointed, incoherent fragments. It is a steam of syllables without words. That is precisely the kind of environment in which the Word of God does his business. He changes the whole meaning, giving meaning to the whole. He does not deny the abyss we have created; he goes into it:

The descent of the Son into the eternally “beneath” of the earth, in order to ascend from there into the eternally “above” of all the heavens (Eph 4.10), is the comprehensive measure of all vertical time, that measure within which alone every individual reversal of time (conversio) can take place. This is necessary for the establishment of true fulfilled time (Ibid., 33).

The appearance of time in social media is an illusion—it is unreality. This illusion is not constructed of some parcels or most parcels or even all parcels. The medium itself is the illusion.

The answer to Twitter, therefore, is not more wholesome tweets. The answer is the redemption of time. Jesus Christ is the redemption of time. Liturgical practice is reorientation to him as the source and summit of time. He himself becomes a space of formation because he enters into our unformed space of confusion and perpetual loss, and right there He gives what He is: coherence—the Word.

Editorial Statement: This essay is part of a running series by the faculty of the McGrath Institute for Church Life about exigent issues surrounding Church formation

 

Featured Image: Carmelo Bayarcal, Prague Astronomical Clock Tower, 15 May 2010; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Author

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard DeLorenzo is a theologian at the McGrath Institute for Church Life researching in systematic theology. He is the academic director of Notre Dame Vision, while also teaching in the Department of Theology. He is the recent author of What Matters Most.

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