A professor of mine disparages the work of contemporary theorists and philosophers with the following: “Yes, that article/this book is ok, but will anyone read it in fifty years?” He, comes the smug next sentence, only reads work that has withstood the test of time. Only work by dead people: German idealists; Greek rhetors; Kant, Hegel, Marx.
His is not a unique prejudice, nor is this a question of relevance only to academic work. The same debates over worth and longevity hang over literature. How many times have you gone to the library and run your fingers covetously over the spines of contemporary fiction, before steeling yourself for a trip down the classics aisle? There is not enough time to read, so we ought to make sure we’re reading the best of it, right? Those of us who read in English confront the vast history of Western literature, the proliferation of post-colonial Anglophone literatures, and the substantial output of the American translation industry. Every book we pick up is laden with history, citations uncited, echoes untraceable.
My professor’s question applies to all manner of works. Take music. Which songs become classics? Which artists endure? The Beatles play in 2010, but for how much longer? And what about The Boogie Kings, The Bonnie Sisters, or any of the other “1950s music groups” that reside now on Wikipedia, having died the death of obsolescence decades ago? I won’t enter here into the fraught debates about mechanical reproduction, high culture and low, commercial and mass cultural production. My interest is only in time. When, and for how long? How do we understand the aspiration of immortality? How do we value the work that only lives for a day? The work that lives for the day?
We are, as a society (if it is possible to generalize about “society”), of two minds about the times in which we live. On the one hand, there is a general championing of presentism when it comes to the individual life. From adages (“Life is a gift; that’s why it’s called the present”) to pop-psychology, we are surrounded by injunctions to focus on the here and now. “No day but today,” in the spirit of Rent. Carpe diem. Don’t harp on the past; don’t stress about the future.
But, in the work we do, we are expected to strive for something far greater than our precariously fleeting present. The books and songs we write, the movies we make, the machines we design, the companies we start, and the families we raise, are written, made, designed, started, and raised to outlast us. We live in the present, and yet we work for the future. We are consigned to the now, and yet we dream of the later.
There’s nothing new, of course, about the mortal desire for immortality. Our lives begin and must end, and between those bookends we each have the chance to “make something of ourselves.” What interests me more is the idea that we each have the chance to make something that will outlast us. Some thing that will live on. Isn’t this why so many millions have embraced the internet, with its promise to archive all images of a life, its self-publishing tools, its cache and memory? Today, not only Shakespeare lives on, but every proverbial Tom, Dick, or Harry (Tarun, Dhruv, or Hari) who has a Flip Video or a blog can make his mark, and hope some 22nd–century Googler will happen upon it and remember. We haven’t yet undertaken the sustained archaeological excavation of the internet, but surely we will. Never before have so many left so many traces.
And yet, as our traces proliferate, as more and more of us write and create and invent, the possibility of one’s work truly outlasting the self, of achieving the judgment of posterity, diminishes. Simply put, in centuries past, fewer people (read: wealthy Western men) had the means to create work that would endure in the future; most were caught up in the daily labors of life. Now that men and women around the world can think, write, record, and create work that will live on, little seems up to the standard of the “classics.” Thus my professor’s dismissal of contemporary academic work. Thus the putative low quality of contemporary music, film, and art. Most of what we consume in a day—emails, TV shows, advertisements, magazines, blog posts, articles, movies, books—now goes the way of lunch and dinner.
Perhaps, this is liberating. Perhaps we are today freed from the expectation of working for the future and able instead to work for the now. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the book I write is not read in fifty years, or five. Perhaps the only judgment my work requires is that of the present. Perhaps we should not wait for history to validate what and who we are. Perhaps there is value in living only for a day. Perhaps, the value is in being truly of one’s time.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s world population clock, there are now 6,807,433,866 people in the world. Now 6,807,433,928. Now 6,807,433,985. 6,807,434,013. If I pause to think, to take a breath, there will be 400 new humans in the world.
Are we not audience enough for one another? If a few hundred or thousand or million of this almost seven billion reads your work, or sees her movie, or plays his song, is that not success? Is it not enough to address those who are alive now, with us, today? What manner of connection can we have with the future, in any case?
The age for which we strive is that in which we live. When the world ends, there won’t be anybody left to read Shakespeare, either.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.