/ November 2022

My three great life-long obsessions are language, time, and numbers. These converge to the principal quotidian and narrative forcefield I feel: rhythm. The placement of motions in time. Temporal structures and branches. A system to beautify primes. Motions and counter-motions, labyrinths arising from the humble decisions of when to do things. This essay will discuss rhythm and arrhythmia in various ways, ultimately wondering why we have become so historically adrift. We have lost our sense of time, and we dearly must find it.

I began playing drums after beating my body with rhythms daily for one year. I almost always know what time it is. I brush my teeth in time, wash dishes on beat. I listen to the pace and pattern in speech. I am good at estimating how long tasks will take.

I count, I tap, I strike absentmindedly detritus beside me. I organize stimuli into patterns in time. I am rarely late. I match the tempo of the words that I read.

There is a rhythm in all things, and they all fascinate me.

My all-time favorite movie is Koyaanasqatsi (1982), a beautiful work of art comprising magnificent camera shots of natural and urban scenes along with a soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass. I have had the opportunity to observe that almost any sufficiently good song seems to cohere with the imagery, which I believe is because there will inevitably be harmony between a visual subrhythm of the imagery and an audio subrhythm of the music, be the harmony real or implied by some uncapturable natural polyrhythm between sight and sound.

This is the source of so much aesthetic complexity: interplay between patterns of spacing, polyrhythm, dialogue of motions. The body of the dancer is in no way comparable to music except with regards to two creatures’ motions in time, yet the alignment of said motions allows one to pair the orthogonal languages of visual movement and sonic waves.

To view things rhythmically is to decompress the spectrum of actions, to see how the endlessly-detailed spacing of things (as in art, labor, and life) expands into an ability for any two patterns in time to communicate. To recognize that, as a corollary, the placement of things in time has an inherent aesthetic quality. Be the sound the machete stroke or the broom sweep, the cut of the knife or the speech of the teacher, key-tapping or gear-shifting, all of our actions are rhythmic.

We inhabit thus lives of polyrhythmic infinity, fractals in our conscious and subconscious arrangements of our bodies, our minds, our steps, our lives against the relentless tempo of time. The Zen respect for all labor, acknowledging that there is beauty in all actions, that washing a dish with intentionality is as aesthetic as creating a work of art. The denial of the concept of unskilled labor by having the respect and attentiveness to appreciate the craft in all things.

Just as in music so too in all rhythms must we strive towards chorus, concurrence, coherence. To recognize when broad structural rhythms create derivative subrhythms against us (say, the mechanization of our bodies and minds, our enslavement to the pace of the machines we coerce into labor, enraptured by algorithmic reminders and suggestions dictating our days (I have even tragically come to learn of a recent app in which you are commanded to take a photo within minutes at a random time every day…)). To understand the endless chorus occurring amongst all things in motion (machines, living things, cosmic forces).

Within this vast inscrutable discourse finds itself our agency, constrained in infinite ways but free in infinitely more. To be able to discern which motions are fundamental and where we can strike our mark, the musician listening perfectly to know when best appropriate and harmonious for them to inject their most decisive moves. Most things never happen, but many things do.

And from this emerges craft: the practiced, learned placement of motions, the knowledge of what you cannot change and full intentionality when you do what you might (the smith’s hammer stroke against solid metal, the honest farmer’s thoughtful seeds watching the fickle climate). There is craft in all things, for in all things we navigate the rhythmic landscape around us to ascertain which spaces are foreclosed but which boundless paths remain untrod. The skill of craft is the knowledge of how to fit our motions into the vastness of it all.

Just as there is craft in the placement of physical motions, so too within the placement of motions in life: when to leave, when to return; how long to stay, how long to wander; to study or to fight, to celebrate or to mourn. Such an enormous confluence of powers produce the arrangement of our decisions, the minutiae of our mobile bodies adding beats against the chaos. Dangerous though it be to think so, the direction of our lives is an aesthetic expression.

I make random decisions but I make them intentionally. I aspire to engage in something if and only if I engage fully. Always there remain things which must be done, but so long as we acknowledge their necessity and perform the task beautifully, no form of labor need be less valuable than any other. To live every moment with full intentionality and respect for why it is what must be done, to have such experience and understanding of the arrangement of actions to always know why a motion must be done when it is: this is the ideal of craft.

But we are enmeshed in the polyrhythmic universe, and tragically there is breakdown in the system. We have wrapped ourselves in the thorny vine of mechanical rhythms. Our daily routines have cowered and morphed to adhere to the rhythm of our machines: the timer and beep of the microwave, the cycle of the washer, traffic light patterns, train schedules, streetlamps, algorithmic commands – our rhythms subverted and overridden by the machines we built to buy ourselves more mortal time.

