“Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.” (Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 1981)
Literary critics, and more recently, linguistic anthropologists, have employed Bakhtin’s term chronotope, which translates directly to “timespace,” to assert the indivisible relationship between time, space, and language: language always happens in a material space and time, and it evokes a space that is always set somewhere (somewhen?) in time and visa versa. When we communicate, our semiotic items travel through space and time, connecting different timespaces through the vector of the sign. Linguistic anthropologists, as they just loooove to do, have also added the messy element of people into the mix: certain kinds of people (voices+bodies) can become associated with certain timespaces through the way people talk about space and/or time.
Some questions that might look at chronotopes for their answers include: how do we make sense of the present moment through talking about other places and times? What are the implicit physical spaces or bodies we imagine when we talk about a time, or what imagined timescales are implicit when we talk about certain bodies or spaces? Think: treating indigenous peoples as though they exist in an archaic timespace far away and, importantly, a long, long time ago.
Thus, one useful application of the chronotope concept is to shine a light on the indexical relationships between two units of timespace, which is to say, to figure out what their semiotic connective tissue is made of. These two events are often cast as: Chronotope Now, the here-and-now of a given speech event being observed, and Chronotope Then, a constructed or imagined, but recognizably labeled, chronotope that happens in a semiotically-mediated elsewhere/-when. Chronotope Now has primary status, it has “more” materiality, it is the origin point of observation, it is pinned down in the data. Perhaps the time/space/voices associated with Chronotope Then can also be pinned down materially through data, through long-term ethnography or archival research (or if it’s a futuristic timespace, using time machines!), but it isn’t the focal point per se; it isn’t the place from which the observer herself situates her own voice for the speech event of her analysis.
I have been noticing a speech pattern on social media that casts the year 2016 into a similar semiotic relationship as the one between Chronotope Now and Chronotope Then. Only the wonky part is that it must be something more like Chronotope Now and Chronotope Now1.
There is a widespread figure of speech circulating on Twitter and Facebook, in many variations, to reject 2016, to denounce it, to renounce it, or simply to prop it up as a knowable thing and then detest that thing. This is happening while we are still very much deep in its throes—even my use of “throes” right there is a reinscription of the cruelty of this year, as a thing capable of enacting cruelty. We are discursively metastasizing 2016 into a viable agent. Can a year be the agent of action?
It is being coded into its own realtime-convergent chronotope: it is happening now but it is also a “now” against which speakers are actively rebelling, trying to dissociate from, denounce, cast off (through speech acts!).
There are three key components to look for when analyzing a chronotope: time, space, and bodies. If 2016 is the time (even as we treat it like a person), which bodies are we invoking with the “fuck 2016” denunciative speech act? The dead bodies. Which spaces? The sites of spectacular violence, and the hospital rooms, deathbeds and elevators where our larger-than-life celebrity bodies have transitioned from living bodies to dead ones. Two other major signifiers that seem to inspire people to tell 2016 to make its own transition off this mortal coil: Trump and Breixit, both of which, as semiotic entities, are beset with ominous auras of violence upon Brown and Black bodies.
One might also ask, among all the seconds and minutes that add up to 2016 (or at least its first six months in office), which seconds and minutes “count” as this entity that is being told unceremoniously to sod off over and over again? What happens when only those moments count as time, or count most? (Cue: Exceptional Violence by Deborah Thomas, 2011).
When we semiotically create an active, agentive thing that is 2016, do we risk allowing the time-y-ness of the label to subsume the constitutive parts of the whole chronotope? It isn’t just a year: it’s a calendar, plus a map and a body count. But they get bundled and zipped into one folder, flattened into one PDF, file name “2016.”
What is the social effect of identifying 2016 as an agent inflicting its cruelty on us? What else is happening to/by us, psycho-socially, when we enregister 2016 into a culpable punisher, an Old Testament god?
Another angle on how we talk about 2016: It pals around with the crimey/terroristy/surveillance-state register of speech. 2016 is Public Enemy #1. It is a fugitive with a price on its head. It is on the terrorist watch list and we want a drone to quietly take it out. It is a foreign despot and, despite our liberal notions and ostensible embrace of Western human rights, we’re just about ready to say we’re fine with covertly assassinating it, just this once!
Is it easier to talk and think about 2016 as the agent doing unspeakable things to “us”? (who that “us” is, in this participation framework, is another Pandora’s Box to open up!) Of course it is easier; it is cathartic even. It implies a light at the end of the tunnel: 2016 will eventually end, and take its madness with it.
