Here at ITM I once described Stonehenge as, among other things, a letter composed for an unknown receiver, a message in stone for an uncertain future.
For quite some time I have been preoccupied with the question of how the distant past might communicate with an alien future -- not just with how the temporary becomes permanent, not just with how the ephemeral might be memorialized, but with the possibility that graver and more lasting messages might be sent beyond the horizon of merely human time spans.
In part I have been inspired by the vanishing of prehistoric and medieval cultures, in part by contemporary events. Today I'd like to share with you a short riff on letters to the distant future that I composed for an essay forthcoming in a collection called Posthistoricism. I welcome your thoughts on the piece.
LETTERS TO THE FUTURE
Can the past speak in a voice of its own? Can meaning travel across a millennium, an epoch, or must meaning always be bestowed by an interpreter? According to linguists, a language becomes “unintelligible to the descendants of the speakers after the passage of between 500 and 1000 years.” Suppose you know that you inhabit a present that will someday, inevitably, become someone else’s distant past. How do you communicate with a future to which you will have become remote history?
This problem of communication received intriguing consideration when the Department of Energy proposed storing radioactive material inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2002. Because this waste will remain lethal for at least ten thousand years, the Environmental Protection Agency enjoined the construction of a warning sign that can remain efficacious across a ten-millennium span. What admonition can survive the likely vanishing of the United States, of English, of everything we who inter such waste now know? The University of Nevada sponsored an exhibit entitled “Universal Warning Sign: Yucca Mountain” in which artists created installations that might offer enduring, transparent commands to avoid the contaminated site. The winning entry proposed seeding the desert with genetically engineered cacti, altered to become cobalt-blue, transforming the desert into an unnatural wasteland, a swathe of sky on earth. Yet this solution could as easily prove an attractant to the area as a bar to entry. The same problem was considered at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Since 1999 the Department of Energy has stored the lethal detritus of nuclear weapons manufacture at this facility. Its vast subterranean chambers are expected to be filled by 2030, at which time the complex will be permanently sealed. Architectural theorist Michael Brill
led one of two teams of linguists, artists, engineers, archaeologists, and other experts, who were charged by Sandia National Laboratories to design a method of keeping future Indiana Joneses out of this real temple of doom. “Passive Institutional Controls,” meaning monuments impervious to harsh climate and sandblasting winds are mandated, because even the federal government has to acknowledge it might not be around in a few hundred years, never mind millennia hence.The team’s first, practical thought was to allow the materials to lie exposed, creating in the desert an ocean of corpses, an instantly readable sign that no one should draw near. They then moved on to reflect upon the possibility of transhistorical, transcultural forms that announce Danger, such as fifty-foot high concrete whorls laden with spikes (dubbed “Landscape of Thorns”) or hulking black cubes arranged to provide neither shelter nor aesthetic appeal (“Forbidding Blocks”), jagged and irregular megaliths that pierce the desert at disconcerting angles (“Spike Field”). Inspired in part by the panel’s study of architectures like Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt, and the Great Wall of China, these menacing works of art would dominate the landscape, a speech act wrought in stone. They would be supplemented by admonitory texts composed in all known languages, with room to carve more deterrents as new tongues arise. Cheaper, less philosophical and far-looking solutions were eventually adopted, however: monoliths with pictograms. Even these will not be put into place for another eight decades, when the radioactive cache is abandoned, a lethal message to a future that may not comprehend the lasting power of its contents.
Though the necessity of disposing of nuclear toxins is new, the desire to send messages across inhuman spans of time seems an enduring human obsession. Whatever groups instigated the construction of vast, perdurable architectures like Avebury knew that they could not possibly live to see their project to completion. To erect a structure as massive as Stonehenge, lofty stones rising upon massively reconfigured earth, is to face mortality. Such an architecture cannot be initiated unless a time long beyond one’s own demise can be imagined. Otherwise, why not build something out of wood – a choice many peoples living in Britain made at this time made, as surviving postmarks make clear? A builder in timber can live to behold the results of such labor. With projects that require generations to complete, projects that may in fact be designed to never come to completion, how can one not be sending a message into a future that does not include one’s own presence, and perhaps the presence of one’s people as well?
Such writing in rock and soil require a leap beyond the horizon of death, a movement from human spans into a deeper temporality. Megaliths, menhirs and stone rings are a letters sent to someone who comes after, and very often to an unknown someone who comes long after. Architects of old surely possessed a decent set of wits, and knew from experience that the present is not eternal, that the horizon of the future is uncertain, that even powerful communities never long endure ... and can we not therefore imagine, without too much of a leap of faith, that a project like Stonehenge is sent into that future in part to stabilize it, but also to keep an ever-receding present alive, even beyond the demise of those who inhabited it? A building project that mandates the passing of multiple lives before its realization cannot be a day-to-day endeavor. This inbuilt temporal horizon tells us nothing about specific intent. It will not allow us to discern whether Stonehenge was a fertility shrine or ceremonial ground or a tomb or a monument -- but it will remind us that such architectures have from the start lived within a future as much as a present.
The weighty exuberance of Stonehenge, the majestic chambered cairn at Maeshowe in the Orkneys, the gothic spectacle of York Minster: these structures are time capsules as well as messages to a known-in-advance receiver. What Avebury and the cathedral the Normans built in Norwich have in common is surfeit. Their colonization of space and time are far in excess of anything a historicist argument based upon cultural context or use value can explain. Both are ritual spaces; both are pedagogical machines that shape a certain kind of subjectivity; both are materializations in stone of cosmologies; both anchor an earthly point to a celestial one. But both also in their exorbitance place their makers (and by their makers I mean everyone who at every point conceptualizes the architecture and its space as alive and open to enlargement and adaptation) into a relationship with time that moves them beyond the predictable or the determinate -- so many generations into futurity that sameness and apocalypse and profound reorderings are all possibilities. The builders of the cathedral in Norwich realized that they were a conglomerate of parvenu Normans and “indigenous” English. Both groups knew very well that the land had not always been theirs. Did that knowledge suggest that, as the stone rose and they saw that this monument would endure beyond their great-great-grandchildren, that they didn't necessarily have full confidence that they were sending a message only to future versions of themselves?