On Time

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

In a comment thread, JJ Cohen of In the Middle writes:

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.

This comes as a response to this question:

. . . 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?

I would ask this question because it goes directly to Professor Cohen’s mention of building projects in the context of mortality: do we know enough about the Stonehenge builders’ notion of time as both concrete duration and abstract companion. How did they, for example, express “immediacy” or “now” and “later”?

In our own world, time is a thing to watch closely, classify, and beat. Time is a ubiquity as a technological construct: it’s staring at me from the computer now as a personified bot of the interior mechanism. The processor is clocked and so is the heart and DVD drive. Time and death are related: we do call them “deadlines” after all.

The notion of mortality in the west is heavily shaped by conceptualizations of technological futures, generational landscapes and forecasts, and by religion. How heavily do these influence our inferences about the Stonehenge builders?

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