the past is for burning

i am not resigned

Sometimes a bunch of pop culture fragments fall together like an essay. It’s entertaining in my head but it’s hard to convey the experience. Like this:

Whenever I hear that some unreplaceable piece of archaeology or art has been defaced or destroyed, I think “good”. This attitude would have been unimaginable to the 20 year old me. But I think now the past is for burning.

Ding Jihao wasn’t the first. You could argue he was maintaining a centuries old tradition:

Graffiti on the Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is nothing in history, no fragment of substance, that isn’t constantly reinterpreted for each new era. Every artifact or piece of art is just something used as a stage to debate things we care about now. Standing on those planks you can pretend to give facile arguments weight. Burn those stages. Argue in the street, where you have to work for respect.

All of our past is poisoned by excuses for atrocities standing on the art and architecture of earlier times.

There’s no end to what you can do when you don’t give a fuck about particular people.
Louis CK

I’m sick of respecting relics. Intellectualized commodities we use to one-up each other in sanctimony. Made by apes no better than us. All of it ash that hasn’t burned yet.

All our physical history should be ground under a tectonic subduction zone and we forced to make everything over again.

It took time to ruin a real world. But, time was all it took.
Bruce Sterling, Love is Strange

I both do and don’t mean all that.

In my own life, if I keep too much artwork or things I’ve made around, the psychological weight of all that effort just sitting in a pile, staring at the inside of a drawer or box, or worse – grinning vacuously at me from a wall or shelf, just shuts me down. The urge to make new things is smothered. I have to get rid of it. Sell it, give it away, tear it to pieces. I’d love to burn it, most times, but living in the city doesn’t afford much opportunity for that.

I really can’t figure out if the past matters. Once it has left living memory, all we have are documents and objects. We tell each other stories about them and they might as well be science fiction for all the direct experience any of us have of the reasons those things came to be. Every single thing we know about the past is an act of imagination and ridiculous hope. Reconstructed lost languages, using the sounds people make today.

Finding Shakespeare

It’s bleak and liberating at the same time, like atheism. The past is only fiction. It was there, it happened, but we can’t know anything about it after one hundred years or so. A wave of ignorance rolls through the dimension of time and never recedes. The only things we can really know are the creatures with us trying to outrun it. We throw our children ahead of us and drown. When our children after us go under we’re not even memory. Just story.

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Bill became odd after surviving a long series of mentally destabilizing encounters with Numinous Memetic Entities. He likes to curse, and considers evocative vulgarity to be the last remaining genuine form of poetry left to the human heart.

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  • Massé

    We have two shots at “immortality” – Intellectual and genetic – and neither will escape the expanding sun in a couple billion years, but the illusion of permanence gets us through the day, that’s why we use the word “forever” a lot. With the advent of digital media, now everyone is creating content. I guess the trick is curating. Keep what you’ve created, I say, and burn what was manufactured. There are more people on the planet today dropping meta data like exhalations. Just “being” seems frivolous, we have to trick ourselves with a sense of purpose and not worry how someone in 2247 might reflect on this very article – which, by the way, was brilliantly written and curated… and a sobering read. My grandfather is now story, but he was breathing and fighting in the trenches when we were the dead ones. I didn’t think of that ’til just now. Interesting. Keep going.

  • oddbill

    “dropping meta data like exhalations”

    It’s interesting how the, what? noosphere? we’ve extruded has a substance now in digital storage, so that as long as there are people who care to keep pumping storage media into existence, new ripples from everyone’s movement through life are captured. Eventually media sinks into sediment as media formats die, and the shapes they held can be excavated but aren’t part of the moving world anymore. And the whole thing can so easily be lost if people stop caring about it.

    I love this kind of conversation but don’t get to do enough of it these days.

  • Kris Bundy

    I’m 21, so maybe I relate to the younger you, but the destruction of archaeological artifacts is analogous to Nazi book burnings, from my point of view. It’s the destruction of other people’s ideas, and a blatant disrespect for all the things humanity has done up to this point. The boring, cliche reverence you’re spitting on in this article, but allow me to explain why I think this way.

    I’m not uninspired to make new stuff because of the weight of old masterpieces. Rather, I look to them as a source of inspiration. I love history, I love the path you can follow to get here, and even if we’re entirely wrong, we’re not certain of most things. Saying we should destroy history in order to make new stuff is kind of ridiculous. If society did that, we’d just be constantly re-building the same society over and over. Jericho until 2.5 billion BC when we’re swallowed by a Red Giant. If humanity is going to make something special on this planet, then let it evolve with us. It’s an act of arrogance to assume that our existence is something more, something more than an eventual destruction. I don’t think that people chronicle history in order to pretend that we’re an intellectual body that will be preserved for the rest of time. If that’s why they do it, then it’s certainly foolish. I think it’s much more similar to an old album of pictures, where we can look back on different times and try to figure out what the hell we were thinking when we did a beer bong upside down in woman’s underwear. To me, archaeological artifacts are not unlike fossils; pieces of history that we can use to understand why and where things happened. To me, that is fascinating. That’s the pursuit of knowledge, even if it’s subjective knowledge.

  • oddbill

    I don’t know. I don’t think what I’m spitting on is a boring, cliched reverence. What I’m saying is that there’s very little, maybe nothing, that we can ever really know about the past at all. So what we are doing when we pretend to revere the past is selecting the pieces of it that appear to support whatever our current prejudices are, and then assert that the fact these prejudices seem to be reflected in the past gives them some kind of authority we can use to win fights now.

    The masterpieces you are inspired by very, very seldom actually challenge your preconceptions. Mostly we get inspired by the things that seem to affirm what we already believe.

    I’d argue that we are in fact, really and truly, always building the same society over and over. We really are, as you poetically suggested, and unending stasis of Jericho. We’re apes with about a century’s living memory, and anything that falls off the back end of that is not merely forgotten, but then stubbornly assumed to mean the things we the living apes want it to mean. Which are always the same things. Power, sex, pleasure in giving pain, and occasionally compassion and quiet.

    And I’m guessing that our only chance of riffing Jericho into some different kind of city is to not put too much credence into our own ideas about whatever it was we were doing more than a hundred years ago.

    This is me certainly arguing a point beyond reasonableness. I enjoy history, I studied archaeology in college, it’s all fascinating. I used to care quite deeply about it. When I was in my early 20’s, I’d have tried to grab this cup.

    But I both look and feel a lot more like Indy’s dad now. I’d rather kick that cup down the crevasse and try something new.