To the Class of 2011

by Mike Barthel

TO THE CLASS OF 2011: a hearty hail and hello to you and to those others from the town and from your families who have been able to make it here today. I greet you and I thank you for inviting me to this ceremony. It is a date which must have seemed so significant when you began the academic year nine months ago, but which could easily have been overshadowed by the current crisis. After all, faced with what we are facing, why should this day be different from any other day? What meaning could it possibly hold placed against the grim import of that ultimate hour, rushing even now out of the future and toward the present? Nothing will change after today, certainly. Why should you pause in your great work? Why should you put off, even for a moment, your search for a solution, for a way to elude the grip of this final moment? Why should you stop and listen to me?

Allow me to put it to you this way: you should stop and attend to our purpose here because such seemingly meaningless rituals can hold great good in times such as these, times when solitary work is as good as no work at all. Those of my generation, decades beyond our own instances of this ceremony, have only slowly come to appreciate rituals. I know some who skipped this event entirely, feeling it meaningless given that we had already completed our requirements for a diploma. And this pattern continued after we left the academy for our futures in the world beyond. We mumbled and slouched our way through life, skirting markers of adulthood because they seemed inauthentic, or because we would have been overly self-conscious participants. We were rich in time and poor in experience, and slowly, we learned. But we no longer have that luxury. Our accounts are now all depleted, and we cannot make time for mistakes.

Rituals regulate our long-term circadian rhythms in the same way the rising and setting of the sun or the change in seasons does; they make us feel like progress is being made, like we are working toward something, not merely sustaining ourselves. In our tragically extraordinary year, then, this ceremony is more vital than ever. You all need that moment of affirming your group identity with the people you have gone through this experience with, even though it is a different experience than you came in expecting. We’re up against a hard-and-fast deadline, and deadlines, as all college students know, have a way of focusing your priorities. Now is when we find out what is really important to us, and this ceremony, here today, is less about the conferring of certain honors than it is a public demonstration of your commitment to this path.

I have great respect for what you’ve done here. Rather than ignoring this looming deadline, as many have throughout the world, you have embraced it, posted clocks everywhere counting down to the point of party over. And it let you think ahead. You saw the path the crisis would take and planned accordingly, erecting barriers around your valley just past the ag school, stocking up on solar generators, and spending a snowy and dark January making yourselves self-sustaining. A lot of people left, to be sure. You cannot blame them. Why would you stay here for the last year of your life? What point is a degree compared to your loved ones? I have never agreed with those who dismissed college as pointless, but in 2011, it is hard to argue otherwise.

Today, then, I am speaking solely to those who stayed. What many of us on the other side of the barrier have wondered is this: why? After talking with some of you these past few days, I think I may understand a bit better. Some of you stayed because your friends are all here, your families having stopped their clocks or beyond reach or having joined you; all that you had to live for was on campus and in town. Others maybe could only deal with the looming deadline by working up until the last minute, by pouring everything they had into some solution, some fix to a problem we don’t even really understand yet.

What all of you have in common is that you believe in collective work. You know that deadlines are artificial but necessary, meaningless but vital, and that what coalesces at the final moment isn’t final but simply complete insofar as it ever will be. What matters is not the product but the progress; we need not believe that perfect knowledge is ever possible to pursue its accumulation. You believe in doing all we can do in the time we have. And if that time turns out to be less than what we thought, that ultimately will not deter you in your task.

I envy you this. I lack this relentless drive to preserve the future. My invitation today was extended on behalf of my work with the Abort-Retry-Continue Project, and so I suppose I should talk about ARC a bit. Unlike you, we are not working to put off the deadline, but have accepted it, and are hoping only to extend our reach beyond its borders, to touch in some way whatever might lie on the other side. We are trying to figure out some way to present the major creative works of our civilization so that they might be available to and understandable by whatever sentient beings might happen to come across them. ARC is a tribute to the world that is soon not to exist and the inexhaustible self-regard of the dominant species that has seized the reins during its final moments.