We (now that I’ve questioned who the “us/we” is, I’m in big trouble! Let’s say for now “we” is the people participating in uttering/listening/reading this chronotope into existence) are traumatized; we are exhausted with pointing a finger (that classic icon of indexicality) at real people, of denouncing real material events. And pointing around within Chronotope Now is messy; we find our pointing can boomerang back onto us with the next cycle of backlash thinkpieces. So we send the pointing to bounce through a hall of mirrors, toward this one mirror whose frame seems to catch most of the bad stuff, and it is labeled 2016.
The “Eff You, 2016!” spirit gets ginned up, perhaps most visibly, with each celebrity death that we have collectively mourned this year. The sample tweets above were all (very lazily) culled within a few minutes earlier today for the purposes of churning out this post, and mostly come from the UK where it was announced this morning that a beloved comedian, Caroline Aherne, lost her battle to cancer. Notable iterations of this pattern surrounded the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and Muhammad Ali. Invoking 2016 as the villain on these occasions, as well as the occasion of deaths of more obscure celebrities like Malik Izaak Taylor (Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest), Alan Rickman, or Prince Be (of PM Dawn), has become a way of performing intimacy with the cultural imprint of the deceased, tightening the bond between the mass-mediated celebrity persona and the consumer.
It is a speech act that says, “2016, you are a thief who took something away from me that was mine!” That something is also a someone, but generally these speakers never made physical contact with the body they are grieving in “real” timespace. They are grieving the something that equates to the mass-mediated signs they engaged with, which at some point link back to the timespace these celebrities physically inhabited. Of course, all of that zig-zagging in no way invalidates anyone’s grief, nor makes their cultural intimacy less real.
But it may be of interest that as celebrity culture comes to occupy more of our everyday lives and emotional bandwidths—especially through our participation in social media and the internet—we find ourselves seeking ways to harness the very vehicles of social media and the internet to perform speech acts of intimacy, grief, and rage that feel more real, more true to our experience of pain, than all this mediatedness would seem to permit. The same is true for acts of spectacular violence that we are not usually linked to directly but we participate in ad nauseum through reportage. Denouncing time itself feels more outspoken, i.e. more sincere, i.e. more unmediated, than recycling the same dirges, slapping another flag filter on one’s profile picture. It goes without saying that “thoughts and prayers” are off the table.
And yet this particular “blame 2016”-ing way of performing realness is first and foremost an act of distancing, leaping out of space and time, escaping the here-and-nowness of our here-and-now. It is science fiction, and well-wrought at that, for when reality gets stranger (or simply worse) than fiction.
For the purposes of exploring these ideas, I am focusing on “Die 2016” chronotopers who don’t have in-person ties to the people and events they are lamenting when they use the trope. For those who do—friends and family members of the deceased, current/former residents of geographical spaces where events of major mediatized violence has occurred—there may be something slightly different going on. The lamented event really will take on a Chronotope Then status in the narrative arc of their memory; 2016 will be the year they lost that loved one, or perhaps lost a certain kind of trust in their hometown. This is the kind of grieving that cultural studies has tackled with great aplomb for the last century; see: everything ever written about the Holocaust and memory. Here, in 2016 vs. 2016, there is no distance of memory, or we are wagering on a future of memory that doesn’t yet exist. Andre Aciman has written about this brilliantly through the metaphor of financial arbitrage—trading on a future of remembering through displacement in the present moment.
In this post, I try to focus on those for whom the mediated events of 2016 are taking on a superlative, extraordinary status, which they are grouping under the aegis of the numbered year as the most salient common denominator. (Not opiate addiction, not toxic masculinity, not Cause X of a given death or event—although there is tons of tweeting and blogging surrounding these issues to be sure.) I am venturing to argue that performing this particular speech act, inscribing 2016 as a chronotope defined by death and loss, is a collective process in which we are talking through feeling real, and really feeling, amid so much supposedly “surreal” mediation.
It is a very roundabout way of doing so: it renders our experience of space and time all the more surreal, anthropomorphosing a unit of time (and its attendant spaces) and imagining it as acting on us and the bodies of others that we feel we are losing. But it feels real to tear a page off your calendar (or click the little arrow to the next page, because digital calendars are still overwhelmingly programmed like paper ones), to start writing “2017” on your forms, to drink and kiss at midnight and imagine a clean slate being ushered in with tomorrow’s hangover. It doesn’t stop time, or disease, or human violence from killing us, to discursively kill 2016 over and over again, but it seems to be a way of feeling bad that feels good in the meantime.