Birth of the Ganges, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu. Historians argue whether the yogic figure in the center is Arjuna or Bhagiratha. Michael Rabe says both. In most situations, the answer is not either or but both and.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If this is a brain teaser or rhetorical question, you’ve already heard it wrong. It’s a false choice that exists only in the mediation of the mind and nowhere in reality.
All mediations between reality and cognition distort, and the first distortion is the myth of categories with impermeable boundaries. I blogged about this two years ago in “Categories Are Your Frenemies.” Categories are like a learning device and the mature mind realizes that their boundaries are permeable, while the immature mind finds comfort in the security of their permanence. Collect a whole bunch of (false) categories and you can cook up an ideology.
Welcome to Time Tells, and indeed Time is the invisible fourth dimension that allows categorization to occur. I am fond of saying all ideologies are wrong because they are static while the reality of society, politics and economics is dynamic. Then you have the whole problem of linear versus circular time (which I also dealt with in 2012 here.) but let’s stay outside of quantum metaphysics today and focus on one of my favorite words: Mediation.
We live in a media-saturated world and both children and adults are lambasted for how much time they spend staring at screens devouring all sorts of “media.” These screens have been growing both massive and tiny at the same time (which proves my first point) but much of the content remains very similar to the old print world, the world which saw panic over both comic books and television in the decade BEFORE I WAS BORN. The main distinction is that we now have user-created content and crowdsourced content, and of course the endless scroll of “Comments,” which formerly had to be hand-written on bathroom stalls.
But to focus on content, as the ideologists do, is to ignore the mediation. To mediate is to create a bridge between reality and its multivalent perceptions, and it is the nature of such bridges that they frame reality on the one side and thus perception on the other.
The problem is that people forget the frame is there – they naturalize the mediation and feel in direct touch with reality. We know that we “frame” arguments and that we can’t trust news sources (except for comedy outlets – how did that happen?) but we still tend to forget about the frame. This is a mistake. You have to know how the lens works otherwise everything will remain upside-down.
Of course it is much easier when you can see the frame – we know to doubt newspapers and websites, because these are “media” which mediate. The frames of religion and ideology are equally apparent. The harder frames are cultural, so ingrained in our Erziehung that their mediation is invisible. Successful ideologies and religions align with the invisible cultural norms, taking advantage of their invisibility. Thus “normal” is aligned with a particular power structure, whose frames vanish in the social and linguistic everyday.
While it would be fun to spray the fungos of bald ideologies all over the outfield I think it more useful to try to connect with the sliders and de-cipher some of the normalities we assume as original states and find their specific – and fantastically modern – historical origins.
One of my favorites is the nuclear family, a post-World War II construct that maximizes consumerism by insuring that other relatives stop living at home as they had for all of human history, thus selling more mortgages and washing machines and toasters and BBQ grills.
Another is cheap energy. We think of energy being cheap before the 1973 oil embargo, which it was, but its cheapness doesn’t stretch that far back – it was expensive in the Victorian era, which is why the buildings and interiors of that era – that you often see in house museums – had a functional purpose of saving energy costs.
Another one, which I blogged about last year, is the museum. This one has more of a provenance, but it is younger than the United States.
Buildings to house artifacts and display them to the public has always had an aura of public service, although its emergence in the late 18th century with the advent of modern capitalism suggests a consumer motivation as well, one that ultimately revealed itself at the Met in the 1960s when Thomas Hoving made the mummies dance.
I have been very involved in the question of house museums through my role with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. House museums are even newer, dating from the middle of the 19th century, although their real explosion (to some 15,000 nationwide) happened in the same post-World War II era as the nuclear family, which explains part of their plight.
See that postwar era had several things going for it that helped house museums – cheap energy (a rare 30-year blip in human history), a resurgent automobile culture (without the icky multigenerationalisms of the Grapes of Wrath), a booming domestic tourist economy (that coincides roughly with the cheap energy blip) and a triumphalist patriotism that encouraged investigations into American heritage and history.
The house museum became a cultural trope – thousands of small communities across the U.S. got involved in historic preservation because they wanted to save a significant local building, and in more cases than not, the proposed use of the site was as a museum, both in the Mount Vernon sense of a glimpse into a former era, but also as the local historical archive – a place to collect local history. This gave it a secondary purpose beyond tourism, although with limited means of support.
The house museum became normalized, so we didn’t notice it’s daft economics when the context changed. Buildings need maintenance, but you can skate 10 or 30 years until things get really bad, and when it comes to buildings, that means a big capital bill. Local taxing authorities are usually the only ones capable of footing these kinds of bills, because the traditional house museum model requires about an 80% operating subsidy beyond ticket sales.
If the first museum was state-sponsored and the first American house museum sponsored by a (uniquely American) charity Board, today we have also become quite used to the commercialization of the not-for-profit sector, despite the fact that this phenomenon is younger than me. I grew up reading ad-free Mad magazine, watching commercial-free public television, and going to museums that had never had a blockbuster show or hung a banner from their facade.
The above image would not be normal 40 years ago, but it looks normal today. The frame has shifted. The house museums that make it are the ones with a serious multi-platform commercial operation, or at least a programmatic one that mobilizes a large enough consumer base however that base is monetized.
It seems we lose a sense of the mediation within a generation or so, as context shifts. What little remains visible of the mediating frame is mistaken as the residue of an original state, rather than merely the residue of its more recent iteration. There are no original states anymore than there is an answer to the false chicken-egg dichotomy.
Perhaps the most deceptive frame of all is again the one implied in the title of this blog: Time Tells. Because in our particular cultural context, we tend to see history in a progressive trajectory. Not only does this contradict traditional cultural paradigms (e.g. South and Southeast Asia) where time is circular and repetitive, but it is also a shockingly modern concept, arising out of the same “Enlightenment” that gave us pretty much most of our modern academic curriculum.
We can also thank the Enlightenment for reinvigorating Science, because that does offer a provable alternative to the endless confusion of cultural frames that distort our perceptions – the experiment must be replicable, reducing the effect of context. But you know what else the Enlightenment gave us? History.
This is not to deny Herodotus, Thucycdides, The Venerable Bede or even the Pentateuch, but the modern sense of history as a social science divorced from morality or divine agency, is really an Enlightenment project. (Thucydides is only translated into a Latin a year before the fall of Byzantium, and thus his rediscovered realpolitik falls in the Renaissance – and he only makes it into English in 1628)
I like bringing up these historical contradictions because we so often lose sight of mediation and we so often think we can see original states, but we can’t. Each of them is a cultural construct, a frame that excludes as well as it includes, a mediation that distorts as much as it perceives. I don’t like to see history used as a justification for a contemporary power struggle, but that is how it usually happens.
So where do I get off thinking I can see through this? Where is my original state? Aren’t I a prisoner of my culture and my DWEM power structure? Actually, the science is simple. I’m the guy in the infinity mirror up there – I don’t need to stand outside the Milky Way to see it, but I need to rigorously compare the frames to each other so we can identify what in our current frame is a residue of an earlier frame.
Time Tells, not by revealing an original state or a “true” category, but by exposing and contrasting the accumulation of mediations, like an archaeological pit that allows us to see the context – the chicken bones and broken china and coprolites – behind the monuments.
There is of course a corresponding area of inquiry here: the perception of the exotic or the Other, which plays into much of what we do in this heritage field – especially in terms of tourism. But that will have to wait for another day. And another mediation.