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On the Need for Decay


By Asger Trier Kjær

Something lost
I was raised in an age of change. Like it is the case with any sort of change, this age did not elapse unawkwardly. It seems that the adaptation of information technology in the Danish state school system hit adolescence around the same time as I did: We both felt that sensational feeling of having finally grown out of our childhood shoes, but were still not quite fit to wear those high heels and patent leather shoes that real grown-ups wear. Trotting to keep up with a world that was gradually disclosing before our eyes, we never seemed to realise that just as much as we were entering a new domain, we were leaving an old one. Life seemed to render so much novelty that the quondam got lost in our commencement. This is a story of something that was lost in the shuffle, that slipped into the stream of a fast-approaching future.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Much underwent change during my childhood. I went from being obsessed with Lego to being obsessed with sports, and later to being obsessed with girls. I went from thinking that starting  school would be the beginning of real life, whatever that was, to thinking that leaving school would be so – and later to doubting if it would ever come. At the time of my embarkation on the vessel of school, there was roughly one computer for every ten pupils; this changed radically, too. All too soon, slyly and unnoticeably so. Endings and beginnings are always the easiest parts to remember. The meantime, the in-between-the-milestones, tends to get submerged in our consciousness – the discrete inundates the continuous.

One of such beginnings (or was it an end?; this is what I am trying to find out) was a day in the mid-00s when my school, a state school somewhere in rural Denmark, made a visionary investment: it bought computers. Panting beasts that did everything in their capacity to imitate the take-off of a Boeing 747 whenever they were awoken from their sly hibernation. I remember the growl of reluctance that followed the push of the power button, like a  trigger, as though an explosion were being set off, and then the anticlimactic lameness of the blue start-up screen. These computers were not the first the school acquired; what made them extraordinary was that the administration had chosen not to put them away in the far corner of the school in some designated IT classroom, but to place them right in the centre so everybody could employ their properties– even during breaks.

These beasts were otherworldly. Portals to places where, after having waited anticipatorily in the pupil-ordered, meticulously structured queue for twenty minutes (a lifetime when you are a child),  one could peep into the vast landscapes of the Internet. Some dilemma one was now faced with in the break: either play football, which would doubtlessly be more fun, or stay inside and waste most of the break waiting for your turn which would feel as though it lasted but a couple of seconds. In spite of this, the latter seemed to exert upon us some irresistible magnetism. Naturally there was a strong social aspect. Surfing the Internet at home resembled only poorly, the sensation of doing so at school. It was all about finding intriguing content–anything from Habbo over to YouTube — and we were all oddly equal; neither age nor corporality mattered. Some stickman-thin, nerdy outsiders got much-needed renown as computer connoisseurs after having spent their upbringing on the playing field in mockery. Soon we found out that they were also helpful in class; put mildly, they turned learning (sadly not teaching) upside down. They concussed the reverence that the teachers held so dearly: With computers at hand, we could out-calculate and out-search any teacher to the point of despair. We were able to look up every fact – or so we thought. We believed in no one — except for the all-knowing Internet. Unsurprisingly this led to some ungainly situations; we learnt the art of source evaluation backwards and head-on practically.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Change outdoes inertia
As I recently found myself spending a quiet Sunday morning sharpening my entire collection of pencils (which comprises an unimpressive 27 of varying lengths and origins), I was reminded of these formative years. How the terpsichorean profusions of childhood were chastened into a strict choreography and an identity was formed. Born and raised on the brink of the future, there surely were hardships to bear up through. During my childhood the well-sharpened pencil was a trademark of literary effort, carved into the consciousness of the generation who had brought me up as an incarnation of the betterment they had lived to see. There were virtues pertaining closely to the meticulous art of handwriting, to the physicality of the paper and pencil: IT was, if not alien, at least second to the old methods that had been developed for ages. This view was analogous to my own experience; only I was lured as they were deterred.

If IT was considered insignificant, it surely came to show otherwise; more enigmatical is it to determine the specific character of this significance, that is, what it has done to the world. Not that its effects are scarce; rather that they present themselves so abundantly that their complexity veils their distinction. Every technological breakthrough throughout history has been ambivalent at its core; the introduction of IT into the school system is no exception. It has paved the way for both better teaching and misconduct. Neither is it different with regard to novelty: Whether embracing it or baulking at it, no one knew exactly what they were embracing or baulking at.

Yet the force of change is stronger than that of inertia; the arriving outdoes the endemic. This might be the unstoppable nature of evolution: When new orders come to fruition, our living must follow suit. We are never ready for radical change; were we so, it would not be radical. In this sense culture defers to development. However, it does not just defer, it also appraises. The awareness of the quondam must be the foundation of any understanding of the approaching. Change is illuminated only through the inertia with which it does away. To remember is thus to write a history not of the past, but of the present. The present into which I was hurled as a boy, the present in which I find myself now, has been a continuum of the decay of the known–and a coinciding, equally continuous apprehension of it. I keep my pencils not only for practical reasons, but also as a statement of remembrance, because so much of what I consider myself to be built of lingers in them. The strenuous efforts of those who laid the foundation are not to be taken for granted, the path by which we came to where we are at is not to be forgot.