This, as you might imagine, is not easy. We don’t know how the recipients of such a transmission might communicate, to say nothing of what technology they would or wouldn’t possess, and so we are having to produce each work in multiple ways: as visuals, as sounds, and as experiences. Even this presents problems. After all, the material referents for the sounds and pictures we most commonly use are going to be destroyed along with us, to say nothing of the cultural and historical context. We have had to rely on ideas about what experiences or objects are universal and how perception might work in other modes or even other dimensions, and while some things have been relatively easy — reproductions of visual art or music are what they are, as long as we can figure out a way to preserve and power them — try translating Hamlet or the Bhagavad-Gita into pictures that a creature in the fourth dimension would understand and you will see the issues we’ve run up against.

The most successful way we’ve come up with for preserving stories has been through the technique I referred to earlier: this idea of “experiences.” Physical objects that have been found outside of Earth are as close as we can get to a universally translatable medium — they may mean something different to others, but they at least have the same material reality. We’re trying to find chemical and biological analogues for the stories that seem to have found resonance with us. What combination of elements could stand in for the Aeneid? What chemical reaction would convey the same sense as the Songlines?

In the face of such an existential crisis, maybe this task seems frivolous. I get that. But let me explain why I think it is ultimately just as necessary as what you are doing here.

My father — a professor of literature and writing — retired at the end of last year. He put it off for as long as he could, but eventually, the time came. On his final day of work in mid-December, he called me from the snowy back road he used to drive home. He talked about all the forms he had to fill out, and turning in his parking pass and ID card, which he said reminded him of surrendering his weapon upon leaving the Army. He just barely made it out of that experience, having managed to serve out his time in Kansas, having avoided getting shipped overseas, having reached beyond his own deadline. The last day was anticlimactic, he said, given that he had been preparing for it since Thanksgiving, packing up his office and finding old pictures and saying his goodbyes.

I knew what he meant. You all are more aware of this than anyone, but theories about the particular form the end will take have promulgated beyond scientific reason or rhyme. Some think it will come through holocaust or disaster, something fiery and dramatic. Not to get too Eliot on you, but my understanding of the rupture is such that things will just suddenly stop, with no preamble or process to mark the occasion. When the accumulated time grows too great for the universe to support our continued existence, we will blink out in a millisecond.

That means the end itself will be highly anticlimactic. Any last-minute reconciliations or deathbed conversions will have to happen ahead of time. You could even miss it, if you aren’t watching a clock, and there will be no opportunity to reflect afterward, no conclusions to draw in the conflagration’s midst. All we will leave behind are the whispers of what we’ve been able to accomplish together, the traces we were able to inscribe through collective effort into physical reality.

If such a point does not come to pass, I think we — or, rather, you, all of you — will have done something unprecedented. But if we do lose the fight and flicker out, I hope the thoughts of those who come after will not be like Keats’ of Ozymandias, trembling at our majestic residue surrounded by the always-victorious incursions of nature. Rather, I hope they will see we were content with what we have, that we realized any time we might be given was more than we deserved, and that we did the most we could with the opportunities presented. I hope that they sense we were conscious of the past that preceded our existence and of the future yet to come, that we understood this awful deadline not as an absolute end but simply a border between one thing and another. Maybe one side is louder, but quiet has its own purposes.

My message today, and my request to all of you, is that you not forget this: all we do, even if this event comes not to pass, must finally be launched into silence like a forbidden child down the Nile, and we do not know who will one day catch it. We all must labor first and foremost against the deadline of sundown. But be mindful of how we might pass on what we have found. To us, the story we tell about ourselves seems like the most important thing in the world. But our memory will only survive if we can contribute to the story that continues after we are gone. I came here today certain that those of you here, in this makeshift citadel, can contribute more than most. As much as I fervently hope for your success, I hope too for your guidance in my own project. If you cannot succeed in making this ending simply one more border, I hope you might aid my attempt to write an epilogue of which we can be proud.

Mike Barthel may spend the end Tumbling.