Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Age of the Labyrinth

The Age of the Labyrinth, by Paul Halpern

The past century has been an era of labyrinthine complexity: a time of devastating warfare, massive population displacement, rapid advance in technology and tremendous political upheaval. With the century barely in its teens, World War I, one of the most destructive wars in human history, brought on the decimation of the major continental European Monarchies and led to the chaos of the Russian Revolution. The years leading up to World War II were hardly more placid; rather, they were times of unprecedented economic turbulence and dictatorial conquest. In more recent times humankind has witnessed even more terror and destruction, confusion and despair.

In the twentieth century the world was set aflame. The carcasses of the nineteenth century ideals of linear progress, rigid social order and scientific determinism all but vanished in this raging fire. Taking their place, new forms of art, music and the universe, constructs which they hope will help to explain the mechanisms of cosmic creation and destruction. New cosmological theories include the possibility that time is continually forking, that our universe is just one of many and that wormholes connect different cosmic sectors in a sort of inter-universal web.

As radical as these notions may sound, their implications have already been explored by a wide range of modern writers. From the fragmented universe of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to the statement by Borges that "time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures," innovative writers have demonstrated much foresight in realizing new "shapes" of time and space. Along with the universe models developed by cosmologists, these literary creations provide powerful metaphors by which we may understand the new spatial and temporal conceptions of our society. They point the way for the consideration of a new paradigm of nature and culture, based on the image of the labyrinth.

In Time Journeys: The Search for Cosmic Destiny and Meaning (Mc Graw-Hill, 1990), I showed how the circular time notions of agricultural society evolved during the Middle Ages and Renaissance into the linear temporal viewpoints of the early industrial era. Interestingly, this paradigm shift took place both in physics and in society. However, that was just the beginning of the story.

In modern times, literature and science have increasingly assumed labyrinthine structures. Physics, art and literature have all been discarding the linear temporal and spatial notions of the past in favor of structures of far more complexity.

In the history of humankind there have been two major paradigm shifts regarding space-time perception. The first was the replacement of cyclical time and space with linear models, roughly following the transformation from stable agricultural to dynamic industrial societies. In physics this change came about with the discovery of the law of increasing entropy, a law which dictated that time must have an arrow of directionality. In literature, cyclical, epic stories in which there was no character development were replaced by novels in which real change occurred. So, linear models of space and time (ideas of unidirectional progress or decay) dominated science and literature until quite recently.

However, as Alvin Toffler, among others, has pointed out, we have moved far beyond the old industrial era into a post-industrial age, an age in which complexity and compartmentalization predominate. I assert that this change in society has heralded a second paradigm shift in both literature and science, in effect bringing on the "age of the labyrinth."

What characterizes the literature of this new era? Fragmentation, multiple speakers, shifts in perspective, stream of consciousness, random imagery and forking timelines are some of the key features of the writings of modern authors such as Joyce, Calvino, Borges, Garcia Marquez, Eco and Vonnegut. These writers set out to model a universe of boundless possibilities--a world in which anything can happen and chance is god.

The fullest expression of the age of the labyrinth is in the complexity of the internet. Linear encyclopedias no longer function as favored information sources, having been replaced by a colossal web of hypertext links. At this point, to navigate the full extent of this maze would take many lifetimes.

I hope that this blog offers a stable vantage point for observing the modern labyrinth of science and literature, space and time.

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