The Return of the Phantom Time Menace

Read enough forum threads across a wide enough range of websites and you ought to become fairly expert in predicting the range and distribution of responses and even of anticipating where you’re likely to fall in that picture yourself, should you choose to join the discussion. (You probably also learn to predict which conversations are absolutely not worth joining.)

I think there’s maybe something more interesting lurking underneath those expectations, something about the cyclical character of reading and conversation in a digital age, about what intertextuality has become. Let me point to an odd little example I just came across. At io9 yesterday, there was an item about a theory that the Middle Ages never happened, that there is a “phantom time” of three centuries or so in our calendars that didn’t actually occur.

My first instantaneous response is to assert my expertise. I know this is flatly a stupid idea, before I dissect any of its specifics. I can think of twenty or thirty ways to shatter the claims made in the paper that io9 refers to. Then I make a more characteristic move and step back a bit. Not to say that there might be something to it, but to ask about the kind of mindset that when confronted with inconsistencies in evidence decides that the best answer to reject everything we think we know in order to create a new wholly consistent picture. That’s a classic trope of conspiracy reasoning, for example. So at least it’s interesting.

Much as I suspect, my first reaction (“as an expert, I can tell you this is wrong”) is a pretty common niche in the informational ecology of the responses at io9. My second response (“if you’re handed lemons, then make epistemological lemonade”) is less common. (More common: “mockery”. Also a few: “well, he makes a few good points”, and “maybe we don’t really know anything about anything”.)

Then I decide to trace the story a bit more and follow the links. One goes to a nice-looking site maintained by an Austrian designer who makes beautiful infographics. There’s a Wikipedia entry that gives some background to the paper by Hans-Ulrich Niemitz. Then I decide to google Niemitz. This leads me to a site called Damn Interesting and their 2006 entry on the Phantom Time Hypothesis. Damn Interesting seems to have stopped publishing in 2009, though there are still comments being made at the site. It mostly seems to have been a site intended to generate content with convergent publication value, rather like the Onion. It lead to a book, Alien Hand Syndrome, that collects material from the site.

Now right away I notice that the Austrian graphic designer republishes verbatim two paragraphs from Damn Interesting without acknowledging or linking to their site. But more interesting is the comment thread on the Phantom Time Syndrome entry. It more or less mirrors the io9 conversation: the information ecology is reproduced, without anyone seeming to know that a 2006 discussion has been re-found via a 2011 graphic designer who was then found by an aggregator who spends time looking for cool stuff on the web.

Frederic Jameson famously discussed “pastiche” as a quintessential mode of postmodern cultural production. What I get the increasing sense in experiences like these multiple articles and conversations about Phantom Time Syndrome is of the acceleration of a “Groundhog Day” dimension to culture, that we will be having the same conversations about some of the same prompts again and again and not really know that we’ve done so.

This dimension of mass media and intertextuality has been with us for a while. It’s definitely pre-digital. You can trace from century-old scholarship into the present-day how certain kinds of poorly-sourced or false claims reproduce themselves without the later writers being consciously aware that they’ve done so. Old travel writing often turns up cases of certain stories or fables being recirculated and resituated by writers. The media prankster and performance artist Joey Skaggs has done a remarkable job of demonstrating how much pre-digital print media relied upon zombie stories taken from older publications to fill out their pages: once he managed to get one of his fake stories into the ecology of print media, it never really died out. But this is one of a number of places where digital media really are different in both intensity and scope of the cultural reproduction that they support.

In many ways, this intensified recurrence may be something we can learn from rather than worry about. I think it’s sociologically interesting when or if readers have the same reaction to these kinds of fringe stories as they recur and recirculate. It tells us something about where such stories exist in larger productions of knowledge and information, that we have a firmly marked off niche for “well, that’s nuts but non-offensively so”. The story makes no lasting impression on us, we don’t learn it or incorporate it, it doesn’t challenge us, but we also have a continuing expectation that these stories will continue to be with us and continue to be of interest to us. We’re not repelled by them, not transformed by them, we expect them and find them momentarily intriguing.

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