The Search for Global Consciousness in Contemporary Migrant Literature: Introduction Part I
Media have changed how individuals and communities relate to ‘time’ and ‘space’ in different periods of history. In pre-literate societies, communication was predominantly oral. Pre-literate societies understood the world through the stories, myths, and legends they shared. These stories were not static, or perfectly remembered, but rather dependent on the memory and performance of the storyteller during the moment of telling. Storytellers employed mnemonic devices to help them recall the chronology of events, and innovated upon commonly known tropes—such as places, characters, symbols—to provide entertainment through the introduction of clever twists or alterations of popular plots. In such a society, tradition, the past, and memory were constantly recycled, reinvented, and changed to cater to the needs of the living present (Grossberg 35-37). Just as storytellers used the fabric of old legends to weave new stories, oral societies believed that it was imperative to use storytelling to renew sacred time into the shifting present. According to Mircea Eliade’s studies of vegetation rituals, if stories about the gods and ancestors were not narrated every year, then there was a real fear that time, morals, society, and the universe itself would collapse (Eliade xi, 51).
The invention of writing changed humanity’s relation to memory, the past, and community. If before writing the past was something lived, recycled, and changing, then the past would become fixed and rigid with the help of pen and paper. In literate societies, religious texts like the Qu’uran and the Bible became fixed in distant, inaccessible, golden pasts—stories directly recorded from the Word of God. Once stories are perfectly recorded, they became less accessible to change and innovation, and usually only interpretations of their meanings would differ. Priests could then make truth claims in ways that were not previously possible; truth became something literal and self-evident (Grossberg 38). With the documentation of events, the past, unless re-written and challenged, remained fixed. In the European tradition, for example, the past has fossilized into discrete moments in time allotted a date and meaning. These dates, like rungs on a ladder, measure the distance between the imagined community of the now with the imagined community of the then. According to Grossberg, memory is a ledger; people imagine the past as being something that can be recalled and approached with a detailed objectivity—like a historian, wandering back into the library of the mind, searching for the right book (Grossberg 41). Just as one can read a text backward and forward, time can be read backward and forward, projecting an objective past through narrative into the projection of an attainable future.
Media have not only changed conceptions of time within society, but also conceptions of space. For speech to travel in oral societies, it would have required the movement of physical bodies or a sequential transmission of sound. It can be difficult to move bodies, and when one communicates by word of mouth the message distorts the further it moves away from the original source—like a game of telephone. Individuals in pre-literate societies, in this way, could not travel far from their traditional storytellers without risking a rupture of their relationship with stories or the past. If members were to diverge from their community, the stories they carried with them would mutate, and new story-telling traditions and communities would emerge—just as the animals of a shared species, ruptured from its brothers and sisters after migrating to a new environment, develop new combinations of DNA.
Writing, by contrast, easily travels through time and space and was therefore able to create different kinds of community. One can carry a letter for miles and miles without diluting the initial content of whatever was penned to the page (Grossberg 38). The political system of the Roman Empire, for example, which extended across vast distances, would have been impossible without the letter and the word-for-word inscription of the Emperor’s will onto parchment. Before writing, effectively communicating instructions from the center of the Empire to its periphery was impossible (Grossberg 40, Lule 42). In a similar vein, the invention of the printing press had a revolutionary impact on society through its contribution to the creation of the nation-state; the proliferation of novels, newspapers, and journals made it possible for individuals separated by vast distances to imagine themselves as part of an imagined community united in space by shared values, institutions, and languages (Lule 43).
This historical overview of the relationship of media to perceptions of time and space and their effect on community formation is not exhaustive. But it does gesture towards how conceptions of time and space effect notions of the ‘self’ in relation to one’s social and material environment, and help to frame the eternal questions, where did we come from, where are we going, and where have we been? After all, it is impossible to conceptualize homelands, the afterlife, and senses of meaning and belonging without fixing these ideas on some kind of imagined temporal and spatial map—maps which media, as the structured vehicle of our cognitive communication, effect. It is for this reason that revolutions in media technology over the past half century, like television, telephone, and the Internet; access to rapid transportation, and the movement of bodies; increased migration, resulting from war, displacement, and desire for economic opportunity; and the expansion of global capitalism, are combining to impact how we perceive time and space, and thus, ourselves, our communities, and our world. Given these disjunctures, which are allowing people to communicate instantaneously across space and easily travel across vast distances, I would like to pose the question:
How do new forms of media, increased inter-connectivity, and migration affect how we imagine spatial and temporal relationships; and, secondly, how do these assumptions affect how we relate to contemporary communities and communities in the process of formation?
1.) Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return, Or, Cosmos and History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.
2.) Grossberg, Lawrence. Mediamaking: Mass Media in a Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2006.
3.) Lule, Jack. Globalization and Media: Global Village of Babel. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012.
(Arjun Appadurai was not directly cited here, but his work played a large role in the later development of the paper’s argument.)