Tag Archives: Zeno

The Temporal Advancement Phenomenological Paradox

Let us ponder the paradoxically obvious. Alan Jacobs is a teacher who is older than his students. To wit:

In one of my classes we’re reading McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and today I called my students’ attention to this passage… I pointed out to them McLuhan’s implicit claim: that he stands in the same relation to the new electronic age as Tocqueville stood to “typographic man.” He is an acute observer of the world he is describing to us, but not a native of it, and his slight distance is the key to his perceptiveness. I asked them to be especially attentive to his metaphor of “the spell” – and then I told them, “Basically, McLuhan is applying for the position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher for our entire culture.”

Most of them looked blankly at me.

The deftness of his analogy demonstrates that Jacobs is likely a brilliant in-person lecturer. What is easy for teachers to lose sight of, I have learned, is that our students really do get younger every semester. I’m in my early- mid-thirties,[1] and it doesn’t seem to me as though my students are that much younger than I am (after all, they’re nearly in their twenties!), but as you age, you find that time works a bit differently than it did when you were younger. An astonishingly elementary observation, I know, but one that never fails to astonish me whenever I reflect on it. For me, something five years old is something “recent;” for my students, it’s a quarter of a lifetime ago.[2]

So. Harry Potter and the Death Hallows was published in 2007, and the last movie came out in 2011. Assuming the median age of Jacobs’s students to be 19, they were 14 when the last movie came out and 10 when the last book came out. And the last book actually to take place mostly at Hogwarts was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, published in 2005, when his students were 8, and filmed in 2009, when his students were 12.

Put like that, the wizarding world of Harry Potter is for today’s college students half a lifetime ago. For us teachers, it’s contemporary pop culture; for our students, it’s period nostalgia.

There is already a name for this, I’m sure. But for now let’s call it Tanukifune’s Temporal Advancement Phenomenological Paradox. It’s something like the inverse of Zeno’s Achilles and Tortoise Paradox.[3]

Here’s how mine goes. For every year older you get, an event half a lifetime ago will seem twice as recent.

Let’s say you get a bike when you’re seven.  When you’re 14, it will seem like you’ve had the bike forever. Let’s say you get a car when you’re 16. When you’re 32, that first car will have the glow of long-ago/far-away nostalgia. Not an eternity, but definitely “way back when.” Let’s say you get married when you’re 25. When you’re 50, you won’t be able to believe it’s been a quarter century. The years were noticeable, but they just flew by. When you’re 30, let’s say you have a baby. When you’re 60, you’ll swear that your 30-year-old daughter came home from the hospital only yesterday.

See how that works? For every year older you get, the more recent an event half a lifetime ago will seem to be. Another way to put it is that as you age, your sense of the “contemporary” expands exponentially in proportion to your years. Hence, college students who have either never read/watched Harry Potter, or read/watched the series so long ago that, to them, it’s long ago and far away, whereas to their English teacher, Harry Potter is still “new.”[4]


[1] Recent birthdays screw everything up, sort of like how I always date all my checks with the previous year every January.
[2] I once asked my class as part of an icebreaker during roll call where they would go if they could travel anywhere in time and space. A student replied that she’d go back to the 80s to see her parents when they met. I was like, “Oh, so basically the plot from Back to the Future!” I got what I presume were the same blank stares Jacobs received.
[3] If you don’t feel like following the link, here’s my layman’s attempt: Achilles, as Zeno put it, would never be able to catch a Tortoise who had a head start in a race, because to close half the distance between them would take a certain amount of time, and closing half that distance would take more time, and closing half that distance would take even more time, and so on—and, meanwhile, the tortoise would continue to increase his lead. Achilles must spend every moment of the race closing a fraction of the distance between the tortoise and himself. In essence, in order to get from Point A to Point B, one must first reach a point midway between it, right? But in order to get from Point A.1 to Point B, one must reach Point A.2, then Point A.3, A.4, etc. And so on, forever and ever. Put even more succinctly, the distance traveled between two points may be divided by half infinitely, thus ensuring that a person departing from one point will, quite logically, never reach another if he must first always reach a midpoint between them.
[4] Or maybe Jacobs was just cursed with students who don’t read good YA fantasy. They probably haven’t seen Back to the Future, either. Oh well. One thing at a time.