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Recalling the Amnesiac
Issue Thirty: The Understory
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This essay deliberately deploys the plural for words that would typically be used in the singular form such as “pasts” and “histories” to represent their cultural plurality rather than a colonized, singular interpretation.
For places we continually return, we often assume they will be the same tomorrow as they were yesterday. As the velocity of climactic events destabilizes our expectations of continuity, we become increasingly curious to peel back layers of the present to discover relationships to myriad pasts. We come to realize that our limited present is the result of many possible previous responses—forks in roads or paths along decision trees prescribed for us.
How might we probe the depths of unrealized pasts to open up potential new futures above ground? How are our present actions predetermining the options future generations get to choose?
November 2021 in British Columbia may be remembered as a time of unravelling that exposed the vulnerabilities of decisions made decades and even centuries ago. Or perhaps not. The concept of an inverted world literally jumped from fantasy to nightmare as rivers took to the sky to drown livestock, crops, vehicles, agrochemical stores, vehicles, and homes. By comparison to many parts of the province, my relationship with our atmospheric rivers was quite tame. And so I share my personal vantage point not to minimize the suffering of so many, but rather for its symbolism of how there are many presents, many pasts, and many futures adjacent to and even overlapping one another.
I jog in a neighbourhood commons which is colloquially known as a park. John Hendry Park is a beautiful place with a large lake at its centre. A gravel trail circumscribes the water with large willows flanking both sides. I’ve built relationships with the willows, with the rocks, with the water—not in a general sense but in a most particular sense for each. I am quite certain that there is a mutualism at play. As the rocks, willows, and lake shift my consciousness, so too may I be affecting their being. Humberto Maturana might suggest that there is a shared cognition resulting from the continuous interaction between us. As I am part of the living system, so too the living system cognitively accounts for my role in it.
“Park” is a designation we culturally afford to land largely set aside from market forces. Like most urban parks, their presents often obscure their pasts. The lake that often is fronted by a no swimming warning due to E. coli contamination from animal waste, sewer overflow, and stormwater runoff was once home to trout, salmon, and beaver in the era before enclosure. In the 1860s, colonists claimed the land and the lake not as a home for the living but rather a processing point for the recently deceased at the nearby sawmill. Now the “trout” in Trout Lake is just a symbol of life rather than actual life. Trout Lake is a memorial of sorts for what once was—timbre chosen over trout, and lumber barons over Indigenous peoples, fish, and beaver.
Other than a few months of the year, I always expect to find the land wet here. As the trail is on a natural peat bog and belongs to a bioregional temperate rain forest, water is not just a feature of the land, but also spans its depths below ground. With the torrential and unrelenting rains so too came wind proving itself too much for pain-relieving willow. On the first day of the storm, I discovered one willow down. Two days later three more. The dwindling population of willows that remained standing were doing so at a significant canter, threatening to topple over at any moment (and I dread to think that more already have).
The grief that washed over me was in part a realization that I was bearing witness to ecosystemic unravelling before my eyes. Would these willows have survived if the beavers still populated the land? Is the loss of willow cultivating my capacity to live with loss and inviting me to wind back down the decision tree? Can we recover pasts to live a different present?
Issue Thirty explores memory and forecasts as acts of recalling our amnesiac selves that complement the geological perspective on time from Issue Twenty-Five with human polytemporality. This essay is in part inspired by Walter Benjamin’s haunting image of the angel of history as a brutal analogue for the crisis of memory that besets our current culture of separation and planetary harm. It is in the specificity, the precision of memory, that we recall our amnesiac selves. There is not general cultural amnesia but rather individual amnesiacs that compose the whole. Our history of the oppressed can be recalled through “specific stories, about specific rivers, specific mountains, specific corporations, specific people's movements, all of them being specifically crushed in specific ways,” writes Arundhati Roy in “The Language of Literature” from Azadi (2020). By retrieving histories with our own lenses of specificity, through our own pattern recognitions, we might create a plurality of alternative presents and futures. As we are pushed headlong into multiple systemic crises like the angel of history, it is incumbent upon each of us to push back.
Loosening the Mortar of Our Present
"But people have no idea what time is. They think it's a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, and vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can't see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died." Richard Powers, The Overstory
Recalling the Amnesiac is an invitation to retrieve past histories that have been buried under the rubble of destruction and swept under the rugs of power. It is all too easy to forget in the reverence for disruption, innovation, and all things future in our market society, that one of our greatest superpowers is the ability to recall. To retrieve pasts is to simultaneously recognize what once was, what could have been, and what might become. Retrieval dislodges our present from teleological propensities that the present was foreordained.
