Images of the past – part 1

Several iterations of an epistemological notion concerning representation cause us to reconsider the past and history. If we are only able to perceive the world representationally and inaccurately, and, more, if even spacetime is a misleading construct, the implication for our conception of the past is concerning. One argument holds that veridical interpretations of reality hinder species’ progress. In other words, their understanding of the present is inaccurate. They are rewarded evolutionarily by emphasising, ignoring, or exaggerating features of the environment or other organisms. Similarly, the very substance of our universe, spacetime, might be a secondary, ancillary effect of a deeper reality. We observe and inhabit a holographic projection of something more fundamental. Concerningly, the profound relational truths surrounding cause and effect, baked in to billions of years of evolution and driving organisms’ day-to-day attempts to manipulate their surroundings, break down in certain physical models, and seemingly arcane notions of entanglement and complementarity depart from our common-sense understanding of the fabric of reality. Thus, the software produced for our consciousnesses by evolution seems unable without the rarefied assistance of advanced mathematics to grasp reality at its most basic. If we inhabit a quantum hologram but do not know it, what in fact can we truly know?

The same is true for our understanding of time. Attempts to conceive of time stopping, ‘flowing’ backwards or operating differently at all are counter-intuitive and often unsuccessful. This is because minds have evolved to hunt and gather efficiently, to make simple tools and assist in the survival of our peers – and therefore have required a firm, robust and automatic conception of time and causality which suits its operating environment. Of entanglement and complementarity, Neolithic man (nor the Pleistocene Glyptodon) knew little – neither did they stop to ponder the nature of time and its irresistible unidirectional moment. As philosophers split hairs ever more finely when explaining the present and eternity, their failure to conclude the matter simply points to humanity’s deficit with such chronal perspectives. We do not know whether all moments have always existed, whether simply the present exists, whether the past exists in way the future does not – ad infinitum. A similar level of confusion relating to spatial location would be risible. Time is therefore especially unknowable, and we do not know whether we perdure, exdure or endure.

Similarly, a claim that we interpret our human present unclearly should find little disagreement. From political processes, major existential concerns (man made or natural), economic choices to warfare and corruption, it is clear that we rarely conceive of our primary challenges with clarity. Polling, election choices, private financial decisions, policy priorities – the experience shows that we do not understand the world nor our place in it. Extended to human biology and our wellbeing, our poor choices are daily manifest. We seem trapped in an iron prison of our genetic history, imperfect minds ill-adapted to their fleshly hosts. This is not to mention our even poorer record when initiating programmes to meet these challenges – theories, recommendations and legislation reverberate manically, failing in each iteration to save our selves.

We therefore are unable to lucidly decipher our human world, physical space and the nature of reality, and most pertinently time itself.

But what of the human past? If humans misinterpret reality in these concrete and theoretical ways, then why would we expect them to comprehend their past successfully? History and historians abound. As a profession, subject or ‘genre’ for popular culture, History is healthy, though it suffers a wide-range of contested explanations for its meaning, purpose, scope, content, level of moral responsibility, mode of practice, use, relative politicisation and mooted role in abetting oppression. Assessing the relative weight given to actors’ testimony in exploring historical events and processes is a well-trodden path, granted. Indeed, judging the merit or otherwise of every piece of historical evidence utlisied or discarded in the production of anaylses is the Historian’s assumed fundamental competence. But, more deeply, if our brothers and sisters through the ages also suffered from our maladroit earthly perception, how worthwhile is the historical project? Can we do more with our past than allow it to slip tragically through our fingers?

Perhaps historians understand this intuitively. Medieval chroniclers describe meteors, great storms and worse when narrating the causality of plagues. Hyper-real spiritual experiences become matter-of-fact events beside crop failures or wars. Recency bias, proximity to great events, trauma or habituation can seem the main factor in determining the content of witnesses’ accounts. To be a peasant in 19th century Russia would be to take on a host of spiritual, social, economic and moral assumptions relating to the nature of their reality. Trauma can be contextual. Historians understand these and other caveats associated with the use of such evidence. If it is their aim, reconstructing the past wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, is attempted with the appropriate care. Their practice includes many successes, most notably attempts to confront criminals in the recent past with appropriate justice. Nevertheless, the suspicion of futility and indulgence lingers.

More, tropes such as ‘victors writing the history’ obscure deeper truths. The unwritten histories of oppressed or defeated peoples receive attention from time to time, although bold conceptual leaps arguing defence of nefarious actors or promoting dead-end civilisations are rare. But there are also vast, unheralded, shadowy chronicles of our past which will remain forever silent. Given the frustratingly scanty evidence for even certain European medieval histories, our relative lack of information for the deep histories of the global south yields greater frustration. Perhaps microscale echoes of the everyday from past centuries tantalise precisely because truly comprehending our ancestors’ lives seems incredible. In the murk, any candle casts a brilliant glare. Instead of perfect facsimile, we construct an imperfect image of the past from what evidence we have, with varying resolution and fidelity. History seems a hologram of spent reality, distilled from the interference patterns of our own interpretative dysfunction.

Historians and anthropologists plough their furrows keenly, despite this regrettable evidential deficit. They can offer well-reasoned guesses when interpreting cave-art, refer to current tribal practices and, as sensibly as possible, graft our assumptions onto their subjects’ psyches. But, though fascinating, the limits of their practice are clear. Even if we imagine modes of thinking to modulate only slowly over the eons, interpreting the imagination of our stone age or bronze age ancestors seems a stretch. Perhaps, more than we, they perceived the nebulous quality of time more keenly. Were their cave-wrought artforms security against impermanence?

To extrapolate, have sociability and civilisation inured us to chronal complementation? The rise in fretting about existence as a correlate for the unfolding of modernity is fitting: as civilisation became less and less human, the humans worried more and more about their place. Their representational imagery underwent a transformation to the impression and thence the abstraction. The vector was toward greater and greater interpretation; perhaps, haunted by their great unanswered questions about Time, they sought greater diffraction of meaning amidst our riches of information. Perhaps Neolithic man had a clearer innate understanding of the unknowability of time and space, and worried about existence less. For the modern human, failed attempts to replace natural order proliferate, and therefore dissonance rules. But we pretend to know it all.

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