Time is of the essence

No, I have not abandoned this, whatever this is that I’m doing with this. It’s just that I’ve been fairly busy with work, thus having less time to write, except the stuff I need to do for work. The thing is that as I’m currently substituting, filling in for someone, I have to play catch up with just about everything that has been left undone while putting the hours in to make things work on a daily basis. There’s been a lot of backlog that needed to be cleared, so I had to prioritize that, just so that my workflow gets better on a day-to-day basis. I’ve also managed to get some personal projects done, so I should be able to get more writing done soon.

While I haven’t had that much time to write, I’ve managed to do some reading, here and there. I also started to write something but I’ll return to it later on as it needs much more attention than what I’ve given to it. I also returned to the book edited by Donald Meinig and re-read the essays by David Sopher and David Lowenthal. I’ve covered parts of the text in the past, in bits and pieces, but this time I’ll be taking a closer look at Lowenthal’s ‘Age and Artifact: Dilemmas of Appreciation’.

As the title suggests, Lowenthal’s essay has a lot to do with, no, not the past, in itself, but how we come be aware of it, how we come to perceive it, how we come to think of it. He (103) summarizes the central dilemma:

“[T]he past is not a fixed or immutable series of events; our interpretations of it are in constant flux.”

Adding that (103):

“What we know of history differs from what actually happened not merely because evidence of past events has been lost or tampered with, or because the task of sifting though it is unending, but also because the changing present continually requires new interpretations of what has taken place.”

Here I’d like to point your attention to what Gilles Deleuze (100) writes in ‘Cinema 2: The Time Image’:

“[T]here is a present of the future, a present of the present and a present of the past, all implicated in the event, rolled up in the event, and thus simultaneous and inexplicable. From affect to time: a time is revealed inside the event, which is made from the simultaneity of these three implicated presents, from these de-actualized peaks of present.”

This actually something that he approvingly takes from Augustine, as he (100) does point out. In ‘Confessions’, Augustine (242) wonders:

“What is time? … What then is time?”

Only to answer his (242) own question(s):

“[I]f nothing passed there would be no past time; if nothing were approaching, there would be no future time; if nothing were, there would be no present time.”

Only to end up wondering even more (242-243):

“But the two times, past and future, how can they be, since the past is no more and the future is not yet? On the other hand, if the present were always present and never flowed away into the past, it would not be time all, but eternity. But if present is only time, because it flows away into the past, how can we say that it is? For it is, only because it will cease to be.”

In other words, as he (243) reiterates it:

“Thus we can affirm that time is only in that it tends towards not-being.”

What I take from all this is that, to be precise, only the present is. The past never is because only the present is. It’s the same with future. It never is because only the present is. In ‘Difference and Repetition’, Deleuze (76) writes something similar:

“It is not that the present is a dimension of time: the present alone exists.”

That said, the past and the future are, on their own is, in the present, in the sense that we can speak of them, grasp them, intuit them, in the present (note how I keep using the word is when explaining them!). In Deleuze’s (76) words:

“The synthesis of time constitutes the present in time. … [S]ynthesis constitutes time as a living present, and the past and the future as dimensions of this present.”

Of course, again, to be precise, the past can never be, as the past is what ceases to be, and the future can never be because the future is yet to be. The again, the present, and only the present, can only be because of how the future becomes present and how the present becomes the past, hence the point Augustine (243) makes about being and not-being. In Deleuze’s (76) words:

“This synthesis is none the less intratemporal, which means that this present passes.”

What we could do is what Deleuze (76) suggests but is nonetheless against:

“We could no doubt conceive of a perpetual present, a present which is coextensive with time: it would be sufficient to consider contemplation applied to the infinite succession of instants.”

However, this is not satisfactory because, as pointed out by Augustine (242-243), it would render time into eternity. So, for, Deleuze’s (76-77):

“But such a present is not physically possible: the contraction implied in any contemplation always qualifies an order of repetition according to the elements or cases involved. It necessarily forms a present which may be exhausted and which passes, a present of a certain duration which varies according to the species[.]”

