Sunday, June 24, 2007

Frontpaging the Future

In this comment thread, Sylvia Huot asked a question that goes to the heart of the kind of thinking we attempt here at ITM: how to intertwine meditation upon past and future while retaining some confidence that we are doing justice to history? She writes:
JJC said: 'The British Isles have been home to sophisticated peoples for millennia. We're still decoding the complicated messages they sent into a future so distant that they could not possibly have imagined it, a megalithic version of the Long Now. So add this to our list of humanisms: the enduring desire to send beyond the horizon of our own mortality messages to be received and interpreted by future peoples whom we want to know that we lived, we were here, we did something in this land and at this time.'

What I want to know is--how do you know that they had the desire you mention? How can you know they were thinking anything of the sort? They may, of course, have been thinking that way, but just because a culture has produced a monument that survives thousands of years later doesn't necessarily mean that they consciously intended to do so. For all we know, they may have built Stonehenge because they thought the world was about to end and they wanted a place to gather together when that happened. Or they may have trusted that if the place was ever inhabited by a different race of people, the stones would fall down and the monument would disappear, so as not to be desecrated by being viewed by the non-understanding Other. Who's to say? I don't feel entirely confident that the builders of Stonehenge would welcome our presence there today, any more than I feel confident that the medieval fellows of my college would welcome MY presence here today if they could have foreseen it (a woman, from a place they didn't know existed?) I don't mean to cause trouble, nor is any of that a reason for us not to engage in the time-travel of historical study, nor does it mean that our presence in those places is in any way illegitimate; we live now, not then. I just think that engaging with the past is tricky business.
I replied:
It's a great question, Sylvia. Thanks for posing it.

Believe me, "How do we know their desires?" is something I've thought about; in fact my current project is in part about the process, medieval as well as modern, of dreaming those desires.

Here is what is undeniable (I believe): whatever groups instigated the construction of vast, perdurable architectures like Stonehenge -- as well as many earthworks and other symbolic reconfigurations of the terrain -- knew that they could not possibly live to see the project to completion. To erect something as massive as Stonehenge is to face your mortality; it can't be started unless you can imagine time long beyond your own demise. Otherwise you would build something out of wood (and obviously many peoples living in Britain at this time took that route, and by chance post marks endure to tell us that fact). That way you'd still be alive to see the results, or at least some of them.

With projects that take generations to complete, how can you NOT be sending a message into a future that does not include your mortal presence?

Massive projects require the leap beyond the horizon of your own death. They have to be a message to someone who comes after, and very often to someone who comes LONG after. That person isn't "us" -- as you say, how could the builders have wanted that? But if we can at least grant that the architects of old possessed a decent set of wits, they knew from experience that the present isn't eternal, that the horizon of the future is uncertain ... and can't we 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 in part also to keep an ever-receding present alive, even beyond the demise of those who inhabited it?

I'd also want to emphasize what is truly remarkable about a building project that takes several human life spans to complete: it cannot be an ad hoc, day by day labor, but takes planning that exceeds human time and mortal duration. That fact has vast significance when thinking about these architectures, especially in their design for long endurance. It tells us nothing about specific intent, I suppose -- i.e., it won't let us know whether Stonehenge was a fertility shrine or a ceremonial ground or whatever -- but it will remind us that such architectures that from their start have inhabited a future more than a present reveal an ancient and enduring human desire.

I wonder, though, if anyone has more thoughts about this subject, since its seems germane to to so many of our conversations.


Anonymous said...

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have the ability to imagine time as a universal - and so to imagine a past, present and future which are connected to each other. From that basis I can agree with JJC's comments on cathedral building - and other projects which were predicated on a belief in eternity and encouraged people to embark on projects which they knew they could not accomplish within their own lifetime. (Founding and endowing university colleges would be another example).

But what perception of time did the builders of stonehenge have? It is revealing that if you look to the Stonehenge website for help at this point (ceremonial use) - you get pure fiction. I have heard lots of speculation about what their future might have looked like to them - but of course we don't know.

