Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Historical Mindset

I was trying, and failing, the other day to explain what the historical mindset is. History as a way of seeing the world. The best I could come up with is the feeling you get when you embrace a new ontology or metaphysics, a new philosophical scheme of making sense of the world. You know you've understood a philosopher when you see the world through their thoughts. Viewing the world as a Humean is different from viewing it as an Aristotelian or Phenomenologist.

We all see the world, even if blind, in our own way, a synaptic conjuring act of memory and influence. But we can, most of us, step in to another way of seeing. Or, if you prefer, change our goggles and tint or distort the world differently.

An easy example of this is seeing the world as a photographer – which is increasingly common as photography gushes into the mainstream from the formerly reserved 'artistic' pool. You see a building and consider its line, its light, aperture and focus. Consider the angle and element of black. And then you literally put the camera to your eye (although less so now) and view the building through the photographer's lens.

Considering this I wonder whether religion is applicable, but I think not. Religion is either academically understood, or one has faith. You can't, really, flip between seeing the world through a Christian and a Hindu's eyes.

The historical way of seeing is to constantly create the past of the object in question, and to temporalize it on a timeline of assumed past and presumed future. It re-enhances the present, as a result.

Example: concrete. I know that the concrete lining the sidewalks of Singapore is pretty much the same as it is elsewhere – a western formula developed in Europe relatively recently in it's current incarnation. I know that the Romans had concrete that was far superior to the stuff we use now, with a different formula much stronger than our wimpy solutions overrun by tree roots. How, if it has rebar in it, it will take only a few hundred years to oxidize and crack, sloughing away the facades of skyscrapers. I recall through photographs and paintings what Singapore used to look like when the concrete wasn't here, when the ground was a relatively dense but sandy soil providing firmament for the tropical trees. I consider, looking out of the balcony into the horizon, how this city, too, will look like Angkor Wat in the jungle when it was refound. Or Tikal in Guatemala – how the tropics will bend a little to accommodate our technology, but in the end will swallow it and leave only our ruins – if we we built them well enough.

Example: pigeons. Rock pigeons that originated in Eurasia and Africa which have replaced the Passenger Pigeons which the American Great Plains were once famed for, when introduced by colonial settlers. How the pigeon came to become the feral animal of the city – replacing cliffs and canyons with scarce food reserves with skyscraper living befitting their omnivorous appetites. How their traditional predators were bullied by humans, who as a rule have been intolerant of most carnivores they don't own. Why, due to the very human excess the pigeons depended on for food, humans wouldn't eat them, and why all that refuse and filth was in the cities in the first place – why garbage heaps exist, and the history of American consumerism that made them possible. Manhattan in the 1920s when pigs still roamed the Burroughs and legislation was being enacted to keep the horses out of the financial district putting the night-time manure collectors, usually black, out of work from distributing the waste to the farms outside the city. When that system broke down, when the poor couldn't find dinner outside their door, the filth was cleaned up by well-meaning sanitation agitators and Fresh Kills is born, garbage is collected regularly, but not dealt with nightly, and accumulates to allow the gulls, and Eurasian Rock pigeons, plenty of pickings.

This is what it is like to look at the world historically. You see the causes of events. I'd say objects, but they are only events in slow motion. If you've studied your causes, your patterns, well then you can see where the objects are going and what they'll likely be next. The landscape is a pastiche of things in different stages of their pattern, time having effected some more or less, needing more or less time to effect change. Its sort of like seeing a number of stop-motion and time-lapse reels playing all around you, at differing speeds. Gardens become lessons in migration patterns of settlers and domestication. Rooms display a goosebumping display of modern industrialism, the factory system, the rise of global capitalism and telecommunications history. People are no less exempt. I read the features, the clothes, the make-up and gesticulations, the haircut, smell and speech and the various historical forces behind them all. How does this person exist? Are they a likely candidate to be carrying Neanderthal DNA? What consequences made their moment as an object possible?

For we, too, are merely objects: a short patterned sequence of events. One may chalk up their characteristics to capriciousness, but the historical mindset knows that there were forces in play – a whole array – which made you who you are and how you think and why you act. There is a limited determinism to it all, as any physicist might tell you, and even if you store faith in God there are still rules: for a miracle is defined only by the rules it can break. Our conceptions of reality are still limited by the mind, our senses, spacetime, atoms and what you will. True: I cannot predict the next word out of your mouth – sometimes. But the desire to pre-write cards of a conversation is tempting. The cues are predictable, the phrasing rehearsed through experience. Events like us have only very limited possibilities, and while those left open to us are succor to our minds that predict future and imagine past, they only get interesting when complicated – multiplied and compounded by other factors. That is why a human's history is relatively the same in fundamentals, but humanity's is not. And while I can guess what Singapore will look like when swallowed by the trees who knows what will really occur? If the island is used to mine something, or bombed with nuclear weapons, or suffers a cataclysmic earthquake tomorrow the whole picture changes.

In the meantime, however, the historical mindset brings us face to face with the present – reminding us that the future is illusory and the past unchangeable. We can only look at the events around us and realize that they'll never again align in this unique way. What patterns we make of that will be solely our own.

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