Some thoughts on transitory in a historical perspective
by Blaž Kosovel
This contribution is not concerned with a specific artwork or even with the transitory art field. My purpose is to zoom out from art and focus on the sole word transitoriness. I will try to define it in relation to similar notions, I will show how it is related to our times and why it can be an appropriate description of today’s world condition.
The root of the word transitory is trans, which in Latin means across. All concepts with the prefix trans are in one way or another related to change. This is very important for the human condition, because human beings are always in relation to something else. There is no growth without change and exchange. To name just a few of these concepts, there is transformation: a change in form or appearance, usually without the possibility to come back. The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or the transformation of a flower into a fruit. Transgression is the overcoming of rules or limitations. Transmission means passing through of something; it can be information on a radio or a gear in a motor. Transcendence means overcoming physical existence or its limitations. Transcendence is a voyage out of the burden of nature. This is also true when nature becomes a burden. Trance is related to it, a state of not being here by being in an altered state of mind. Transportation is the change of place, going from point A to point B; we know both the departure and the arrival place. It is a way to be in transit, meaning »to go across«. Both transitory and transitional derive from transit, the difference between them being the importance of the departure and arrival. Is the notion of point A and B crucial or is our path of going across more important?
Transitional refers to transition, therefore to a process or a period of change. Transition is a time between two stable moments, from point A to point B. Nowadays, the term is also used for the so-called countries of transition, i.e. the countries transitioning from the communist societies to capitalist ones. The two points are clearly visible, and the transition ends when a country is fully on the next level. Transitional period is just something in between.
Transitory, on the other hand, is something that is by nature bound to change, something impermanent. Thus, transitory is not just »something in between«, it is the most important thing. This is why we can say our life is transitory.
There are two other similar notions: transient and temporary. Transient is something brief, short-lived, something that does not last long. Temporary relates to something that is impermanent as well, but in a strong relation to time (tempus is time in Latin). Temporal used to be a synonym for secular, stressing our brief existence on Earth in opposition to the eternity of afterlife. In the same way, saying that life is transitional means that real life actually begins only with death. We can see the life of the soul as transitional if we believe that it does not die with the body. Transitional is therefore related to a distinct change between points A and B, and temporary is related to time as its most important variable. There are more and more temporary jobs nowadays, which means that there are jobs that last for a short period of time. The same job can also be defined as a transitional one, meaning that it is a job between two »real« jobs.
On the other hand, transitory does not have distinct points A and B, the emphasis is not on time and neither on the beginning nor the end, but on the sole process of change. Saying that life is transitory emphasizes that life is always changing and that it will end in the end.
However, transitional periods are not just periods in between any more, but are more and more becoming regularities, thus making life with all its transitions much more transitory as it used to be. To stress the importance of transitions in human life, I will make an oversimplified difference between traditional and contemporary environment. It is an oversimplification because I do not want to say that there are no traditions in contemporary world any more, I just want to stress the difference between different environments.
Tradition can be defined as the transmission of customs and beliefs through generations, how you behave, eat and dress, what you are allowed to do and how you relate to life and death. People inside these patterns are strictly regulated, every transgression is severely punished. This also means that there are clear lines of transition in these patterns, with rituals functioning as institutions that mark the passage, the trans. One of the most common is the transition from childhood into adulthood, which in every community is connected with specific initiation rituals, through which a child shows that he deserves to be an adult. In our society, we can say that the last real transition into adulthood was the one-year conscription army.
In times when regulations kept people tight in distinct positions in their communities, everybody got a specific value and meaning. That also means that traditional transitions were crucial for people to make sense of their lives. Nowadays, all these boundaries are blurred, we have plenty of possible transitions but with the inflation of them they become almost worthless. When do we become adults? Today, this is not an easy question, because the complexity of today’s society does not make growing up an easy thing. In the USA, they tried to solve the problem with the creation of teenage years, i.e. a ten years mid-period between being a child and an adult. Initiation became a time of learning in the conscription education. Teenagers were the carriers of a newly created field of youth culture, which was not yet a »real« culture. All theses ideas were carried through the ocean to Europe in the post-war decades.
In the last decades, the lines started to push higher and higher, with youth culture becoming mainstream culture. There was a lot of writing about »twenty-something life«, meaning the life after graduation and before getting a »real job«, an appropriate profession. However, because these real jobs nowadays never come, there is more and more writing about the idea that »the thirties are the new twenties«, meaning that there is less and less real adulthood, there is less and less clear where and even what is a point B to which we can transition from point A.
I want to stress three fields that are related to this transition into adulthood: education, work and marriage.
Education was always about learning something in order to get a degree that enabled a person to have a profession. Work was a vocation, another distinct position in society. Even in times before organized education, there was a guild system with a master-apprentice relationship, where you had to learn your skills in order to become a master. With modern economy in the 20th century, decades of work resulted in paid retirement.
University used to be the final and definite step in education, where you reached the highest peak of human achievement. Even the importance of a diploma can be seen in a way as a title for women: when they graduated, even unmarried women could be called Mrs. instead of Miss. University degree was therefore a final step in the educational process, on the other hand, it was also an important step into the adulthood. Today, this is not possible anymore, because of so many people and so many information.
