Drawn by Rudolph Zallinger, the illustration of “The March of Progress” has become an iconic and controversial image of the evolution of man. From being depicted on an album by The Doors to a Rolling Stone Magazine cover featuring actor Ben Stiller, the image shows the many stages man has evolved through to become modern. While the visual and the inquiry behind it is now quite familiar, there has been much critique of the linear path of evolution it represents, that it negates that evolution did not move forward with a predetermined destiny.
While the awareness of “The March of Progress” exists in the background, the term – in a technological age – has become something that resounds much differently. Evolution was once primarily defined by our bodies, but nowadays evolution and progress are more often defined by the technologies we can adapt to and the ways in which we can be adapted to the expectations we have placed on technology. One might say that, in our culture, technology exists in tandem with our idea of progress.
But the question must be asked loudly and clearly: what exactly is progress? The word ‘march’ as it is used in the “The March of Progress” defines something that is rather formulaic and predictable, not something that begs a question or creatively inquires. Going beyond the necessities of physical evolution, what is the utility of progress that does not question? That only goes in a straight line, dragging us away from human capacities into a world that is defined beyond our physical selves?
Before I embarked on a trip around the world in 2011, I started writing a book. It was a novel, sprung out of my education in creative writing, and it was about two-thirds done when I left Canada. Self-absorbed and coming-of-age as it was, I wondered how the book would retain its spirit as I travelled around. There were good days of writing at Parisian cafes where I could linger, days in Brussels, Belgium where I could only find a pub to sit in and could find no words. However, it remains unknown how the journey subconsciously impacted the book from day-to-day; the only thing that’s certain is that it wouldn’t have been the same book under any other set of circumstances, altered as it was by experience.
The hope of a novel, and any book really, is that it will have a defined beginning, middle and end, arguing or articulating its theme with believability. Even in a time where there are few proper endings, in life and in literature, the hope is that a clear image will shine through. But art – like any creative act – often serves as a response; a novel or novella can be hemmed in, but because it is intertwined with life, it is subject to the realizations we arrive at every day. If anything, it is the poignancy of art that enables us to be more aware of life’s changing flow.
The concept of art imitating life may seem like something uttered for convenience, but it has become a well-known adage for a reason. The current of art may be constantly mutating, but where life – and art – takes no stock of an altered point of view or a changing landscape, it becomes stagnant. If the march of progress we are on, the road that sees technology as the future, has removed itself from what makes us most human, perhaps it is not the only road after all? Progress, after all, offers up more than one destination.
The linear view of “The March of Progress” may be deceiving because, like the evolution of each human being, it is full of nuance that can’t be perceived in a simple image. Like the fluidity of a novel or evolution that has no solid answer, progress is an ever-changing road, one whose end may not lie where we expect.