Although the monument took different forms over a couple of millennia - this was more a process of evolution (including a period of abandonment) than deliberately planned development.

Our faith in the existence of a future tends to be based on a particular religious inheritance (which we share with medievals) or on science (ditto). What about other human futures (or lack of them)? Maybe that is why we need fiction?

So I think you are both right - but JJC can only be right in certain kinds of cultural context. His explanation cannot work as a universal.

Stonehenge WWW:

Karl Steel said...

Just a quite note: I suppose I'm the only one here who's been to the stonehenge in Washington State? (here and here)

Eileen Joy said...

This post is like a homing device for the likes of me, but since I just received an unlikely invitation that I simply can't refuse--to be part of the V.I.P. section at the gay pride parade and tea dance today here in St. Louis, well, do you see my dilemma? Later dudes.

Steve Muhlberger said...


So pagan Romans who had no clear doctrine of personal immortality or an End of Times weren't thinking about a distant future when they added one more monument to the already existing Forum complex?

I think the effort to make something that will survive into the more distant future when something cheaper and flimsier might do has its own logic.

If you don't believe in future observers, why not burn up all your stuff in a potlatch?

Has anyone thought about LeGuin's anti-historical Always Coming Home in connection with this?

Steve Muhlberger said...

So what do you do in the VIP section?

Anonymous said...

OK, sure, the builders of Stonehenge knew it would outlive them as individuals--they had to. But did they do it because of a desire to send a message to future people in order to tell those people 'that we lived, we were here, we did something in this land and at this time'? Or because they figured that [observing the solstice/ making sacrifices/ dancing/ fill in your favourite notion of what Stonehenge was built for] was something that their people would always need to be doing, so they needed a really durable place to do it? Or some combination of those as well as other factors I'm not even thinking of?

I can think of at least two different ways of reaching out to the future. One we might call a time capsule: a gift consciously planned and sent to the future, to let them know who we were and what we were about. A time capsule is generally also imagined as a gift being sent across some kind of divide, into a future we can't quite imagine, but which we know will be different. We get pleasure from thinking that those future people won't have seen these things before; maybe they won't even know exactly what they are. We really hope we're telling them something they didn't already know, and we even revel in the fantasy of them getting it a bit wrong. In fact, there wouldn't be much point in doing it at all if the future people who received it were just like us, with all the same stuff as us. We trust that they will be different from us, but this will help them understand us a little, and we do it in part because we wish so much that people in the past had sent more such gifts to us--so they wouldn't be quite such strangers to us.

On the other hand, the builders of a cathedral probably didn't think about it in quite this way. I don't think they were trying to record a message of who they were that could be decoded by some future culture that would barely understand it. They were constructing a place of worship that was worth investing a lot of time in because, after all, people will NEVER stop engaging in Catholic liturgical worship, so the cathedral needs ideally to last until the end of time--and if it takes until the end of time to get it built, well, we better get started. I would guess that the future they were building for was one they saw as being rather like themselves, or at least related to themselves; more a continuum than the other side of an abyss. They weren't saying 'This is who we were'; they were saying 'We know who you will be'. (Is it coincidental that the cathedral also contains within itself depictions of the span of history from Creation to the end of time, presented as a continuum in which half of human history is a living prophecy of the other half?)

Of course, it isn't really that absolute. We wouldn't bother with time capsules at all if those future people weren't a LITTLE like us--they have to be able to recognise our gift as such, we assume they will want it and appreciate it, and be able to understand it at least on some level. And the cathedral builders probably allow that future generations will be different in at least some ways; if nothing else, that human pyramid of dwarves resting on a foundation of giant-shoulders will have added a few more tiers and they'll be able to see a little farther than we do.

Still, I think these are different ways of conceptualising the future and our relationship to it. I'm sure there are other ways besides. I also didn't mean to imply that one attitude is resolutely modern and the other attitude is resolutely medieval. Just trying to think my way through some of this...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

OK, a drive by comment with more tomorrow: I think durability doesn't explain much about building a Stonehenge versus a Woodhenge. There is something exorbitant about megalithic architectures, just as there is about Newgrange ... or cathedrals. Lastingness would reduce these structures to their utility -- and built for simple use value they are not!

