Atemporality is an (a)historical concept aimed at contextualising the state of the networked world in the early 21st century, associated most prominently with speculative fiction novelists and technocultural critics William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.— William Gibson, BookExpo America, May 2010
Sterling expounded on the concept in his keynote speech for the panel "Atemporality - A Cultural Speed Control?" at the festival transmediale 10 in February 2010. In "Atemporality for the Creative Artist", Sterling postulates that historical narratives such as postmodernism and Francis Fukuyama's the end of history – which held that the aftermath of the Cold War a New World Order would pacify and conform the nations of the world to a neoliberal consensus – had been displaced in an unexpected environment of chronic geopolitical instability, global financial crises and the rise of network culture, and that a replacing narrative was unlikely in the near term. Rather than a progressive advancement of civilization, this era Sterling maintains would be "a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability ... an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks". Immediacy of access to unbounded information has dispelled both the predilection and capability to ground oneself in any particular grand historical schema. The yearning for futurity and veneration for the past has been upended in this situation, leaving only an extended present – atemporality.
Historian Kazys Varnelis has declared "Sterling's conclusion that network culture produces a form of historical consciousness marked by atemporality" to be an epoch-defining observation. Varnelis asserts that although like postmodernism, this conception of network culture posits a failure of prevailing narratives, two are distinct as while advocates of postmodernism cast this breakdown as a temporal rupture (and thereby "repeat a fundamentally modernist move"), network culture refuses to try to position itself in a succession of eras. Varnelis supports this with the observation that large-scale periodization – the naming of eras – had been largely discontinued since the rise of network culture; unlike previous decades, no single term had prevailed as a descriptor for the decade 2000–2009. "The lack of a proper name for the decade is no mere product of a linguistic difficulty or a confusion between century, millennium, and decade.", Varnelis writes. "Rather it suggests that we no longer seem capable of framing our time."
Academic Alex Reid has associated Sterling's description with Alexander Halavais' ruminations on the novel diffusion of mobile telephony in both developed and underdeveloped worlds, and the account of vectors of technological innovation advanced by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus.
Atemporality is the core setting for Gibson's 21st century writing, specifically for the novels Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007), and Zero History (2010). Gibson, historically acclaimed as a prophetic science fiction futurist for his groundbreaking cyberpunk fiction most notably with Neuromancer (1984), gradually abandoned future setting in this later work until coming to describe this trilogy as "speculative fiction of Last Thursday", situated contemporaneous to their composition. Pattern Recognition centers on a search for the source of "the footage" – atemporal cultural artefacts of anonymous, net-distributed film, and touches also on the timelessness of the minimalist aesthetic adopted by protagonist Cayce Pollard. Zero History revisited Gibson's preoccupation with the autonomy of subcultures, (bohemias as "the dreamtime of industrial civilization") and the concern that the intensifying pace of commodification by coolhunters had outstripped the incubation period subcultures need to grow into distinctive resilient entities. Atemporality is adopted as a strategy of resistance, of "opting out of the industrialization of novelty", with an elusive clothing manufacturer, the Gabriel Hounds, taking the place of Pattern Recognition's footage as the talismanic vector for this trope.
Sterling cites the rise within the cultural sphere of cyberpunk derivatives of retro-futuristic genres – those that recast past technological eras in science fiction terms – as emblematic of atemporality. He and Gibson collaborated on one of the central works of the steampunk genre in The Difference Engine (1990), an alternate history of the Victorian era. Sterling would later remark that "atemporality, if you wanted the bumper sticker, is like steampunk with metaphysics".
- Gibson, William (May 31, 2010). "Book Expo America luncheon talk". WilliamGibsonBooks.com. Retrieved April 4, 2011.
- Sterling, Bruce (February 25, 2010). "Atemporality for the Creative Artist transcript". Wired.com. Retrieved April 4, 2011.
- Varnelis, Kazys (September 17, 2010). "Time. History Under Atemporality.". Culture in the Age of Networks: A Critical History. Retrieved April 6, 2011.
- Halavais, Alex (February 28, 2010). "Abstract of a Non-Existent Paper". A Thaumatalurgical Compendium. Retrieved April 4, 2011.
- Reid, Alex (February 28, 2010). "atemporality in the digital humanities". Alex-Reid.net. Retrieved April 4, 2011.
- "Zero History, Counter(cyber)culture, Atemporality, Network Realism…". Futurismic. October 26, 2010. Retrieved April 6, 2011.
- Ulin, David L. (October 19, 2010). "Book review: Zero History by William Gibson". Los Angeles Times. Tribune Company. Retrieved April 5, 2011.
- Sterling, Bruce (February 25, 2011). "Transcript of Reboot 11 speech by Bruce Sterling, 25-6-2009". Wired.com. Retrieved April 4, 2011.
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- Initial series of Twitter posts by Gibson outlining atemporality
- BookExpo America talk by Wiliam Gibson, May 31, 2010
- "Atemporality - A Cultural Speed Control?" – panel from transmediale 10 featuring Sterling's keynote
- "Atemporality and the Passage of Time" – Sterling speech at the European Graduate School in May 2009
- "on atemporality" by Kazys Varnelis
- Atemporality Onward and Always Inward by Adam Rothstein
- All Real Atemporal Shit. No authenticity. by Adam Rothstein
- "Network Realism" – examination of atemporality in Gibson's Zero History by James Brindle
- Critique of the abandoning of futurity on the part of speculative fiction authors by Russell T Davies
- "The Year Doesn't Matter Any More" by Marcelo Rinesi, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
Category:Concepts Category:Contemporary history Category:Contemporary philosophy Category:Futurology Category:Historical eras Category:Philosophy of history Category:Science fiction culture Category:Science fiction themes Category:Social change Category:Sociology of culture