Friday, September 19, 2008

Messages to an Uncertain Future

by J J Cohen

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.

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?


Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: this is a wonderful post and I can't wait to read the longer essay from which it has been culled. It's a very discomfiting piece to read as well, especially as regards the nuclear waste sites and the really baroque ways in which warning signs to the future have been conceptualized. I've long been obsessed with the projects of the Long Now Foundation [such as the Rosetta Project and the Long Now Clock] and also by cryogenic foundations, because they are always trying to think of ways to, somehow, get around the decay and obsolescence that are built into time, and they don't just want to send messages to the future--in case of the cryogenics folk, they want to actually *arrive* in the future! I wonder about those who built York Minster; maybe they really *did* think they would last somehow, even as a so-called political or cultural community, but then, as you point out, maybe they, like we do, knew better all along--that nothing on the human scale really lasts through time, but a really huge stone church might. It's difficult, when devoting a large portion of one's life to delineating the often-already-disappeared contours of the past, to consider what is really the planned obsolescence of even this work--much of what we produce [journals, books, conference and symposia talks, and the like] is such ephemera [although, granted, some texts have really hung in there, haven't they? it's just that, sometimes, they're beyond our powers of translation]. And that's why, for me, the most provocative question of your piece here is when you write,

"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?"

I would add that every day, even present history becomes *remote* or never really "surfaces," as it were into a record that could be calculated later in any sort of a reckoning of the "past" that we inhabit *now*. And I wonder sometimes, as persons concerned with the past, how we could attend to that better. Bizarrely, I was just writing about that [for the blog] when your post arrived here today. More on that later.

Rick Godden said...

This is an intriguing post, especially your first question: "Can the past speak in a voice of its own?" And even if it could, would we understand it?

Sorry for such a quick comment, but I'm reminded of St. Erkenwald here. Though the temporal horizon opened in the poem is not as deep as say Stonehenge, the pagan tomb uncovered at St. Paul's certainly does question the possibility of the past having a voice. The markings on the tomb are unintelligible, and the revealed corpse can only speak through divine intervention, when the past and present come together.

While the the ancient civilization of Pagan Britons may have believed they could communicate with the future, that their citizens would continue to be able to read the runic markings on the tomb, the poem seems to lack such certainty.

Karl Steel said...

Rick, nice call on Erckenwald. That's always a great poem to contemplate.

Can the past speak in a voice of its own?

As tedious as the comment is, it needs to be said, so: I suppose the question might be whether anything can speak in a voice of its own.

To erect a structure as massive as Stonehenge, lofty stones rising upon massively reconfigured earth, is to face mortality.

As the poststructuralist cliché goes, it's the same thing with speech or indeed in giving one's name. Does the Derridean analysis of iterability require tweaking to think 'deep time'? How does the future time into which we speak our last testaments, which is our last 'responsible' act (for those us who don't write constitutions or charters), differ from future architectural time? Certainly the difference can be discovered in the expected audience. We can imagine the iteration of our names among our present associates, we know to whom our testament will be given, we know the language that we inhabit will persist after us in those who speak it/are spoken by it, but we can only imagine for whom or what our *henge, dam, and so forth will be a monument.

in re: the radioactive waste. I expect the designers are oriented only to communicating with future humans, yet I wonder if humans will be around in any great numbers 1000 years hence (with the proviso, of course, that the human, like any creature, is always shifting ateleologically). I wonder what the designers can do to forbid entrance to animals, bacteria, to the world itself, since this is after all what they must try to do. Think of the universe of the Timaeus, 29e-33d, and we arrive at the paradox of waste in this world: the designers are seeking to cordon off a part of the world as otherworldly, as outside time, as outside flux. That this is impossible, that this is madness, that there is no waste but only poison or fertilizer, is likely the heart of all environmental thinking.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Eileen, I'm looking forward to having the time to read the post you just put up, since it seems (at a skim) so on topic.

Rick, great suggestion. The other figure Ive been thinking about is Hermogenes the Wise, discovered at the building of Saint Sophia with a letter written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek declaring Jesus the son of God ... and the body buried 2000 years before Christ's advent. Talk about a letter to the future, but in this case a VERY certain one.

To pick up on what you said about architecture, Karl: building something as massive as an earthwork with a henge above it or a cathedral just doesn't require the same temporal commitment as a charter or will of namespeaking or what have you: I think mortality is more forcefully foregrounded in architecture because the chance of not loving to see a large project's completion is so great. To think beyond your own demise can trigger thoughts of the demise of one's culture. I'm not saying no literary text does this (Beowulf, for example, is notable for its inability to STOP positing such vanishings). But surely it is n o coincidence that when Brill's group was studying ways to send nuclear waste warnings into the future they started by studying Stonehenge and the Great Wall.

Karl Steel said...

Nice response to my q's JJC. I want to continue to lean on the different relationships to absence between namespeaking and hengebuilding. In namespeaking and all the other stuff in that conceptual node, I could abstract myself my our world to imagine it without me. Now, I haven't read deeply enough in Heidegger or Derrida to know if either one of these hombres handle this problem (or, really, if I'm totally screwing them up), but being-toward-death doesn't strike me, on its face, as really a relationship to the future. It strikes me that although this abstraction is meant to bring me into relationship with the future by causing me to imagine a future without me, it's at heart a relationship to the present minus Karl. Here's my world with me; here's my world without me. It's really kind of an uncanny relationship, insofar as the uncanny is a way of being with the familiar-made-unfamiliar.

So this is part of what makes your project so interesting: in hengebuilding, we get a much stranger third category, something wholly other: here's a world-to-come without anything recognizable except this object I'm making here. And who knows what it will look like in that unimaginable world? We can try to conceptualize, as you are doing, this communication with stones. We can also think about what this does to the building selves. Does it make them feel in advance the disappearance of themselves into insignificance and thus fill them with a sense of present insignificance within the context of deep time? Or does it fill them with a sense of grandiose wonder at imagining that something they did will be a silent witness to their former existence and desires, an existence and desires that in fact are not 'former' so long as this object persists?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

What other answer can there be to those two eloquent closing questions of yours, Karl, than "Yes"?