Anyway, moving on, the point being that, strictly speaking, the past and the future have no existence, only the present has, unless we understand it as Deleuze (100) formulates them in ‘Cinema 2: The Time Image’ as a present of the past and a present of the future. In ‘Difference and Repetition’, he (77) states that:

“One of the great strengths of Stoicism lies in having shown that every sign is a sign of the present, from the point of view of the passive synthesis in which past and future are precisely only dimensions of the present itself.”

To make sense of this, as this can be a bit tough to comprehend, he (77) exemplifies this:

“A scar is the sign not of a past wound but of ‘the present fact of having been wounded’[.]”

Anyway, where was I? Right, back to Lowenthal (103) who states that past is very much in the present, in the sense that our understanding of what was is always from what currently is, here and now, as also pointed out by Deleuze and Augustine. For many, if not for most people, the problem with this conception is that it is unstable. In Lowenthal’s (104) words:

“The provisional and contingent nature of history is hard to accept, for it denies the perennial dream of an ordered and stable past.”

Remember how just about everything was way, way better back in the day, whenever that supposedly was? In other words, people find this hard to accept because it forces them to acknowledge that they can’t just relax, take it easy, as otherwise they may risk things slipping from their grasp. They want a sense of security that guarantees them that what was, what they consider good, will be there even in the future. Lowenthal (104) explains this better than I do:

“We seek refuge from the uneasy present, the uncertain future, in recalling the good days, which take on a luster heightened by nostalgia. Memory highlights selected scenes, making them so real and vivid we can scarcely believe they do not actually survive.”

I’d add here that this demise of what was is what really riles up people. I can’t remember if I pointed this out already, in an earlier essay last year, but I’ll risk reiterating it here. So, I was having dinner (or was it more of a supper?) with some Danish scholars at a conference last year. The discussion briefly turned to having stuff, this and/or that, how some of us can be in the habit of hoarding stuff. For others, there were plenty of stuff that they could not live without, or so to speak. Okay, they could live without them but they are the type of things that are considered irreplaceable, you know, for sentimental reasons. I told them that I don’t really have anything, any stuff that I wouldn’t be able to let go. Sure, I have things that I hold dear and it’s not that I wish for their demise, destruction or the like, but rather that they are not irreplaceable to me. I added that, in general, it’s the same with anything what was, even with people. Again, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think people are irreplaceable. It’s rather that people come and go and you can’t hold on to them forever. They move elsewhere or you move elsewhere and what not. This pushes you to get to know other people, make new connections. Life goes on and so should you, or something along those lines.

As a side note, related to our interpretation of the past, there’s a reference to Augustine in the Virginia Woolf bits quoted by Lowenthal (104), albeit it has to do with how he conceptualizes memory as a store house, full of things we’ve perceived, that we’d then retrieve, if my memory serves me (haha, that came out perfect, by accident!) correctly. Lowenthal (104-105) comments on this, this dream of recovering the past from the storehouse of memory:

“Such total recall is rare; most of us can no longer retrieve past scenes after we have outgrown the way we originally experienced them.”

He (105) then moves on to point out that not everyone clings to their own memories, that is to say how we remember the past having been. In many cases that is actually simply impossible as we haven’t been around longer than we have. He (105) states that in the 1800s scholars believed that it was possible to recover the past through records of the past, a point I made already about clinging on to things. He (105) also points out that, at least in theory, it may be possible to recover the past by observing past events from other galaxies, given the way light works. Anyway, as the title of his essay suggests, he (105-106) focuses mainly on the material aspects of past, on the various artifacts we can observe in our surroundings.

Before getting on with the topic, Lowenthal (105-106) summarizes the dilemma people encounter when they cling on to the past. He notes that objects that once were outstanding, pristine and perfect will eventually get damaged, fade, deteriorate and disintegrate. He provides the example of preserving sunken ships, which are easier to preserve for future generations by leaving them where they were discovered on the seabed than by placing them in some museum. Of course, the irony is that what is the point of a ship that people consider historically valuable if it can only be observed in the depths of some ocean? It might as well not exist.

