The Only Possible World

December 5, 2011

Essay by architect and writer Paul Shepheard.


Mas issue aberration the only possible world 01

Gannet drowned, Isle of Mull, 2006. © Paul Shepheard.

“Utopia” is the word invented by Thomas More five hundred years ago at the start of the modern age to describe the ideal society. It’s composed of Latin parts that, taken together, mean “no place” or nowhere.” We now use the word utopia to mean an impossible dream of perfection.

How To Like Everything is part of a project to recast the actual world, the world we already live in, as utopia-to make the impossible possible.

In his 1759 satire Candide, Voltaire lampoons the philosopher Dr. Pangloss for the positive spin he peddles. Pan-gloss means explain-everything. To every fresh disaster that befalls his innocent young friend Candide, he reasons that “everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Dr. Pangloss is a parody of the German philosopher Leibnitz, who was one of the three great seventeenth-century rationalists, with Descartes and Spinoza. They all shared the same difficulty: they had to reconcile reason with the Creation. It is of consequence for us that the Age of Reason was constructed before Darwin, and that we have had to adapt it to our needs—and a mass of confusion has flowed from the patching up that’s ensued. But in those days it was too dangerous to publicly describe a world that had not been made by God. For Descartes, the division between mind and matter could be reconciled by divine dispensation. For Spinoza, nature itself was synonymous with divinity. And Leibnitz said that everything that existed did so independently of everything else, but in a set of relations chosen by God: this world is the best of all possible worlds because God selected it out of the infinite choices He had. How much plainer would reason be if it kicked divinity out! For example, this is the best of all possible worlds because it exists in the present. There is, actually, in the second it takes you to read this sentence, no other way for it to be. This is the only possible world.

I want to make a distinction between the real world and the actual world. The real world is the matrix that frames our lives. It is not one world; it is whatever we imagine it, whatever we agree, by custom or force, to say it is. Money, politics, technology and faith are what frame it. War and injustice are its life and death matters. At any one time on the globe, there are many such worlds. They change slowly as the generations devolve and empires rise and fall. They are complex, but understandable.

The actual world is the thing itself. Unlike the real, it is simple but incomprehensible. It is the spinning planet and everything on it as it is now, in the present, in this split second. It is not the same thing as it was ten minutes ago, or ten years ago, or ten million years ago.

That turbulence is what the real worlds are trying to arrest with their histories and their plans, but in the actual world, there is no past and no future, only the present. All we know of it is in the present. All we know of the past we know because it is here with us now, in living memories or in the material record, whether books, pictures and buildings, or fossils and sediments. The Parthenon, the greatest building in the world, is of the past, but stands here in the present, in ruins, on its sacred hill. The perfection it had is gone, now only described in the chronicles, but we know about it because those chronicles too are with us in the present. And the future? What we know of the future, all the plans we lay, all the projections we make, are here with us too, hatching in the present.

The present matters to How To Like Everything because the idea of everything, with its preposterous inclusiveness, is only manageable in that way. Here and now is everything: but the next instant will produce its own new catalog. When I carried this suggestion into a seminar at the academy in Amsterdam, they all objected. The serial instants of the incoming present—next, click, next, click, next—are too short to carry any information. There must be some duration for ‘everything’ to show itself—and how long is that? A camera can freeze a galloping horse at a thousandth of a second. A blink of the eye is one twentieth. Both so short you don’t notice them. So how long is the present in which everything shows itself?

Try this. Why are hit singles three minutes long? Is it the short attention span of contemporary youth? Or is that the length of time it takes to perceive something new? Think of yourself looking at something for the first time, how long did it take to sink in? Is that it? Is the present three minutes long? Maybe it’s three days. Or the Jesuit’s seven years! Give me a boy for seven years and I will show you the man. Or perhaps it is your whole life, because the riposte to the assertion of ‘no past, no future, only present’ is the duration of a human life, with all its accumulated memories. It is the overlapping of generational memories that produces a consensus, inside the tribe, about the nature of the world.

I guess this is post modernism. Modernists don’t need names, they don’t need personalities, they need the truth. Post modernism, by contrast, is a quagmire of cross-reference and attribution. Its materialism needs the bodies, so it’s person-dependent. The Hell’s Angels were originally fighter pilots, returned from the war in Germany all hopped up with the adrenalin of fighting and killing and unable to settle back into ordinary life. You could start post modernism with them. You go on with the Beats, Kerouac and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, with their experimental howling, and continue with Debord and COBRA and the Situationists and The Society of the Spectacle and abstract expressionism and pop art and student protest, and then on with Foucault and Deleuze, hammers in hands and the sparks flying, and with Derrida and Lyotard who encapsulated the impulse and put it into slogans that everyone could understand. Deconstruction! The post modern sublime!

What have these people done? Their intention may have been to slow the supertanker of the Western modern project in its progress, to tug it to a stop, but what if the new project itself is just another description of change, another bloody metaphorical boat? The success of the post modern is not to recast change but to reframe the understanding of it, in order that we may ask, what is civilization? It may not be for progress. It may not be for defending the perimeter. It may not even be for equality.

A recent flowering of the sequence outlined above is the idea of the end-of-history, in which the utilitarian drive to eliminate the obstacles to the good life is seen to be at last complete. We have our global economy, we have eliminated distance electronically, now we just have to get on with it. History was an invention Europe used to explain itself to itself, and now it’s over. We no longer live in the time of history and revolution, but in the space of each other. Ecology, for example, is a spatial awareness—might that be the actual world? Not a historical, time-based awareness—is that the real world?

The humanists substitute human for god. The end of history substitutes space for time. But the utopia that is How to Like Everything needs an end to dialectics. It requires opposites to be brought together, mixed up and emulsified. The actual world is not an alternative to the real world; it is the raw material of it. So where is that utopia of the possible—and when is it? One explanation of the present moment, in which the actual world can be glimpsed, is Einstein’s theory of relativity. His word “spacetime” was made to frame the nature of existence. Space is where and time is when, but the two are inseparable; hence “spacetime.” The two questions “where?” and “when?” could likewise be written together, as “wherewhen?” It is the question to which the answer is “herenow.”

And here’s a complication. If space and time were time and space instead, “timespace,” and the question was not where and when but when and where, “whenwhere” the answer here and now, “herenow,” would be now and here, which comes together as ‘nowhere.’ Nowhere! And so, back to utopia. The only possible world.