We thus lose avenues offering the regular expression of aesthetic judgment, replaced by the crafty machines (and of course, the aligned superstructure of oligarchic and professional-managerial construction of labor and consumption patterns). We lose our appreciation for the order of things and our belief that we too can be aesthetic. And so we lose our imagination, for every imaginary is one of a different rhythm of life.

We have stumbled into a period of arrhythmia, of vast disunity between the existing rhythms of our lives and those we yearn for, a time of conflict between the aspirational constant craft of a free existence and the capitalist reality of the imposition of tempo. There is a discord and directionlessness in our various creativities, an incoherence in our collective motion.

How could it be otherwise? The goal is consumption without rhythmic assumption. If you can consume, consume – what could be more wasteful than precious time spent reflecting on intentions rather than purchasing products? Everything must always speed up, faster and faster, larger and grander til we stack our plastic postmodern Babel to the crown of stars and from it leap into void –

To work is to maximize capital with which we maximize products and sights and sounds, all of the hedonism we can assemble to insulate ourselves from the abyss. The tempo is given and known: as rapid as can be! Why wait to work, why wait to spend? Why wait to grow, why wait to mend?

We no longer choose our own tempos. The self-replicating physicality of production and wage labor is the new conductor. The machines of steel work with a rhythm programmed by their gods, and so too has become the expectation for machines of mortal bone.

From Merwin’s “Thanks”:

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

Faster and faster hurtles oblivion but perhaps with oblique pauses of gratitude for what is in the face of what isn’t we can take back the pace of things robbed from us in such insidious ways…

All of this is to say we have lost our sense of craft. It exists now only as museum-destined relic in the lives of the “less advanced” or as an image sold back to us by equivalently-industrial manufacturers. But this to me seems to be the crucial concept to recover. Intentionality. To live our lives with a sense that our motions from the steps of our feet to the smiles on our face to the strokes of our tools and the scopes of our visions all mean something. To recognize the value of restraint, that our powers of production and consumption are not self-justifying. Patient inaction as worthwhile as instant action if you know why you wait.

But the structure which surrounds us is one of discord. The physical “rhythms of space” (to borrow from Le Corbusier) define our rhythms in time. We time our steps with the passing automobiles. We crave algorithmic route-finding since our spaces are not designed for human locomotion. We await automized doors of privatized stores and move through queues to purchase our goods. Our hours synchronize away from the sun and towards financial centers.

There is such violence in this mechanical restructuring of time posing as the natural way of things. What could be more alienating than to have the minutiae of our motions operating under a matrix of external clocks?

So too know the many, for the popular reaction against the theft of our tempo is as massive as it is politically incoherent. It is widely felt that in this grand temporal realignment we have lost our craft, our appreciation for the irreplicable specificity in all things. Fascism has always wielded this as a main tool: the industrial elite do not value specificity, so we must fight back with ethnic essentialism. Would that we could embark on a political project centering specificity through the appreciation of craft and space rather than those cruel specificities of division over which we have no agency.

But alas! The problem is only intensifying, the new dream being the total annihilation of specificity under a hegemonic digital universe in which rhythms in space and time both dissolve into a preprogrammed life. What greater gift could we give the fascists than a ready-to-serve narrative that our entire physical existence is nothing but an inconvenient impediment to the march of universalizing homogeny? Of course, this should terrify us all; but we must regain the political mantle of specificity as giving glory to labor, culture, ways of moving through the world, rather than as giving a pretense of ontological legitimacy to social constructs.

Dare I demand deindustrialization? To do so would be to miss the point, which is not that tools inherently rob us of our rhythm, but that the political structure in which these tools arose has used them to intensify the destruction of craft. But there is a deep link between our politics and our culture, and the link runs through our worship of consumption and disrespect of labor. We crave machines to take our rhythms so that we may recline in sloth, the arrhythmia of consumptive hedonism a goal held above intentionality of time.

I do not want to destroy the machines but I do want to discipline them. I want the baseline assumption to be that of a physical life, and the introduction of machines to be subject to personalized, specific critiques as to how they will alter our daily patterns of agency and decision-making. We can keep our machines, but we must first keep our souls.

Try as we might to keep our own pace as individuals, we cannot escape the arrhythmia of the symphony which surrounds us. It is an illusion to think we can exile ourselves to a protected inner realm of our own tempos (hence the relentless failure of escapist utopian projects). We cannot escape the beat of the world, we cannot solo in a corner without the destructive interference of the macro-tune. We are doomed to have to redirect the composition to have any hope of redirecting our own solitary songs. But as any musician knows, all we must do to shift a song towards our own aims is play beautifully.

To imagine new lives is to imagine new rhythms. Let us strive to walk to our own beats, and perhaps in doing so we may uncover the never-imagined polyrhythm, the reorganization of the world as it is, which will recover our agency and avert our apocalypse. To all things there is a season, and ours is that of revolution.