Of course as good as that ship example is, it’s also fairly trivial. It doesn’t have much to do with everyday life and it makes little difference to people whether some ship is at the bottom of some ocean or in some museum that they are unlike to visit anyway. The next stop for Lowenthal (106-107) is to address how memory is fallible and can play tricks on us, to the point someone might think it has all been made up, just to mess with you. These bits make for fun reading and I recommend reading them, as well, but as they aren’t what I find most interesting, nor the most relevant, for the purposes of this essay, I’ll skip ahead accordingly.

So, back to the artifacts, which Lowenthal (108) considers particularly important in how we perceive the past. He (108) states these “physical traces”, these objects, as present in the landscape, appeal to us in two ways. The first way he (108) characterizes as antiquarian and hinging on historical knowledge:

“One is their resemblance to, or congruence with, forms, styles, or species that are historically antique and obsolete – open field traces, vintage automobiles, classical pediments.”

Indeed, for something to be considered as antique has to be based on historical knowledge. The second way he (108) characterizes as senescent, marked by awareness of change, of decay, which occurs regardless of whether we like it or not:

“The other is our awareness of prolonged use or decay – a worn chair, a wrinkled face, a corroded tin, an ivy-covered or mildewed wall.”

Some of this is, of course, more obvious to us whereas some of this isn’t. For example, rocks take quite a while to deteriorate whereas we humans deteriorate much faster, even if we take good care of ourselves. Of course, we can’t be sure of these insights. That’s why Lowenthal (108) notes that they can be erroneous:

“The Greek vase, the classical column, may be a copy or a fake; the open field pattern may be an inaccurate reconstruction; wrinkles may have been painted in, moss on the roof grown deliberately by the use of manure.”

Therefore he (108) summarizes that:

“Appearances of antiquity can be just as deceptive as memories of the past.”

Ah, yes, there’s more than meets the eye. We might think something is old, when it’s just made to look that way. He (108) continues, noting that our relationship with the past, namely all things old, is bittersweet. We admire all things old. We appreciate them for being old. We expect them to be sensibly old, to have that old look, that old feel. They should have a bit of wear and tear. They are not supposed to look mint, as if they had just been unboxed. The problem is that nothing last forever. Eventually what we appreciate for the old look and feel will be rendered unrecognizable by all that wear and tear. This is a cause for great anxiety.

Lowenthal (108-109) acknowledges this dilemma, the appreciation of antiquity and the lamentation of decay, but shifts the focus to the various artifacts that are still with us, noting that:

“[J]ust as awareness of history alters what we know of it, so recognizing the historicity of artifacts transforms both their significance and their appearance. To realize that something stems from the past is actively to alter it.”

He (109) continues by listing three activities that revolve around these landscape artifacts: “recognition and celebration, maintenance and preservation, and enrichment and enhancement.” These activities have to do with how when “we recognize an historical object or locale, we mark it with signs, celebrate its setting, herald its existence in print, protect or restore it, recreate it in replica”, as he (109) characterizes them. He (109) further elaborates the first activity:

“Designation serves both to locate the antiquity on our mental map and to dissociate it from its own surroundings. It is no longer just old, but ‘olde.’ The marker emphasizes its special antiqueness by contrast with the unsignposted present-day environs, and diminishes the antique artifact’s continuity with its milieu.”

Therefore, as summarized by him (109):

“The antiquity becomes an exhibit; we stand before it like a painting.”

In other words, when we locate something old in the landscape, we mark it, we signpost it. We literally put up signposts that indicate that this, this exactly, is worth paying attention to. This results in us paying attention to the signposted artifacts or features. Conversely, we end not paying attention to what is not signposted in our surroundings. Okay, fair enough, maybe what is signposted is worth paying attention. Granted. Then again, when something is signposted, we don’t get to judge that ourselves.

Lowenthal (109) adds that signposting is not only an issue in the sense that it guides our attention but also in the sense that the signpost, the marker and what’s indicated in it, may become more important than the artifact or the feature in question. It may even even end up substituting the thing in question. He (109) exemplifies this with what is known as the Kensington Runestone. It was found in Solem township in Minnesota, but it is located in a museum in Alexandria, Minnesota. Its authenticity is contested, but what matters is that people consider it as authentic and have erected an outsized replica of it in a prominent place in the town. It not even relevant if it is authentic or not. What’s relevant here is that the signposts, the outsized replica and a statue known as Big Ole, “America’s Biggest Viking” who carries a shield with the text “Alexandria, Birthplace of America” (as if no one was around in North America when Vikings were busy pillaging coasts in Europe, mind you), have come to be more important than the real (or not?) deal. The simulacra have substituted the original. They might actually well be simulacra of a simulacrum, but that’d only make this example even better.