Could they be art of they were reducible to cultural context?

Anonymous said...

Right, of course, durability is not the end of the story with most things, even the most functional. And exorbitant is practically an understatement when it comes to Stonehenge, Avebury, or... a medieval cathedral. I am not going to speculate about the former since to me they are hopelessly impenetrable (though such speculation can be great fun), but I do feel a little more able to see ways that the latter is full of meaning, it expresses a whole cosmology, and it is breathtakingly beautiful, and so on. But I am still not sure if it is a message TO the future... or a message ON BEHALF OF a future that it's assumed will want to be sending God and the world the same message we are. I still feel that some monuments seem to speak from a need to inform the future of things it wouldn't otherwise know, while others seem to speak from an assumption that the future will know all about this and will want to use it just as we do, or at least we'd like to if we could just get the thing built. Maybe I am not expressing this very well, but I feel there's a difference.

Of course, none of this contradicts what must have been an important element of jjc's original post that started this thread off: that it's part of humanity to imagine one's relationship with the future--whether that relationship is conceived as one of strangeness or one of familiarity. Or even--if, as I flippantly suggested, the builders of Stonehenge counted on transcendent forces to vapourise their monument if their culture ever died out, so it wouldn't outlive them and be profaned with neglect, vandalism, and incomprehension--one of hostility. Either way there's still a sense of engaging with another time.

Anonymous said...

i see your stonehenge and your woodhenge, and raise you the one and only Foamhenge!

i think this newly constructed wonder is a perfect commentary from a disposable world (i.e., a world that embodies a flat-lined ideology void of history and careless about its future).

or, does styrofoam last longer than stone?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Sylvia Huot wrote -- among many other good observations -- that a cathedral's builders might think thus: They weren't saying 'This is who we were'; they were saying 'We know who you will be'.

Of monuments more generally she observed:

I still feel that some monuments seem to speak from a need to inform the future of things it wouldn't otherwise know, while others seem to speak from an assumption that the future will know all about this and will want to use it just as we do, or at least we'd like to if we could just get the thing built.

I don't disagree, and find these formulations very well stated. But right now I'm trying to think about the possibilities for ancient (even neolithic) and medieval cultures to think beyond a future that pretty much replicates the past -- hence my wondering if a Stonehenge or a Bury St Edmunds might be a time capsule as well as a message to a known-in-advance receiver. What Avebury and the cathedral the Normans built in Norwich have in common is a surfeit: their colonization of space and time are far in excess of anything an 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; and so forth. 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 -- i.e., so many generations into futurity that sameness and apocalypse and profound reorderings are all possibilities. The builders of the cathedral in Norwich realized 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 100% confidence that they were sending a message to their future selves?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

And don't forget the even more sublime Carhenge.

Which only goes to show that what outlasts them all is JJC's "enduring human desire"? What is desire made of?

The problem that the comments thus far seem to be raising without directly addressing is how something like an enduring human desire to scrawl as permanently as possible "I was here" can be identified with local, historically determined intentions. Doesn't this require a recognition of deeper, _unconscious_ intentions? And yet the example of long-term stone building projects has clearly been chosen because it seems to attest to conscious intentions to do more than simply make what is required.

So the problem has to do with the boundary between desire and intention and how the transactions between them are also translations between conscious and unconscious. We don't want to reduce the signficance of stonehenges, which by defintion includes our desires for them, to the intentions of the people who made them. We want their desire to include and touch our own, so that our understanding of the intentions behind the making also makes for self-understanding (and self-making). But we also want our self-understanding to remain unconscious, to stay buried within our understanding of the historical artifact, half-submerged in the past, in the earth (like the stones) so that the selves we understand can remain open, undisclosed, desiring.

How much easier, practical, self-preserving to interpret a dead other's desire to transcend mortality than to directly face one's own!

Eileen Joy said...

