Time, Memory, and the Myth of Progress

by Amanda C. R. Clark

In our post-postmodern culture, text and image are increasingly fractured. Disciplines such as literary studies and art history are segregated and kept at a distance; Starbucks and Apple logos sans text are reduced to little more than semiotic cliché. Let us turn to an old friend and ask the physical book within time: “Are we trapped within our modern understanding of the progression of time, even if we are tethered in time, as we may often believe ourselves to be?”

In Werner Herzog’s 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams we are offered a meditation on the passage of time perceived in a modern context. The filmmaker explores the incredible Paleolithic animal art found in the Chauvet Cave in southern France.[1] Jean-Michel Geneste, Director of the Chauvet Cave Research Project, is quoted in the film, saying: “to inscribe the memory on very specific and odd things like walls…. It’s a way of communication between humans and with the future.” In other words, it’s an intentionally delayed message. The cave waits for us, now, here, thousands of years later, to tell us something.

Beneath the documentary structure of the film is a metanarrative that interrogates the purpose and inescapably time-rooted nature of visual art as it is experienced. Regarding how and why—and when—art should be viewed, this film broaches existential questions: Herzog’s improbable yet tantalizing mystical musings let us ponder if something made in millennia past might have reached an intended purpose for us in our present age. Might time, rather than being linear, be more akin to an accordion-folded book collapsed upon itself? As Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore lobbied in their 1967 work, The Medium is the Massage, Western print culture based on the Roman alphabet is fixed in a linear concept of time, marching one letter after another, indefinitely. Like soldiers, this construction generates and sustains our contemporary concept of progress.[2]  But is it progress?  Are we progressing toward something worth reaching?

Maura Picciau quotes an anonymous author who states that a book as akin to the flow of water: “By changing what flows into what stays still, the book denies the image of time. Its surface is not superficial, its plot is not linear, and its time is not irreversible.”[3] The book waits as the caves at Chauvet wait—what is within remains in darkness and quiet—and anticipates us individually, personally. The physical book may or may not participate in the “flat, neutral surface” of linear alphabet-like progression; the book’s writer is free from such strictures, allowing creativity to flow as creatively as his or her mind allows, unfettered. The power of the physical book is thus not in its linearity but in its conception and flexibility. With the rise of the internet, the Renaissance ideal of one-point perspective—wherein “I” is the source of the gaze upon the world—has been reversed. The “I” is no longer the lookout for viewing a receding vanishing point, but has itself become that point. We self-gaze, trapped in chronology, dreaming of destinations. What emerges is a multiplicity of terminals. A reader of a book may flip through the text, open a book at random in the middle, or explore other variations of use. Have we lost our footing, ostensibly “freed” from the linear worldview once personified by the alphabet?

As humans, we can reference only the past; the future recedes infinitely before us. John Lewis Gaddis considered this as both dominating and dominated.[4] Without our past stored and retrievable, we are unequipped to prepare for the unknown future found now, and now, and now, the future being future and the present being future-immediate. Being human is an art. We must apply limited information broadly; we are stargazers on a cloudy evening. The end-goal of this game is the betterment of humanity both on the micro and macro levels, and the game pieces are the records of human lived experience, stored, retrieved, and consulted.

[1] Werner Herzog, Erik Nelson, Adrienne Ciuffo, Peter Zeitlinger, Joe Bini, Maya Hawke, Ernst Reijseger, et al, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, documentary video, 90 minutes (Los Angeles: Creative Differences Productions, Inc, 2011).

[2] See McLuhan and Fiore, The Medium is the Massage. The ironic titular typo, “massage,” was retained by McLuhan deliberately.

[3] Maura Picciau, “Between the Rooms and the Shelves, Disturbing Objects,” in Il Libro Come Opera d’Arte: Avanguardie Italiane del Novecento nel Panorama Internaionale, The Book as a Work of Art: The Italian Avant-Gardes in the Twentieth Century as Part of the International Panorama, by Giorgio Maffei e Maura Picciau (Mantova, Italy, 2008), 21.

[4] See John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Amanda C. R. Clark is Library Director at Whitworth University. She has published in areas of architecture, biography, book arts, and the significance of books. Clark holds a PhD in library and information sciences from the University of Alabama.

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