Lowenthal (109-110) adds a couple of other examples where there’s basically nothing to see, as such, but, of course, that hardly matters. You can go through the examples yourself, but the gist of them is that you only need to put up some signs and voila! Notable! Worth your attention! This then results in, I guess what you might expect, tourism, featuring a whole array of markings, such as names and legends, items, such as photographs and memorabilia, and activities, such as guided tours, as noted by him (110).

For Lowenthal (110) nothing is quite as intrusive, or should I say transformative, as actual signposts. He (110) exemplifies how people engage with signposts with a story about how someone objected to a sign contained the word ‘castle’ when the said castle was, in fact, a mere ruin of a castle, which forces the relevant authorities to add ‘ruin’ to the sign. In other words, people take their signs seriously. He (110) further elaborates the role of various markers on the landscape:

“Even the least conspicuous marker on the most dramatic site drastically alters the context and flavor of historical experience.”

Now, he (110-111) goes on to add that, for some, this is a form of vandalism, ruining what’s out there, the beauty of it, in its own right, with signs that tell us what we are looking at, what we should think of this and/or that thing in the landscape, thus drowning it all in trivia. To put this more concisely, he (111) summarizes that not only do signs identify and index what it is that we are supposed to pay attention to but they also classify what that thing is, which then forces us to compare different things, be they artifacts or landscape features, with other things, reducing the complexity of what we see to something like a written record. In Deleuzian terms, the signs we are so keen to erect render difference into something that is merely between two or more classifications or identities.

Signs are, of course, not limited to actual signposts out there. Lowenthal (112) reminds us that we also come to experience the world through markings that are not actually present in the landscape. For example, maps and guidebooks come to shape our experience as we engage with our surroundings. We come to search for this and/or that feature in the landscape if it is indicated on a map or in some guidebook and also come to recognize such features, even though we wouldn’t without the maps or guidebooks. He (112) adds that, conversely, if something is not indicated on a map, and/or in the landscape, it is not considered to be there because it lacks the validity for its existence, as guaranteed by some relevant authority. This may also lead to a situation where there is something interesting out there, but it lacks the relevant recognition. He (112) notes how that may lead to situations where some area is (re)developed without taking existing artifacts or landscape features into account, thus risking damage to them.

With regards to landscapes, not merely certain features present in them as discussed thus far, he (112-113) states that the depictions of landscapes may become more important the landscapes themselves, what’s out there. He (112-113) exemplifies this with the case of Niagara Falls. There’s certainly no shortage of paintings and photographs of Niagara Falls. People go to see the falls for that reason, to see those great waterfalls. They are, quite literally, chasing waterfalls (sorry, I just had to). The thing with bodies of water is that they are susceptible to change. All that water is not just contained in some impenetrable concrete vessel that will stay the same forever. That means that bodies of water, such as rivers and waterfalls will eventually change. Of course, this is bad for business as people come there to see a visual monument, a marvel of nature, those spectacular waterfalls, not some gently sloping rivers that meet at a lake. This results in intervention. The site has to be managed, in ways that preserve it as depicted in paintings and photos. This is, of course, rather ironic, considering that people come there to see a ‘natural’ wonder of the world.

Again, he (113-114) provides other examples, but I’ll leave to you to go through them on your own. It’s, however, worth noting that these examples include what he calls architectural antiquities, various buildings and monuments which would crumble if not preserved in various ways. There’s also the question of what counts as something worth preserving anyway. Who gets to judge that? And based on what?