More later, after I turn in my final exam grades for my summer course, but to answer Steve's question: what does one do in the VIP section at the tea dance? You stand there in the private space in the dj booth while someone fetches you drinks and then you dance with people you don't know and then you go home and in the morning you can't remember much.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Nicola, you wrote:
Doesn't this require a recognition of deeper, _unconscious_ intentions?
Can you say more about those unconscious intentions? Are they different from unconscious desires?

How much easier, practical, self-preserving to interpret a dead other's desire to transcend mortality than to directly face one's own!
For me, the attempt to grapple with dead other's messages to the future via stones and monuments and other architectures that endure into inhuman time frames is my way, selfishly, of facing that mortality, and wondering what if anything we humans do can endure with some of its significance intact.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Good question, Jeffrey. I hadn't thought about what that distinction (unconscious intentions vs. unconscious desires) might be, but the possibility of making it is difficult but suggestive. I think desire (wanting something) and intention (meaning to do something) are more easily associated with the unconscious and the conscious, respectively, (with the idea that one can pass into the other), but the idea of an unconscious intention suggests the possibility unknowingly meaning to do something without wanting to. Is this conceivable?

Your initial description of a perennial human desire to leave a mark, to speak to the future, reminded me of graffitti, which is on the one hand the very opposite of monumental building, being casual, momentary, and unplanned and on the other hand is so similar to it (in terms of wanting to leave a trace for unknown others) such that monuments are its most powerfull attractors. Does graffitti disclose, render conscious, the unconscious intentions/desires behind the monument? Probably, and if so, it does so all the more perfectly through its own unconsciousness, its being so often a heedless or at least non-instrumental marking of self. Perhaps there is a homology between the individual unconscious desire of the graffitist and the collective unconscious intention of the monument builders.

". . . and wondering what if anything we humans do can endure with some of its significance intact." And taking consolation that its significance is never intact, but always _touched_ by others!

Anonymous said...

Just popping in to reiterate that 'cultural contexts' and 'use values' do not limit interpretative and philosophical potentials - they expand them. They enable us to move beyond our own desires and understandings. I would be so excited to discover that the builders of the several different monuments on the site of the surviving Stonehenge had entirely different understandings of the future and mortality from our own.

In seeking to find yourself in the makers of Stonehenge (and in other unconciousnesses] you write with great poetry. And poetry is important, provocative, revealing - all of those and much more. You do not just study literature, you write it. Why do you want to insist it is not? Why do you want your perspective to be a universal one, which somehow we must believe these other people shared? And why don't I want to agree?

and why isn't the internet connection working - you may never get this - just as well!

Incidentally - and not particularly relevant here, I htink you'd enjoy Homo Britannicus by Chris Stringer (palaeontologist at the BM), who starts his survey of early man with a story

MKH said...

Don't know if this discussion is still going on (I think it's been at 15 comments for at least two days now) -- but a quick comment in passing.

Steve Muhlberger> You mentioned Always Coming Home, and I was wondering what specifically you were thinking about in it. I definitely think it bears relation to this conversation -- I've read the majority of it (it doesn't quite suit a sit-down reading), and in fact, just today I stumbled on this quote, that I offer as further meditation on these questions of the relationship between past and future (in lieu of anything more constructive):

"We often seem to feel it appropriate and desirable that all spoken words, even office memoranda, recordings of private conversations, grandmother's tales, be saved on tape, stored in memory banks, transcribed, written, printed, preserved in libraries. Perhaps not many of us could say why we save so many words, why our forests must all be cut to make paper to mark our words on, our rivers dammed to make electricity to power our word processors; we do it obsessively, as if afraid of something, as if compensating for something. Maybe we're afraid of death, afraid to let our words simply be spoken and die, leaving silence for new words to be born in. Maybe we seek community, the lost, the irreproducible."

(Ursula LeGuin, Always Coming Home)

Steve Muhlberger said...


That quote hits the nail on the head, best as I remember Always Coming Home: don't strip the environment to build that Stonehenge; history is a delusion, and a dangerous one; be content with the cyclical nature of human existence.

Fabulous discussion, all.