2012 and the End of Linear Time

January 18, 2011 History, Interpretation Comments (3) 1987

The world is quite rapidly becoming a single place with a single, albeit multifaceted and sometimes contradictory culture. Yet the culture shock is alive and well and modes of apprehending the world often remain bound in the tunnelvisions of particular cultures.

When we plan our School of the Art Institute of Chicago student study trips to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, we account for culture shock in the pacing and length of the trip, because sometimes you just gotta have a Starbucks or a Snickers bar no matter how much you desire to broaden yourself.

But what got me thinking about this is all the hoo-haa about 2012 and the end of the world in the Mayan calendar. This is a pop culture meme here in the West, but of course it is based on a thousand-year old (and largely vanished) society. And this meme is MASSIVELY misinterpreting the meaning of 2012 to the Mayans by looking at it from an entirely modern Western point of view.

Precolumbian Mesoamerican societies, like the Hinduized societies of India and Southeast Asia, had a circular view of time. You have all seen the Aztec calendar: it is a circle. If you analyze the measurements of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you realize the building is a deliberate – and literal – attempt by Suryavarman II to communicate the fact that he was ushering in a new golden era – a kirta yuga. This golden era exists within a circular conception of time – Vishnu is the pivot between which the devas and asuras churn the sea of milk to create the world, a theme repeated through the generations of temples at Angkor. In the Shaivite tradition, Lord Shiva has a dance of death and destruction – the world ends and it begins again. Time is circular.

Now, in the West, despite a dominant mystery religion that promised destruction and rebirth (Christianity), the West went with a singular story of destruction and rebirth rather than an ongoing cycle. The stewards of that tradition in the middle ages got obsessed with measuring time and invented clocks for prayers and by the time we hit the Renaissance we had decided that time is unidirectional, linear, and (this is the big leap) progressive. By the late 18th century this areligious concept had become gospel and monks like Malthus could measure and project the future with astonishing dexterity. About 122 years ago we further decided that this carefully measured time should be consistent from place to place so we would know whether or not the trains were running on time.

Our Western conception of history and our Western conception of a progressive future are two sides of a singular worldview. Without placing judgement on the value of that linear concept of time versus circular conceptions of time, you can already see the BIG DUMB in those who think the world is ending in 2012 because they are basically looking at a round peg from a square hole: the idea that the world ends in 2012 is not the Mayan idea at all but the Western concept of linear time misapprehending the Mayan.

What does this have to do with heritage conservation? Oh, it has EVERYTHING to do with heritage conservation. Tonight I will be guest lecturing for a preservation class at UIC and I will trace the history of our concepts of conserving buildings, from the idea of bringing buildings back to a state of perfection that never existed (Prosper Merimee and James Wyatt, 18-19 century England and France),

the idea of letting buildings age in time (William Morris and John Ruskin, 19th century England),

the concept of conserving buildings as artifacts set aside from the commercial and social everyday (20th century America)

and up to the ideas we have absorbed into our field in the last 15 years – namely that each culture must define the aspects of its physical and performative culture that it values and it must further (this was the genius of the 1999 Burra Charter) define the process of how that conservation takes place within that cultural context.

What conservation is cannot be defined in one way across cultures because it is OF culture.

Heritage conservation is a brilliant field because it abjures the one-size-fits-all solution for the particularized, individualized solution. There is no alienation of the commodity because every resource is different in history and social/cultural context. You avoid the absurdity of the 2012 confusion because the context is not fixed by preconceptions but must slide with the resource. There are no categories and no categorical solutions, but rather a process that allows each problem to be self-defined and solved in a manner without strict precedent.

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2012 and the End of Linear Time

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