Lowenthal (114-118) elaborates various cases and how one might handle them, ranging from leaving things be as they are or attempting to restore things, as we think there were, that is to say ought to be, as well as altogether re-enacting or re-creating something long gone. What I take from this is that there is no right or wrong answer to this, how to handle the issue. No matter what we do, it’s always going to be selective. As he (117) points out, we are in the habit of wanting to preserve “what we feel ought to have been” rather than what genuinely was because our actions “inevitably convey the flavor of … [the] day.” As he (118) keenly observes, this results in “mak[ing] remnants from the past more clustered, uniform, and homogeneous”, especially if those remnants are moved from where they once were to one specific area, such as a historic precinct, as is the case with “a tastefully restored Colonial village, a ghost mining town, [or] a Gay Nineties downtown street”. In other words, this results in artificial purity (albeit isn’t purity always artificial?) of both space and time and areas that are “as sterile and as atypical of their own periods as a brand new subdivision today”, as he (118) points out. They are like large scale museums, in the sense that museums tend to be places filled with items that have little to do with one another.

The next interesting part of the text for me is where Lowenthal (118) notes how what we consider important in one era differs from what we consider important in another era. Should we preserve and/or exhibit this or that? Why and why not? He (118-119) distinguishes two themes. Firstly, there’s a tendency of valuing and preferring anything old over everything new. The older, the better. Secondly, if we encounter multiple pasts, artifacts from multiple eras, again, we tend to value the older over the newer. In other words, there’s a bias towards the primordial, the Ur, although there’s nothing that guarantees that old artifacts reveals us more about our past, our origins, than the more subsequent artifacts, as he (119) points out. He (119) provides some examples in which the common theme is deemed purity, removing or attempting to remove more subsequent features that ‘intrude’ on the historical integrity of a building, a site or a landscape. For him (119-120) this view ignores how environments are lived, how they are stratified and how they will change and will keep on changing.

I’ll skip some bits again, including the highly amusing bit on how Robert Rauschenberg took a Willem de Kooning drawing and obliterated it by finely erasing it contents, so that you can only, sort of, see the original lines, as pressed against the paper. Anyway, at this point (I realize that I forgot to number these) Lowenthal (120-121) states that the key issue pertaining to the three types of activities, marking, protecting and enhancing, is that it is hard to draw a line between them, because they flow from one to the other, in a way that it becomes a vicious circle. It’s hard to prevent the world from transforming.

The final part of the essay (121-124) is dedicated to monuments and memorials. This change in focus has to do with how they don’t function “to preserve the past but to recall and celebrate it”, as he (121) clearly points out. In a way they are what one might call a standout feature in any landscape because, as he (121) clarifies, they rarely have anything to do with the place where they are located. Instead, they function as constant reminders of sorts, of some past era, event or remarkable person. They are also standout features exactly because that’s the intention, to impress people and to make it hard not to pay attention to them. This is also why people come to object to them, far more than any other feature in landscapes, even destroying them, as he (123) points out. Examples of this that come to my mind is what happened to Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin and, more recently, in my time, when people started pulling down Confederate statues in the US.

For Lowenthal (123), cemeteries are landscape features that have little to do with the dead as they function as fields of remembrance, as “assemblages of personal memorials.” If we put an Augustinian spin on this, the dead matter not because they lack existence, only the living do, hence cemeteries are, in fact, for the living, not for the dead. Cemeteries can even function collectively, as is the case with military cemeteries. They are, quite literally, fields of the dead marked by uniform grave markers, evoking not remembrance of the individual, whoever it is that is marked as buried in the soil, but some war, the heroic deeds of soldiers who died for their country, as he (123) specifies their character. He (123) adds that the more distant the deceased become to the living, the more collective the remembrance becomes, shifting the focus from an individual past to a common past. There’s also the odd quality to cemeteries, how both the form and content mark a certain era or eras, albeit it’s hardly intentional, as he (123) points out.

It was, I think, a couple years ago, in the summertime, when we visited the grave site of some distant relative, because its upkeep had to be renewed. Anyway, that’s hardly memorable, in itself. What was striking was exactly what Lowenthal (123) is pointing out. We had to look for the specific gravestone so it took a bit of gazing before we found the right one. Anyway, there was this engraving on one of the gravestones that caught my attention. It had the usual bits, name, date of birth and the date when the person had died. It also had what one might consider the person’s profession or job. The thing is that it was ‘tourist’. Oh, okay? I can only comprehend that by assuming that back in the day, I think it was in the early 1900s, one had to be quite wealthy to be a tourist. So, the point here being that “the antiquarian effect is seldom intended”, as Lowenthal (123) phrases it.