We live in times of mass education, where it is supposed that everybody graduates, which makes a bachelor degree really just a first step in the educational process. This process never really ends, because so much new information is created every day and has to be processed somehow. There are so many new inventions and so many new ways of work to be implemented. It is also impossible anymore that one person grasps all the knowledge that exists. This crisis of the university as a holistic project is seen in the creation of the Life-Long Learning Programs, the most popular of them being the Erasmus student exchange. Nowadays, university is not a definite educational institution that can give you a definite social position. There is too much of everything new every day. Therefore, when and where is the point when you grow up, when are you educated enough to be an adult or even to be an educated person?
The end of education also resulted in getting work according to one’s expertise. Precisely because there are not so many life-long contract jobs any more, there are more and more short-term and project jobs. This is by no means something strange, seeing it from the position of endless transitions: a project is a truly transitional form, having a beginning and an end. What happens today is that after a project you can get another one, and after that just another one. You can also have more than one project simultaneously. The same goes for temporary jobs that are becoming more and more an everyday practice. This chain of projects and temporary jobs forces a person to transition from one transitional period to another, but without really transiting to an actual point B. The whole chain of transitions is today’s reality, thus making this endless transition our common condition.
For the same reason marriage is not important anymore and transitions from one partner to another are so common. Marriage used to be the pillar of the traditional economy, this is why in Ancient Rome only the patricians could marry. In Medieval Europe, the feudalistic system restricted the production, management and exchange of goods and let them circle only in family environment. Marriage was thus the creation of a new household, which was actually the only economy. In the time when there were no national economies, when there was no unified global economy, marriage was not about love, but about managing property and work. In the time when there was no ministry of economics, marriage was about economy. However, with the creation of nation states, nations became new big families, with political economy as a means of managing the production and the exchange of goods. In that time, marriage was about a distinct position in society. With the growing importance of the state and diminishing importance of the Church, the importance of marriage diminished. It became more and more just a romantic endeavor, not something that happened once in a lifetime. This went the farthest in USA where people marry and divorce out of a pure impulse.
However, the state is not the most important institution any more. In the last decades, transnational institutions, corporations and national unions such as EU took the lead, making economy global on a scale that it was never before. With the creation of new global markets and their unification, we got an enormous space for exchange and production. Goods started to flow all around the world; today’s production is on one side of the Earth, consumption on the other. One of the craziest examples of this are fish that are shipped from Northern Europe to China in order to be sliced and then back to Europe. Because it is cheaper that way. Consumerism is just an endless flow of goods that has to be exchanged faster and faster in order to keep the global economy afloat. The same is with fashion, which regulates the taste of the markets in order to make changes faster.
Besides goods, people are more and more in transit as well, migrating throughout the world in search for better work or just for the pleasure of traveling. There is not (a lot of) avant(o)urism any more, just tourism, today’s fastest growing consumer industry, where destinations are new consumer goods, not means for revelations. Moreover, instead of spiritual transcendence, there is more and more transit, physical through space or virtual through internet. Alongside goods and people, with the appearance of the internet, information exchange just exploded. However, while Guthenberg’s invention of the printing that enabled fast dissemination of new ideas started the protestant revolution, the internet has not yet created a similar opposition to the global economy. Just the opposite – it made it stronger. Because today’s society is a society of endless exchange and endless sequences of transitions. »Change is the only constant« is a very popular saying in business circles. Although it is a quote from Heraclites, it has a much different sounding after 2,500 years: today’s society needs constant change, but this change has to stay inside strict rules of exchange. In modern era, politics is mostly subordinated to economy, making modern politics’ main concern the management of society, its people, goods, technology, information, capital and land. After the modern creation of national economy, the question of revolution was mostly just the question of how to change the management of the economy. This is why all the revolutions goals are another variation of the same system as well. Both socialism and capitalism need the state and its economy to function.
The already mentioned transition from (the so-called) communism to (the so-called) capitalism is the only possible transition, because it was a transition into the global (neo)liberal economy. This is why all the strategies and practices of resistance and emancipation create just another variation within the global economy of exchange. Moreover, anti-capitalist strategies are mostly related to a change of the economy on a global scale, which does not change the idea of the global economy as such. The exchange as such is not at stake, it always persists in every new scenario of change. Modern era was always about creating new ways of life, new alternatives; this is how all totalitarian movements were created as well. The same goes for avant-garde movements, the desire of which was the same – to impose their view on the society as whole, not just on a specific segment.
As I tried to show in this very brief outline, we have less life-changing transitions because we are living in a constant transitional period, without a real ending point to which we are transiting. This makes life much more uncertain, but, on the other hand, also much freer. And this is how society becomes much more transitory than it ever was. Life is transitory by nature, because it ends in some point. On the other hand, , communities and societies tend to last and were not as transitory as they are today. This means that transitoriness is one of the most important notions to understand in today’s society. Therefore, to raise the question about transitoriness is to question this endless change and – even most important – the boundary through which the change happens. Hence, the point is not to overcome the boundary and create a new variation of something, but to tarry with the boundary, to question the sole idea of change. This could be an appropriate way to embrace transitoriness.