Photo by Marat Gilyadzinov on Unsplash

History with a capital H
But this change occurs only surreptitiously. It seldom eventuates in realisation. A history of the unimagined never transpires; those who have lived have only their own petty remembrance. When I first tossed the school bag on my back and made for my virgin class, pristine and blissfully unaware, I knew not what lay before me. But slowly the rhythm of schooling propagated in my tissue and thought, the steady pulse of continuous learning became my own pulse. I went from learning to being a learner. I underwent a similar process in my gradually closer acquaintance with technology. At one point the exotic became mundane, and the adventure became routine. I felt one such singularity occur during the period between the point when the first of my most ahead-of-the-curve friends got fancy flip phones (which they did not hesitate to show off), and in 2006 when I got my own; between the first glimpse of the exotic new world and its integration in my everyday. At first this new world that was all too slowly arriving seemed to entail endless possibilities. And it  did– relative to what we came from, that is. The unknown is always endless, and just as much as our excitement was a sign of the unknown entering our world, it was a catalyser for our own entrance into the unknown, ultimately rendering it finite, meaningful, and given. We were moving into a new reality: finite, as it was no longer mysterious, meaningful, as we learnt to navigate within its language and logic, and given, as we soon adopted the reality of the virtual into our ontology. This was my own Fall of Man, my loss of innocence: I had incarnated in me the world I saw and thereby lost the purity of being an observer. History is mostly discreet; it pervades through us, cripples our ability to tell past from present. I have yet to know how my very consciousness morphed into its current form, what the pencils in the cup on my desk really signify; I can never myself write the history in the making of which I have partaken.

Such a history makes no sense; the approach must be positive. It is not as much a method for writing history as a reevaluation of its scope. For all intellectual purposes, history as a unanimous phenomenon eludes me. Yet this ostensible defeat of the historian unfolds a new methodology; for what comprises this positivism on which we must let our knowledge hinge? What is the anchor with which we hold on to truth? The answer seems given. True is only the past that makes sense within the logics of the present. Susceptible is only the history that can be written in the language of the contemporary. History is but a metaphorical vision of and by the synchronous, ie. the reflection of what we know through what we know. When we describe, it can only be the employment of this metaphoricity. We are so swathed in the world of our own that it is all we have; rather than writing history as an exact account of the world, the disclosure of the terms on which it is created must be the aim. Shed in this light, pencils represent something else to me: the physical manifestation, the delicacy of corporeality, the sufficiency of the local. They are, in short, what technology is not. In becoming a meaningful subject of history, they position themselves opposite the subjects which they can identify themselves as not being. This positioning is their work, not mine, for it happens without my knowing. They are metaphors, not just of the world of yesterday, of the change I have outlived, but also of my very understanding of the reality to which they relate.

This leaves me with a sense of a perspective. There is a carnality which so binds every conception to the muddily complex domain of metaphors and which imbues all production of reality. This applies to my pencils: They are carnal, their work is carnal, and in them a both unalterable and fragile originality inhere; that of history. The world is a world of decay in two aspects: in the processes we can perceive and objectify — the knowledge of which must thereby seem solid — and in the actual oblivion which determines our perceptiveness and of which we will never be aware — and which must ultimately render our knowledge delicate. Positivistic and phenomenological decay, respectively. Yet this bilateral interpretation is insufficient; if history is divided into that of the known and that of knowing, it necessitates a historicity on which its purview is conditioned. There lies in the epistemological scepticism a presupposition of a discernible determinant of perception. This determinant might be the limitedness of our purview itself: When new eras come about, they cannot merely be additions to the old world; they must substitute it, repress it until the point of its demise. Development, let alone chronology, cannot be accumulative, only transitional. When the down began forming on my upper lip, it did not merely cover my vernal skin, it completely eliminated it. Similarly, when IT entered my world, pencils terminated, as it were; their very essence was altered to such an extent that those that survived and found their way to the cup on my desk are made up of different matter. They can neither remember their past nor forget their present. In this sense, historicity is effectively an upheaval of history, a suspension of the narrative: History is an assertion of the current, the current an assertion of historicity. But it also illuminates the very nature of my own transition: I know I was raised in an age of change, but only because this change became my static reality; I know my history, but only because I do not realise it. I was a child, but only because I am no longer so.

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

Cover picture by Elias Schupmann on Unsplash


Asger is living in Copenhagen where he is studying for a BSc in political science. He is taken up mostly by the issues of how we create truth; especially by the role academic thinking plays in this process.

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