It’s time to wrap this up and why not, because Lowenthal (124) does it in style:

“The past, like the present, is always in flux. When we identify, preserve, enhance, or commemorate surviving artifacts and landscapes, we affect the very nature of the past, altering its meaning and significance for every generation in every place.”

In other words, the past is indeed in the present, as he (125) summarizes this:

“Conscious appreciation of the tangible past always sets in motion forces that alter it.”

Only to give it an ominous spin (125), in reference to George Orwell’s (31) ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’:

“As Orwell feared, ‘who controls the present controls the past.’ I have tried to show that this is true, not only for totalitarian societies that deliberately expunge and alter the past, but for all human beings.”

So, he (124) reiterates the paradox of how the interest in the past, being antiquarian, threatens and likely debases what is antiquated. This is particularly true with popular tourist sites. A place that is considered important becomes an attraction, then money is needed to keep it maintained and restored, but that only leads to more attraction, to more tourists. Of course things don’t have to be this way and in many places people don’t make fuss about this and/or that feature of the past, which he (124) comments on:

“[L]inks are unbroken only so long as no one realizes how unlike the present the tangible past is.”

Then again, as he (124-125) goes on to comment, all it takes is to break that link, how this and/or that artifact or landscape feature is no longer a part of everyday life, no longer part of a continuum. It doesn’t take much, as he (125) goes on to elaborate:

“They would wonder at it, think it of another time, sketch and photograph it, and transform the children into pimps and picturesque likenesses on Kodachrome. Villagers would provide lodgings and souvenirs – post cards and replicas … – and mark the way with signposts. Publicity would swell the press of visitors and require the government to fence off the [site], station guards, and charge admission to defray these costs.”

Haha, love it, the way he presents this! You need to know what Kodachrome is! Not a given these days. Also, stating that people, in this case the area children, are turned into pimps! Of course, I reckon, not in the sense that they are procurers, people who arrange opportunities for illicit sexual encounters, but in the sense that they pander for another kind of appetite. They are turned into parts of the product, matching the appeal of the ‘olde’.

He (125) finds pros and cons in all this. On one hand, it’s apparent that this can be potentially dangerous, as it “can falsify and destroy the real past”, either by simply ruining it or turning it into something it never was. The case of the Kensington Runestone is a good example of the latter, where it matters not whether the artifact is even genuine, when the local people celebrate it as such and erect oversized monuments to venerate it. On the other hand, the falsification and ruination of the past can be a good thing because it “can help free us from conscious or unconscious dependence on a mythical past.”

What I like about this essay is that it not only focuses on how time is particularly important in understanding our relationship with out surroundings but how it also turns our attention to how signposts, or just signs as they are typically called in linguistic landscape literature, alter our encounters with out surroundings. They not only physically change the sites, the landscapes, but also change how we come interpret, to understand, them. In Deleuzo-Guattarian terms, they create corporeal transformations as well as incorporeal transformations. In the case of the Kensington Runestone, it led to the erection of an outsized replica of the said runestone and a large cartoonish viking statue that has a text on its shield, claiming that vikings were first to be in North America. Fair enough, apparently the Vikings got to North America before Columbus, if L’Anse aux Meadows site at the northern tip of Newfoundland is taken into account, but there’s no confirmation of them ever reaching Minnesota. Then again, it matters not how things actually were. What matter is how they are now because, following Deleuze, or, alternatively Augustine, the past is a dimension of the present, or, as Lowenthal (125) puts it, “to appreciate the past is to transform it” as “[e]very trace of the past is a testament not only to its initiators but to its inheritors” because the past is always rolled up in the present and seen from the present perspective.


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  • Lowenthal, D. (1979). Age and Artifact: Dilemmas of Appreciation. In D. W. Meinig (Ed.), The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays (pp. 103–128). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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  • Rauschenberg, R. (1953). Erased de Kooning Drawing.
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