As those of us immersed in the multiple concurrent social and planetary crises shutter at the emerging future, we cannot turn back the clock of damage as those in the July Monarchy were want to do when they fired upon the clocks. We have laden the atmosphere with greenhouse gases far in excess of the rate by which earth’s diminishing life support systems can consume them. We continue to amass radioactive waste as the byproduct of weapons and energy with the hope that it is securely stored and that one day we might find a use for it. We have filled our oceans with plastics such that by 2050 there will likely be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
Our present was chosen, cultivated, and exclusionary—just perhaps not by us. The Anthropocene has been host to forces that are now entirely irretrievable based on their scope and scale. However, our past detours are not foregone conclusions, but rather the opportunities to reconnect with the roots of our current crises rather than just their branches. Recalling pasts unravels the present, which then makes way for other potential presents and futures. It loosens the mortar that binds the bricks of our present entrenchments. In her essay “Grounds for Hope” (2017), Rebecca Solnit names memory as the antidote to contemporary despair, which she describes a kind of premature impatience with certainty:
“The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and unvulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces the view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change...There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act.”
To regenerate is to activate that which has been lying dormant or eroding rather than to create ahistorical solutions anew. To breathe life back into life itself. Regenerating our pasts opens different futures. As Solnit notes, “what we dream of is already present in the world.” Once we understand this, the quest becomes retrieval instead of invention.
Writing in the 4th century, Augustine of Hippo describes in Confessions time retrieval that confirms Solnit’s notion of all time already being in existence. Through memory, sight, and expectation, Augustine describes three-presents:
"There are three times; a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future. For these three times do somehow exist in the soul. Otherwise I would not see them: present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation...If there are times past and future, I desire to know where they are.”
Augustine’s contextual notion of time also parallels the Aboriginal relationship between time and place as evidenced in the Songlines (see “Issue Nineteen: The Terrain of Language.”) Tyson Yunkaporta recently shared his thinking around “place-time” in Solvable’s New Works conversation about Regenerative Futures).
Augustine and Yunkaporta identify the roots of our profoundly disorienting modernity. We have attempted to separate time from its spiritual and spatial contexts, thereby disconnecting ourselves from the very orientations that were foundational to human civilizations until quite recently. As we come to recognize our separation as the root of the climate change, biodiversity collapse, and social inequality branches, we can retrieve our connected pasts to bring them into the present. To heal the wounds that modernity cuts.
The Angel of History
Written five years before the first atomic bomb test (and the end of the Holocene) while trying to escape the Wehrmacht’s path across France and Spain, Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is a work of profound significance in calling for an urgent responsibility in the present to justify our chosen pasts. Rather than considering the past finished and the present open-ended, for Benjamin it is the past that is incomplete because it is continuously being rewritten in the new contexts of the present.
The role of the present is to bring the past into being, or even better written by Terry Eagleton in “The Marxist and the Messiah”:
“The meaning of such [past] events is in the custodianship of the living so that it is up to us to decide whether, say, a Neolithic child belonged to a species which ended up destroying itself...The present can rescue the past from oblivion while the dead can be summoned to the aid of the living.”
By choosing which pasts we recall into the present, we either honour or negate the struggles of the oppressed, the latter of which makes historic suffering and sacrifices in vain. Being a custodian of the living—what is becoming known as a regenerator—is activating the role of preserving life not just in one’s own time, but for all of time. Without active acts of preservation, images of the past threaten to disappear irretrievably according to Benjamin, which we would see in contemporary terms as anti-sustainable.
While there are eighteen sections to “Theses,” perhaps the most evocative is section nine which centres on a beloved painting Benjamin owns by Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus.” Translated literally as the “New Angel” Benjamin interprets the artwork as the angel of history who desires to turn its back to the catastrophic future of “progress”:
“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.”
For the angel of history, there is no temporal present, but rather a past that it seeks to turn towards and the false utopian future of the present storm. The present would be the state between and yet the angel finds itself unable to linger there, causing it both to eradicate pasts that remain buried in the wreckage and participate in a future, not of its making, but rather owing to the dominant undercurrents of the present’s dominant cultural narrative. “Past and future meet, as it were, and reflect one another in the home of the present,” writes Stéphane Mosès.
Benjamin is deeply concerned about abandoned pasts and the seeming inability of the present to make whole that which culture abandons. The past appears as a series of flickering images, whose likeliness we seldom recognize for its nonconformity with the present, and therefore are prone to discard. The power of retrieval is both a responsibility and an opportunity to rewrite the present into a different future.
Benjamin also asks us to recognize that history is a subjective creation rather than some kind of inevitable truth of what truly was. What is “true” of any history is the totality of its determinations rather than the actuality of any event itself (Mosès). Something only becomes historical posthumously. Thus it is upon each of us to “grab the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one” rather than “telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary.” Benjamin frees us from the tyrannical teleology of our present history to recover that which we need in our present moment, the “state of emergency,” in which all presents find themselves and can rise against. In Benjamin’s time, the emergency was Fascism. In our time, it is ______ (intentionally left blank for you). It is upon each of us to “wrest tradition way from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Herein Benjamin pushes forward tradition not as the majority or homogenous narrative of the present, but that which is ancestral to forgotten lineages.
Winding Our Legacy Forward
"May tomorrow be more than just another name for today." Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days
The appeal of “big history” books such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, and Graeber & Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything is that within the span of a few hundred pages, the authors rewrite the narratives of civilization by tugging at the strings of historical assumptions. The result is a deluge of potential histories scattered across the floor which the authors brilliantly reassemble to create new alternative histories that reshape how a generation understands and relates to the march of time. As these works require both brilliant minds and years of dedicated research, is it too tall of an order to expect that each one of us might go through the same process with our own historical assumptions? What would be required to open the layers of narrative that fold our neat and tidy histories into individual operating worldviews?
I am guessing that this may sound like an altogether daunting task, so I’d like to offer a complementary approach based on the research of Vincent Ialenti in Deep Time Reckoning. What if instead of backcasting through centuries and millennia to overturn assumptions, we instead forward cast by tens of thousands of years? This is what the government of Finland mandated in the search for a permanent domestic solution to its mounting radioactive waste. The proposal by one of the nuclear power companies, Posiva, was to bury the waste at a depth of 520 meters in granite bedrock at the Olkiluoto nuclear site. Before being granted permission to create the Onkalo repository, Posiva has to demonstrate it would not pose any significant environmental or health risk for future populations. In this case, “future” extends beyond any standard design terms as plutonium’s half-life is twenty-four thousand years!
Posiva assembled a Safety Case team of experts to forecast the interacting geological, hydrological, and ecological conditions surrounding the repository from tens of thousands to millions of years (34,000 generations to be precise). How they assembled these forecasts is worthy of reading Ialenti’s book alone and viewing the documentary Into Eternity. I’d like to narrow in not on a geological challenge, but rather an anthropological and sociological one. Even if the scientists could protect 34,000 generations into the future from physiological exposure, how might they persuade those peoples that the buried materials are harmful waste and should not be approached or excavated? After all, our historical assumptions have been proven for time immemorial that those things that are buried are valuable. How can we signal that not only is nuclear waste not of value, it is deadly? The field of nuclear semiotics (perhaps the most Anthropocene field of them all) dedicates itself to exactly this question.
In the 80s a Human Interference Task Force at Sandia National Laboratories researched how they could prevent future humans from disturbing radioactive waste burial sites. Recognizing that languages change, national institutions come and go, and religions morph and even die, they abandoned ideas like an atomic priesthood and radiation cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive emissions in favour of a series of verbal and non-verbal messages such as diagrams, a landscape of thorns, menacing earthworks, and structures obscuring usage such as farming (see “Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant”). This is an example of one of the verbal messages the team wrote:
This place is a message... and part of a system of messages... pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here... nothing valued is here.
What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location... it increases towards a center... the center of danger is here... of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
It struck me reading this signage in Ialenti’s book and watching it narrated in the documentary that perhaps the message is equally intended for the present as for those humans in 34,000 generations. I found myself questioning how has it become acceptable that our cultural legacy is that of danger to future generations rather than value? Why do we continue to perpetuate outcomes that are “repulsive to us?” How should our messages appropriately communicate all the life that has been taken in the pursuit of energy and warfare? Might we ever be forgiven by future generations for the damage we have wrought on this planet?
“If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it is that the unimaginable is ordinary, that the way forward is almost never a straight line you can glance down but a convoluted path of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.” Rebecca Solnit
Recalling the Amnesiac in each of us requires questioning the fundamental narratives that we understand as history and as future. The actions of recall have us combing through the rubble of neglected pasts, and the devastation we have wrought on future generations and the planet. This is difficult but integral work in repairing the separation that is at the root of our global systemic crises of which we struggle to even approach the branches. We live in an embattled relationship with our chosen history, and as such must recall other histories in the more suitable to the current moment and the future we should create. This is the demon of history confronting the angel of history. The question is not how can history be known, but rather what kind of history do we wish to formulate (Mosès).
Embracing histories asks us to recognize the pluralities of possibility, and that change is an undercurrent that runs through all time. It asks us to abandon our desire for continuity and reassurance that everything is okay. It is not. Imagining and working towards a regenerative future require us to dislodge ourselves from the present and breathe new life into the past. As Rebecca Solnit writes, “the past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.”
Go forth and make a difference in the week ahead.
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